On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.
I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.
You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.
Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?
Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.
Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.
Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.
Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.
Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.
Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?
Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.
A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.
The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.
The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.
The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.
The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.
The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.
Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
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