I’ve noticed an odd thread in the popular culture. Increasingly, fictional children are depicted as uncannily adult — wise, empathetic, and self-reliant — while fictional adults are drawn as uncannily child-like — puttering, self-absorbed, and needing deep protection.
Here are two essays in which I’ve begun to sort this through: my piece in the Washington Post on Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which you can read here, and this review of A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (first published in Bacon on the Bookshelf).
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Who doesn’t love book prizes?
They’re my September treat. Just in time for reading season – that stretch of gorgeous routine between Labor Day and Christmas – come the West’s most prestigious awards for serious fiction.
There’s the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has mostly gone to novelists. There’s England’s Man Booker Prize and the Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread). We in the U.S. have the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. In France, it’s the Prix Goncourt. All chosen in the Fall by expert panels of professors, editors, booksellers, critics, and writers who, presumably, know a good book when they read one.
The top prizes wield formidable commercial clout, their economic influence so significant they’ve generated their own sub-genre of cultural criticism. (See, for example, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, by James English). As The Guardian newspaper puts it, “Win the Booker Prize, and you become a millionaire.” That’s pounds sterling, not even just dollars.
Reading the prize winners — plus the five or six novels shortlisted for each prize — gives you a ready-made, pedigreed night-stand stack of what’s officially the best of the best new fiction until late Spring, when the Pulitzers roll around.
And what about the novel named to more than one prestigious shortlist? What about the novel shortlisted for three of the four prizes for which it’s eligible?
We expect that novel to reflect the very very best writing. But shouldn’t it also offer the best, the most unflinching account of the human heart? The best, the most truthful insight into our human condition? About human life itself?
Isn’t that why adults read serious fiction in the first place?
So I had high hopes for A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, the 720-page juggernaut shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize, which it won. (Among numerous lesser honors).
Yanagihara, an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and before that, Condé Nast Traveler, introduces her story like this:
“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition.”
So far, so good. No one loves the classic multi-character, college-to-New-York, coming-of-age novel more than I do (see, my dog-eared copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, or The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, or Paul Auster’s Moon Palace). That oozy border between the back end of childhood and the front end of adulthood – the heart’s long flirtation with self-determination, with what it means to grow up – well, what’s more human than that? Could there be a more apt and urgent subject for serious fiction? A Little Life promises more:
“Over the decades [the four men’s] relationships deepen and darken, . . . Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is [one of the four], . . . an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred . . . and haunted[.]”
Friendships enriching over time. Young men growing old in each other’s care. The years taking their toll. Surely, the prize-givers and critics were right to swoon?
But here’s the disappointing thing, yes, the great disappointment: A Little Life isn’t much about life, about real human life, after all.
Some nerve, I know, to say so about this most-prized novel.
Let me explain. It’s true that Yanagihara writes beautifully, sumptuously. There’s not one flat scene, not one boring image, in all 720 pages. That’s a pleasure.
It’s also true there’s much, at a basic story level, that’s moving and powerful here. Jude, the group’s most-troubled friend, suffered terrible abuse as a child, and his injuries – both physical and emotional – grow more disabling as he ages. The three other men, along with a broader circle of devoted friends, all try their best, in their own ways, to love and support Jude as they grapple with the puzzle of their own sexual and racial identities, with the claims and challenges of their own passing lives. A nice, human plot.
But A Little Life can’t let its humans just be humans, and to me that’s where it fails. To inhabit this novel’s world – for the events of life to matter, in this novel’s world –they must be exceptional. Exceptionally exceptional.
Take the four men at the novel’s heart. When we first meet them – at dinner in a cheap Chinatown dive – three of the four are aspiring artists: one is an easel painter; one is an actor; and the third is an architect. We know they’re aspiring because Yanagihara tells us they eat the restaurant’s awful food only because they’re broke, and the actor and the painter are so chronically hungry they scarf up the architect’s leftovers (he’s not hungry because he lives with his parents). Soon after, the actor and the troubled Jude move to a “shithole” one-bedroom apartment (with a futon!) in Tribeca. So, you know, they’re struggling.
True, they spend a few years wandering the New York art wilderness. The painter makes faux-surrealist sculptures from black hair he collects at barbershops. The actor waits tables at a restaurant so fancy that the staff debate cult-label Linne Calodo wines, and the manager okays waiters’ tattoos on a case-by-case basis. The architect works despairingly for two starchitects who won’t promote young talent, hogging all their visionary, international-exotic glory for themselves. And his parents expect him to talk when he comes downstairs for meals. Aargh.
