Thursday, 31 December 2015

I Heard That - A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

Having finished listening to A Little Life, I recommend it as bed time reading for all wealthy New York upper east siders with children thinking of flying the nest. What a perfect cautionary tale.

As a result of getting through the novel, I now understand that, if you live in New York - or, at a pinch, Cambridge, Massachusetts - you will be astoundingly successful & gather around you a number of extraordinarily (unbelievably?) generous & successful friends. However, if you stray into the rest of America, you will be faced with gangs of sadistic monks; exploitative paedophiles who can operate out of motels all across the country without anyone doing anything about it for months; care homes staffed by sadistic rapists; highways littered by weirdoes who have basement rooms permanently at the ready in their remote houses, perfect for false imprisonment for the purposes of secretive serial rape - & on and on and on. It’s clearly a very dangerous place, America. If you are a foreigner & still feel that you must go there, for heaven’s sake, stick to Manhattan. Mind you, even there take care who you pick as a boyfriend - there are a few sadists in Manhattan too, waiting for their opportunity to hurl you down a stairwell, should you let down your defences for an instant.

It is interesting to think about whether success can ever make up for childhood trauma, whether psychological wounds can ever be properly healed. This I think is what the author set out to explore. She did not succeed though. One reason for this is that the book heaps so many atrocities on the main character that it would be quite impossible for anyone to recover (& it strikes me that this is in a way an insult to survivors of abuse - the author seems to think being systematically beaten for the first years of his life is not enough, that even that plus being pimped for another long period won’t cut it as genuinely damaging, & so adds more & more atrocities that are so peculiar, unlikely & vile that you can’t help beginning to wonder what kind of sick imagination you are dealing with - I felt the same about Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, so perhaps I just have led a sheltered life).
The second reason the book does not succeed as an examination of the mind’s ability to heal is that the central character, who has suffered such a great deal in youth, never at any point accepts any real medical treatment for his mental injuries. As he has a fairytale doctor friend available at any hour - including weekends & public holidays - he is able to avoid the medical system & proper support. The doctor friend who, miraculously, appears to ask for no payment, might also be seen as just one more abuser, aiding & abetting his friend in his wilful refusal to get help.

But the author anyway is too busy imagining rather second rate sounding visual art to worry too much about really deep, believable characterisation or whether the demands she is putting on the poor reader/listener are too great in the suspension of disbelief department. Pages are devoted to the paintings she imagines, so I can only assume she has taken to novel writing because she has no talent for her first choice - the visual arts. If writing had been her actual talent, I might have forgiven much more in the book, but so few sentences or moments of real perception leapt out at me that the work was unredeemed by its author’s skill with words, at least for me.

I pushed on to the end - that is the beauty of audiobooks; you have to keep going, as you can’t skip through the pages to find out roughly how things turn out and then hurl the book across the room.
One thing I found particularly objectionable,apart from the tendency to revel in the filth of what happens to the child in the first half - I think a lot can be conjured without getting explicit & my objection to a great deal of detail is that a) the line between description & straight out porn, intended for titillation, is a fine one & b) after the first sense of shock, the reader actually accepts that what they have just visualised so clearly in their mind is possible & consequently comes fractionally nearer to being capable of committing such acts themselves - was the snobbery. No one in this book is allowed to be ordinary. Our cast of characters end up as celebrated painter; movie star; jet setting architect; hot shot corporate lawyer; and retired Harvard law professor with an emeritus spot at Columbia. Their lives are led between New York, London & a few other Peter Stuyvesant destinations.

'Why not?', you might ask. After all there must be people who do live these gilded lives. True. Perhaps it is me who is the snob. All I can say is I felt I’d been kidnapped and locked in a $17 million Park Avenue apartment & it was dull & airless in there, with all these out-of-touch shallow, careless gilded men who allowed their friend to go on wilfully refusing to address his problems (which, anyway, I didn’t believe in because they were so exaggerated). None of these people ever truly existed in my imagination - most shadowy of all, a cypher really, was Malcolm, allegedly part of the gang of four devoted friends but never given an instant of his own in the novel, merely shuffled about to provide building advice & an opportunity for the author to share her vapid ideas about architecture now and then. Given the lack of any proper development of Malcolm’s character or of his relationship with the others - only an extreme version of the lack of realisation of anything much beyond violent paedophiles in this novel - the argument that it is a work that examines friendship or love does not stand up.

Without the irony that Jarvis Cocker intended & despite the warnings carried in the first part of A Little Life about the perils of existence outside the mega rich bits of Manhattan, by the end all I wanted to do was yell the chorus from Cocker’s most famous song*, press the button for the elevator and skedaddle back to the Plaza and good old Nahnee.**

The book is preposterous.

(*I want to live like common people/
I want to do whatever common people do)
**Apologies to Eloise


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