The last set in our Writers Festival coverage starts out with Karen going against the crowd. Here's hoping that of the three types of cranky (entertaining, angry and annoying), this will prove to be in the first category.
So doll-like! Of all the ways I had imagined Hanya Yanagihara, author of The Dark Novel of 2015, doll-like was not one. She sat placidly -- or carefully-- in her black armchair like an objet d'art and I am not sure I saw any movement at all below the neck the entire time she was seated. Even her turning her gaze from Anne Kennedy in the interviewer chair to us in the audience seemed to happen in slow motion. A low, modulated "Hello" before Anne reeled off a half-dozen hyperbolic reviews of her book by way of introduction.
I should lay my cards on the table right away. That novel, A little life, had left me unconvinced. But I was looking forward to this session. Between the establishment honours it was garnering (Booker Prize shortlist etc) and the reader fandom (a comment left on our online catalogue declared it "an experience, not just a book"), I couldn't help wondering if I had missed something. Or maybe I had been too in thrall to my personal tics. Like with the gougères.
Gougères, if you don’t already know (I didn't), are French cheese puffs, and, I just realised, a metaphor for my difficulty digesting this book. When Yanagihara describes Jude, her main character, a man traumatised by horrendous sexual abuse suffered as a child, who has become a super top litigator, while also having an extraordinary aptitude for theoretical mathematics, and an extraordinary talent in music as well, as always wanting to throw together some gougères for when his friends come over, I winced. I wanted Holden Caulfield to be one of the friends coming up the stairs, just to hear what he’d say.
But this is the thing. There is no Holden, because, as Yanagihara told us at the start in her very composed response to interviewer Anne Kennedy’s holding a first tentative light up to her book, “I wanted to make an hommage to the way my friends and I live”.
More in particular, she told us, she wanted to show that becoming an adult doesn't mean you have to get married and have children. For me who works in a library, this didn't strike me as news. But anyway, Yanagihara gives us four male friends, who have moved to New York together after their graduation from University, all rigorously unmarried but who seem to spend their time working, acquiring and achieving just like married men of their ilk.
They acquire wealth (apartments, country houses), habits (various, only in one case of the drug type, but it doesn't take him down), and partners (corporate, sexual, and other), and they achieve success. Lots of success. They all become stars in their fields, and all without doing anything as boring as striving. How is that?
But Yanagihara forestalls any question about her book's credibility (the 4-0 record of the friends being only one of many challenges in that sense). She tells us it's supposed to be that way, because she used a "fairy tale template". We need to suspend disbelief, is what I understand her to be saying.
“This is not a book you can go into and not surrender to it, and I hope what it gives you is the intimacy of a certain world”.
Surrendering to a book is my preferred way to read, but I wasn’t able to surrender to A little life. I suppose the thing is that books about the world of wealthy Manhattanites rarely enthrall me, unless rendered with the savage wit of American Psycho, or it's the fringe version, as in Netherland. So there's that.
There were other stumbling blocks for me. The heavy-handed, unimaginative depiction of the violence done to poor Jude, even more than the amount of it -- every time he escapes one torturer, he falls in with another just as bad or worse. Her editor did say that the sheer quantity of it was simply not believable, she told us, but “I told my editor if things are not quite believable they should still be true".
I suppose she means emotionally true. I'm with her on that, but I couldn’t find any true feeling in the sexual abuse scenes that are central to the book’s wallop. It should have been there, and it should have been horror and pity, but all I felt was unease and nausea. It gave me pause when I realised at a certain point that it was the same feeling I had in reading the child rape scenes in that Navajo “memoir” (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams) which turned out to be a hoax, written by an unsuccessful non-Navajo writer of gay leather porn.
Tenderness, when it appeared, always seemed the product of a bargain. Where was desire? How ironic (or maybe I should say manipulative, given that the reader is, I believe, supposed to think it an image of suffering) the use of a photograph of a man in orgasm (Peter Hujar’s Orgasmic Man) as the cover image for a book in which there is no spontaneous, unbounded sexual desire. In which Jude's lover, new to a sexual relationship with a man, explains it away with an "I'm not in a relationship with a man, I'm in a relationship with Jude".
Was that when the word 'facile' first came to me? Facile which is one of the adjectives Hanna Yanagihara uses for a group of friends that she described as one of her inspirations for A Little Life, in an article she wrote for Vulture last year:
"...I was an editor at a now-defunct magazine about the media industry called Brill’s Content… It was my first magazine job, and I found it terrifying, like being moved from the high-school literary magazine to the high-school debate team: Everyone was smart and facile and articulate and argumentative. One of my co-workers [...] was a man named Seth, and it was through him that I became friends with two of his friends from college: Joe, who was a copy editor at the magazine, and Jared, who was Seth’s former roommate and an editor at Inside.com. I found them all fascinating."
I can't help but be reminded of the answer she gave when Anne Kennedy asked her about the writing process behind the book. "I knew exactly where I was going with it" she said.
And so she did. At various points we heard that she wanted it to be a long novel, a claustrophobic novel, a novel with no natural stopping points, where the violence would be "unsanitised", and which would be "very personal" to her. And that is where she went.
I think anyone intrigued by the subject matter of this book -- the lasting effects of trauma, the arc of friendship, its strengths and its limits -- who want to immerse themselves in a story, who are happy to set aside scepticism, who find social or cultural commentary intrusive, who would like to push the boundaries of their emotional endurance, should try going there with her.
Don't worry about the gougères. Maybe talking about gougères in Manhattan is no more pretentious than talking about quiche in California (which is to say, not pretentious at all, unless perhaps when the filling is kale and ramps -- oops, don't they buy ramps in A Little Life?).
As her last question before Audience Q&A time, Anne asked, as interviewers do, “What’s next for you?”
During Q&A, a sincere young male whom I dubbed “Mr G” in my notes stepped up to the microphone and asked whether Yanagihara could share any revelations that had come to her while writing the book “if it isn’t too personal”.
No, she couldn’t.
“I think this would be a great place to end” said Anne.