Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

image2Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life spans 60 years of friendship, love, suffering and hardship in the lives of four friends. There is the handsome actor Willem, the creative and sometimes selfish artist JB, the architect Malcom and finally Jude, the successful lawyer with a lot of dark secrets. They have met at University, when they weren’t successful or rich, but rather living in shitty apartments, going to parties and cheap restaurants. But then careers develop, friendships change and sometimes secrets are revealed. The focus of the novel definitely lies on the relationship between Willem and Jude and maybe even more so on Jude’s past. The descriptions of Jude’s ordeals in the past and his current struggle with it are probably the most horrific things I have ever read. I won’t say too much, as a lot of things are only revealed after many pages, but some of the themes of the novel are violent abuse, addiction, extreme self-harm and crippling illness.

Interestingly, even though this 720-page novel spans 60 years, it is stripped entirely of historical or technological landmarks. The story is focused exclusively on the personal histories of the characters and even though there are some slight references to art and politics it is never enough to link the events in the novel to a specific year. Even though it is mainly a New York novel, there is no mentioning of 9/11, or any political or social event of the city.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Yanagihara’s treatment of friendship: The role that the four men play in each other’s lives, are often times more important then any other connection they have. They are not only friends but partners, confidants and family. Their friendships are the support system of choice, one that evolves and changes over time:

“They were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

Before starting the novel I was wondering why Yanagihara had chosen to write a book almost exclusively about men. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. I could not have been more wrong. It took the genius of a female writer to give four men an emotional portrait of their love (and friendship) for one another. And she has through her novel created positive role models (not only) for men.

Emotions run high in this novel, everything is enhanced: love, sadness, cruelty. I do wonder if this extreme way of telling a story is a comment that Yanagihara is making in regard to trends in our current society? Why do I crave such a story? What draws me to that much pain and suffering on the one hand and that much success and money on the other? It wasn’t that the characters did not feel three-dimensional; actually I have seldom felt that characters were actually real people and not mere characters in a book. And yet they were also caricatures of both themselves and people in real life. But is there something in this contradiction? I am not sure why the characters in this book can be over the top and believable at the same time. And I am not sure how emotions can be outrageously excessive and still be the only thing that ever made me feel such a connection at all. It was like Yanagihara opened a door to characters that not very many people have dared to even acknowledge.

This doesn’t mean that I was in any way able to distance myself from the story while I was reading it. The intense emotion I have felt, the tears of sadness, rage and compassion I have cried and the urge to physically hurt characters in the novel because of their wrongdoing was overwhelming. The emotionality in this story was so unusually strong that I couldn’t read the novel in public (I once did, cried a lot and got some odd looks), and sometimes I couldn’t even read it at all. At times I literally could not stop sobbing. I have never felt like this with any other book. Have never cried so much. Never felt so many emotions. Yanagihara never holds back; she drags you through the darkest memories, the scariest thoughts and the loneliest hours. The tragedy that is the life of Jude St. Francis probably transcends all tragedy you have encountered in contemporary literature. And just like the characters in the novel, I felt helpless, forced to deal with issues I usually wouldn’t:

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

Here are some selected on articles about A Little Life:

The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life

‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high’

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara review – unusual, uneven, unrelenting

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Quote: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

image1.JPGNick and Honey have recently moved to town and Nick has taken a job at the local University. After their first faculty party they get invited to the home of middle-aged couple Martha and George. What starts off as simply the most awkward evening imaginable, turns into an array of inter-personal battlegrounds. On one side there are young and naïve Nick and Honey and on the other, bitter and slightly crazy Martha and George. As the evening gets more and more absurd and the dialog more and more fast paced the battlefronts are redrawn and nothing is as it seemed in the beginning. As secrets are revealed, drinks are served (and sometimes thrown up again), shotguns are pointed and insults are thrown the play forces you to look behind a façade of social pretense and a dance of choreographed emotions.

While reading this disturbing story of an evening (and possibly more than one life) gone wrong I could not till the very end see what it was all about. Albee worked so well in creating characters that are so very different that they surprise you again and again. It is a play about manners, expectations and failed promises. But it is also extremely brave in the way in which it refuses to be conventional in any way. It also blurs the lines between what are real actions and what are simply performances but on due to social conventions. Considering the ending I would even go so far as to call it a play within a play. But what happens once they stop acting?

Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf is therefore an extremely funny yet also extremely dark play that often times is bordering on satire:

“I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. […] And Georgie cries all the time, too. […] we take our tears, and we put ’em in the icebox, in the goddamn ice trays […] and then we put them…in our…drinks.”

Review: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

wallcreeper.jpg

Stephen and Tiff have a car accident because of a bird. And in the accident pregnant Tiff looses her baby. After the accident Tiff is no longer pregnant. What starts off as an emotional plot is actually anything but. All the pages that follow are an unemotional, cynical rambling about sex, bird watching and eco-terrorism. Stephen and Tiff move from American to Europe, or rather Stephen wants to move and Tiff follows:

“I wasn’t a feminist. […] I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.”

They spend time in Berne and Berlin, try to save rivers and fail to get into Berghain. They have a lot of sex, rarely with each other and usually it is quite uninteresting, despite Nell’s obvious effort to make it somewhat raunchy.

Even though the characters stay two dimensional throughout the whole novel they still managed to annoy me. I just didn’t get why I should care about anything these two utterly annoying narcissists were up to.

I got the impression that the novel was written by someone who does not like women very much. Maybe this was an act that should get readers to reflect upon what is considered expected behaviour of women in general and in novels in particular but to me it failed to deliver that.

