June 30, 2016

"A little life" and some big doubts at AWF 2016

The last set of our Writers Festival posts opens 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 during her responses seemed to happen in slow motion.

A low, modulated "Hello" and we were off. Somewhat disconcertingly to me, as I had been lured by the programme listing's promise of 'intense conversation' which seemed to imply opposing viewpoints, by way of introduction we had Anne reeling off a sequence of hyperbolic quotes in praise of the book, something which seemed not to disconcert Yanagihara at all.

I should lay my cards on the table right away. That book, 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 ardent 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 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 top of the top litigator, while also having an extraordinary aptitude for theoretical mathematics and extraordinary musical talent, 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. It might be that books about the world of wealthy Manhattanites just aren't that enthralling to me, unless executed with the wit of American Psycho, for instance, or if it's a fringe version, as in Netherland. So there's that.

But also. 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). Yanahigara's 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, after all, 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. A suspicion of being rendered a voyeur. That the reading experience was going to be voyeuristic rather than cathartic.

Tenderness, when it appeared, seemed always the outcome of a bargain. And 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.  [...] 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 my native California (which is to say, not pretentious at all, unless perhaps when the filling is kale, or 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?”

The first laugh of the interview from Yanagihara! A strong, low laugh. But I didn’t catch an answer and I’m pretty sure that if there was one, it was a gloss over.

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.


June 08, 2016

Marlon James at AWF 2016: Fascinating and free-flowing

Liz from Collections Insights went to hear the Jamaican-born novelist, now resident in the U.S., mostly from curiosity. She's now on not one but two wait lists for his book -- the print and the e-book version, a "whichever comes sooner attitude" which already tells us much about the session. Here's her full account:

When Noelle McCarthy introduced Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize last year with his A Brief History of Seven Killings, as the writer of a “bloody great book in every sense of the work” we knew were in for a treat – if for no other reason that we would be listening to two of the most attractive accents in the world – Irish and Jamaican.

As it turned out, the content as well as the delivery made the session fascinating. The rapport between McCarthy and James led to an hour of free-flowing conversation and covered a vast range of topics, from the music of Prince and space break sex to getting through writer’s block and the history of Jamaica.

The conversation started with a discussion of the recent death of Prince as James lives in Minneapolis and is a huge Prince fan. Purple Rain was the first record he bought and in his high school year book he was described as the person “most likely to work for Prince”. James’s regret was that he had never quite got round to seeing Prince live.

A Brief History of Seven Killings explores the abortive attempt to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976 and the impact that had both in Jamaica and in the US. The book is told by what McCarthy described as a “polyphony of characters”, each with their own distinct voice. James describes all his novels as being driven by voice, and finding the right voice as essential to telling the story. “The only voice I am not interested in is my own”. When he first started A Brief History he tried out different voices, searching for the “magic one” to tell the story. When a friend asked why he thought it was only one person’s story, he realised the number of voices he needed was actually 76.

The novel is notable for its graphic sex and violence – visceral was a word that came up a lot. James felt that in order to nail the character or “the voice” you sometimes had to risk going too far, to get to what was wanted. When it came up again later, he said “You’d be surprised how prudish and how squeamish I am”, but that his characters demanded more of him. What he described as “space break sex” was not enough. To explain he gave us an example:

     Tom said to Harry, “I have always loved you.”

     The next morning……

James said he found starting a novel terribly hard, with many false starts, but that he would read his way out of writer's block. Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover was especially praised for its sparse format – “stage director's notes rather than a novel”. He also said he had read the entire script of the TV series Breaking Bad, although he had yet to actually see an episode.

Talking more about the central theme of his novel, he described 1976, the year of the attack on Bob Marley, as a pivotal year in Jamaican history, when the hopes and dreams born of Jamaica's independence began to unravel. James was six at the time -- his mother a cop, his father a lawyer. While he was aware of their heightened fear, he didn’t understand why. Writing A Brief History was a way to find out what 1976 was like for adults who, like his parents, had lived through it.

It was one of those discussions you wished could just keep on going. James obviously thinks deeply about the process of writing, the role of the novel and how history is perceived, and you could see he enjoyed sharing his ideas in this sort of forum. I hope we will see him at the Auckland Writers’ Festival again.

-- Liz

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