It’s tough, for a minute. Then real life – Yanagihara’s version of it – kicks in. The painter goes back to painting. He scores his first solo show – oil portraits of the four friends – which sells out. There’s trouble: both the Museum of Modern Art and “an important British collector” want to buy the same painting. What’s a struggling artist to do?
The actor-waiter, in turn, lands one stage role, then a string of them. Then film roles. Then blockbuster film roles, then sensitive, important indie-film roles – The Iliad, The Odyssey, Alan Turing, Uncle Vanya. A kind of Atticus-Finch-Coming-Out movie. There are magazine covers, billboards, and acting awards. Strangers stare at him in public with “intens[e] and hushed” attention. Soon fancy restaurants don’t even mind that he comes in wearing jeans and no jacket. Middle-aged businessmen fawn over him like Taylor Swift tweeners: “I’m a big fan.”
The architect quits the starchitects and opens his own firm. Sure, he starts small, designing pieds-à-terre for rich New Yorkers, but soon he wins a “significant” commission for a photography museum in Doha, and is runner-up to design a Los Angeles memorial for Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Offices in London and Hong Kong – residencies in Rome – follow as night the day.
Which brings us to Jude, the fourth friend and A Little Life’s main character, the most fabulously exceptional of all. Jude is stunningly smart. While earning an MIT master’s in “Pure Math,” he enters Harvard Law School (breaking the Math faculty’s heart; he’s that gifted). At Harvard, he so wows his celebrated, rock-star Contracts professor – when he and Jude debate law, “the class still[s] around them” – that the professor not only hires Jude as his research assistant, he also assigns Jude a room in the spacious Cambridge house he shares with his celebrated-biologist wife, when they’re not all together at the professor’s waterfront Cape Cod spread or his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The professor’s intellectual friends marvel at Jude’s genius: at one dinner party, he explains Fermat’s last theorem so powerfully, so movingly, that one guest (a federal appellate judge) thanks him for “the first truly revelatory conversation I’ve had [here . . . ] in probably the last decade or more[.]” It’s no wonder the professor ends up legally adopting Jude as his own son.
Jude does nothing ordinary. When interviewing for a judicial clerkship, the Judge asks Jude, of all things, to sing. Jude sings Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” a lied that’s “difficult to perform,” but which Jude nails so exceptionally the Judge exclaims, “[Y]ou have one of the most beautiful tenors I’ve heard in a long time. Are you sure you’re in the right field?”
Jude’s also a world-class cook, a baker so skilled, so ingenious, so generous, even in the “hot, greasy cube” kitchen he shares in the bad Tribeca apartment, he stays up nights baking herbed shortbread cookies, cornmeal ginger snaps, and delicate, otherworldly gougères – no store-bought cheese straws served in that “shithole,” despite the icky futon. To honor the biologist’s research breakthrough, Jude designs “amazing” cookies exactly the shapes and colors of the lab’s target microbes, “using different color frosting to draw their cytoplasm and plasma membranes and ribosomes and fashioning flagella from strands of licorice.” Invited for Thanksgiving, he bakes “boxes of cookies and pies and breads.”
Jude’s work life is similarly, fabulously, exceptional. From his prestigious clerkship, he’s hired by the U.S. Attorney in New York, where his boss can “recite entire Supreme Court decisions from memory,” and where his young, sterling-credentialed colleagues – all on law review at one of “five or six law schools,” one Fulbright Scholar, and one certified Brit barrister from the other Cambridge – don’t at first realize that Jude has the singular credential to prove he’s the very best of all: his being thanked in the professor’s forthcoming, groundbreaking (and sure to be moneymaking) book on the Constitution.
Soon, one of New York’s “most powerful and prestigious firms” begs Jude to join its litigation department, where he makes partner in four years and becomes, naturally, a beloved personal protégé of the department chair. Jude “awes” in the courtroom, he’s “terrifyingly talented.” He’s a warrior so “relentless, so dogged, so pointed” in cross-examination; so “brutal” and “cold,” so “icy and vicious,” that he wins victory after stunning victory.
Choking on super-excellence yet? Well, it’s not just Yanagihara’s principals who lead such starry lives. Everyone they know, everyone they mention or work with or date or even encounter, all have fabulous elite degrees and/or sumptuously interesting jobs. They’ve grabbed brass rings at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT, the Rhode Island School of Design. They’re actors, painters, sculptors, prominent costume and set designers, writers, architects, book editors and magazine editors. They run upscale fashion labels. The one family-ish doctor is really an eminent orthopedic surgeon, with a heart-surgeon twin brother to make sure, I guess, that the family average stays above-average.