Also, due to the weak plot (if one can even call it that) I couldn’t make out the themes or purpose of this novel. It may have sounded bizarre and intriguing but I couldn’t connect to the story or the characters. To me Zink failed to deliver anything of substance. I would not recommend this to anyone.

The novel did however also manage to surprise me. In it’s stubborn refusal to give me what I wanted from it, it made me question what I expect from a novel. Why do I choose a particular novel in the first place? Why do I expect an author to deliver certain characters that will make me feel emotions that I imagined having when I picked out the book? Why does it anger me, when I am faced with characters that don’t fit in neat boxes of action and reaction? As much as I hate to say it, the disliking of this novel, has made me question my reading habits, my expectations and emotional involvement in novels and the responsibility of any author towards their readers.

Review: Re Jane by Patricia Park

IMG_2836In this modern retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, half-Korean, half-American orphan Jane Re is trying to figure out where she belongs. Trying to get away from Flushing, Queens where she has lived almost her whole life and now works in her uncle’s supermarket, she takes a nanny job for two professors, Beth Mazer and Ed Farley in Brooklyn. Here she is confronted not only with nine-year-old Devon but also her own identity, feminism and love. But a family crisis takes her back to Seoul and into her own past. Trying to belong to two worlds, never feeling home in either Jane Re has to come to terms with her heritage and take responsibility for her own future.

It felt a bit of an odd choice to have the “mad woman in the attic” be a feminist in this retelling. This could however have been a very conscious choice, as some of the women who have a strong feminist point of view are sometimes seen as “crazy”. To me Park was not only making a strong comment on “madness” in Jane Eyre but also on the treatment of women (in media) today.

Another interesting aspect was what exactly made Jane not fit in. Jane Eyre was much poorer than Rochester and yes, Jane Re is also not wealthy. But her lack of financial means is not her most pressing issue. She primarily lacks knowledge and self-perception. When Beth Fowler educates her in nineteenth-century novels and feminism, Jane is also ultimately given the tools, to change her own situation.

What I especially liked was the depiction of the Korean enclave in New York. Park made it come to life through lots of little details, both in her choice of words (a lot of Korean terms are important touchstones for the characters) and in her very detailed description of this part of the city. It served as a very embellished backdrop for this Korean American retelling of Jane Eyre. The issues that Jane Re faces in both countries highlights the emotions that can come with being an immigrant:

“Growing up, I often felt I would’ve been treated better if I were a hundred percent one or the other. If I were all Korean, I could have just blended in. If I were all white, I wouldn’t have been met with the same curious stares—What are you?—the same assumptions about my mother’s past. To be almost seemed to be worse than being not at all.”

It is exactly this 21st century melting pot identity that gives Jane Re it’s urgency. Where Jane Eyre was battling classes and religious morale, Jane Re is fighting racism and obligation.

I think I enjoyed this novel and it’s thoughts on identity, culture, class and gender but sometimes I felt that Jane was a bit too focused on men. A lot of times she was extremely submissive in her relationships. And even though this was probably necessary for the character arch it still made me cringe sometimes.

Quote: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

“[…] beauty is apparently relative. I felt both better- and worse- looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world is not all college girls and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough. Just opening your eyes puts you in front of a mirror, psychologically speaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Or rather, garbage goes in, but you never get rid of it. It just lies there turning to dust and slowly wafting a thin layer of grime on to every other object in your brain. Scraping the gunk off is not only a major challenge, but the chief burden of human existence. that’s why I keep things so clean. Otherwise I would see little flecks of […] shit everywhere I looked …”

Review: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

IMG_2763Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield are going all out. Christina, who is a little too obsessed with religious habits and washing away other peoples sins (“Do you want to be forever condemned?”) is embarking on late night visits to men she has just met, which makes her question the moral framework of her upbringing:

“[…] it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.”

She ends up selling her house and living with in an awkward constellation of a newly acquired friend, a possible suitor and his father. She also stumbles into being a high–class call girl. Frieda on the other hand has travelled with her husband to Panama but soon exchanges their hotel room for a brothel and the company of prostitutes.

Social conventions might be something to consider for other people but these two are certainly not going to live by them. Not only are Christina and Frieda extremely headstrong and independent; they also don’t really take anyone’s advice.

Female freedom in all its messy and confusing glory is what this quirky novel is all about. These two women might be making a lot of questionable decisions, but at least they make their own. If however the paths that Christina and Frieda have chosen for themselves are paths that will lead them to happiness I am not sure. I am however convinced that this is beside the point. They are unhappy as it is and their happiness is only met with dismissal and even disbelief:

“I’m unhappy,” she said. “Again?” asked Mr. Copperfield.

The things they could loose, like their public image, their wealth and health are of no value to them. They are concerned only with their happiness. And it is a happiness that can’t be bought:

“What makes me happy I seem to catch out of the sky with both hands; I only hold whatever it is that I love because that is all I can really see.”

To me a lot of the novel is a reflection on manners, moral convention and etiquette. The choices that society allows Christina and Frieda are minimal and extremely restrictive. And even though the novel portrays such interesting female characters and questions the destiny that a lot of women had (have?) to face, the story line does at times unfortunately become a little random. Things just keep happening without reason and I have felt a bit lost in the meaning of certain aspects of the story. In the end the characters were a little two-dimensional, sometimes there wasn’t that much reasoning for their actions, apart from the fact that they wanted to do it. I did have the urge to grab Christina by the shoulders and shake her, but maybe that was just me. I wanted to like this novel, but I must admit that I only liked certain aspects of it. The idea might have been great but its execution was not as engaging as it could have been.