A Little Life’s friends wear custom-tailored suits (that others volunteer to buy for them). They dine at an “izakaya in west Chelsea.” They eat guava soufflé, persimmon cake, and za’atar-dusted cauliflower; they drink rosewater lemonade. Even their conversation is gilt-edged, elevated, as they argue in “zen koans,” their debates “Ionesconian,” their feuds “post-Modern.”
And once the token bad apartment disappears – swept away in the flood of money and elite success that this book is really about – everyone lives in astonishingly high-end real estate that falls into their hands by miracle, a kind of immaculate consumption. Parents produce a four-story Upper East Side town house and a Paris apartment “in the seventh” (translation: neighbors include the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay). Trust-funded friends give free beds and art studios, food, alcohol, and recreational drugs. Grandparents bequeath entire Soho buildings to artist grandchildren, who in turn beg exceptionally worthy acquaintances (like Jude) to buy full-floor loft apartments at way-below-market prices, on a “leisurely ten-year” “interest-free rent-to-own plan.” Yanagihara’s exceptionals renovate New York apartments and Connecticut country houses – they build retreats in upstate New York – with prestige designers and luxury materials, all catalogued lovingly, minutely.
It goes on and on: A Little Life drops elite lifestyle references the way Sex and the City dropped Manolo Blahniks. Like the style and leisure writing in Condé Nast Traveler and the New York Times.
In fact, so grand, so relentless is Yanagihara’s exceptionalism that when A Little Life turns to its darker tale – the friends’ personal struggles, and Jude’s above all – those too must be larger than life. One character loses not just one young sibling, but three in turn, the last of whom dies a long, heartbreaking death of cerebral palsy. Another character loses his only child, at age four, to “an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease called Nishihara syndrome, one so rare that it wasn’t even included on batteries of genetic tests.” Another character destroys himself spectacularly on crystal meth. There’s not just a bad boyfriend, but a boyfriend so abusive, so cruel, that we all cheer when he dies a painful death of pancreatic cancer. Was I supposed to pity the poor architect, a young man so ashamed of his stable, boring family, of his hardworking, not-post-Modern, still-married parents, that he tells Black taxi drivers to drop him a block from his real address near Park Avenue, so they don’t know he’s that rich?
I won’t even tell you how the book ends, it’s so over-the-top, so operatic.
And while Jude’s own struggles, the book’s central sadness, are undeniably awful, tragic, and hard to stomach – the horrific child abuse, and the self-abuse it sparks when he’s grown – I came to resent Yanagihara for exploiting that story, in her gorgeous, voluptuous prose, as a plot device. I came to think Jude’s abject suffering – in fact, every character’s outsized suffering – was there to hide Yanagihara’s basic lack of interest in the substance, in the unglamorous grist, of adult human life.
For no one who matters in this book lives with commonplace, mundane failure or frustration: the job you lose, the manuscript you can’t get read, the client you can’t please, the painting no one buys, the neighborhood you can’t afford. Preoccupied partners; fractious teenagers; homework; report cards. Bills. Unrequited love. The traffic that steals your one free hour.
In A Little Life, folks who fail small, like this, are dismissed with almost a sneer. The not-cute-enough girl who flirts above her station? There’s a “stomach-twist of embarrassment” for her. The too-old actor-waiter who doesn’t know when to quit theatre? He’ll become “fat, or bald, or get bad plastic surgery that couldn’t disguise the fact that [he was] fat and bald.” How mundane. How unworthy. Reader, avert your eyes.
More to the point, no one who matters in this book manages the commonplace, routine heroism that sustains a long friendship without melodrama, without theatrics, without the special star-billing you get from loving someone exceptional, and exceptionally damaged. There’s very little everyday obligation to others, at least the kind of commitment that isn’t epic, “astonishing and profoundly moving.” Aging parents are conspicuously scarce, for example, as are healthy children – the kind who show up daily looking for attention, meals, permission slips, rides, and constant proof of their own paramount worth. Ordinary parents of non-tragic kids are drawn as restless, discontented, as slightly ridiculous for their unexceptional concerns – like a yard for their children to play in. They’re drawn, fundamentally, as not fully adult:
“Having children has provided their adulthood with an instant and nonnegotiable sense of purpose and direction. . . . Children are a kind of cartography, and all one has to do is obey the map they present to you on the day they are born. . . . [But a] . . . childless adult creates adulthood for himself[.]”
Which brings me back to the prestige literary prizes and their rapturous love for A Little Life. Top awards don’t just reward quality when they stumble across it out in the culture; they dictate culture, too. They try to teach us which stories should matter, and which lives we should prize. This year, their collective swoon for Yanagihara’s exceptionalism, for her operatic elitism, makes me fear we’ve lost the knack of ordinary adulthood. And that leaves far too little life for me.