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The title of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life gives a promise of brevity which the text itself, at over 700 pages, clearly breaks. Even if this novel displays an ironic knowingness or even embarrassment about its length, narrative scale nevertheless has its uses and pleasures. It looks at the outset as though A Little Life will use its several hundred pages to trace the lives of a group of college friends across several decades, though the panoramic gaze of the novel quickly settles on Jude, a brilliant and troubled lawyer. So far, so familiar. But rather than unfolding into an earnest, masculine rewriting of Girls, the vast length of the novel is instead used to slowly and painfully delineate, through a series of flashbacks, a horrifying series of unspoken but defining episodes of violence in Jude’s childhood.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the seeming banality of its premise, A Little Life was met with enormous acclaim. It was exaggeratedly greeted by one reviewer, Garth Greenwell, as “the Great Gay Novel.” In Greenwell’s reading, the novel translates its protagonist’s personal childhood trauma into a synecdoche for “the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped gay life.” But the central concern of A Little Life is less the personal or collective trauma than the drama of narrative disclosure. Tellingly, a key scene of confession and self-realisation — in which Jude finally tells his boyfriend stories from his childhood that “are unimaginable, that are abominable” — literally takes place in a closet. The reader needn’t have read much D.A. Miller or Eve Sedgwick to see that, for Yanagihara, the ongoing project of coming out — in this case, as a survivor of abuse — is at the same time a coming-into-being.
What struck me most forcefully, however, is the remarkable extent to which, despite its strained register of secrecy and trauma, Yanagihara’s novel traffics largely in boring details of bourgeois domesticity. If there is any redemptive possibility here, it is to be found in lengthy descriptions of marble bathrooms, converted SoHo loft apartments, and upstate holiday houses. In these scenes, the novel reads less like a chronicle of “damaged life” (to misuse Adorno) than a catalogue of middle class aspiration, or a post-queer pastiche of one of those CGI walkthroughs on Grand Designs. Just as Tom Ford’s film A Single Man (2009) filtered its protagonist’s grief over the death of his lover through a ready-to-wear aesthetic sensibility, A Little Life gives normative gay coupledom the literary equivalent of a spread in Architectural Digest.
The pressing question here is not the political conditions of possibility for the everyday lives of queer people — these conditions seem, in the moneyed and liberal milieu in which these characters move, largely taken for granted. Rather, the novel’s primary interest is in what kind of ‘upmarket’ forms such a life might take. David Halperin may be right that interior decoration is one of the “mainstream cultural objects that gay male culture appropriates and endows with queer value.” But Yanagihara’s novel does not locate itself within this cultural tradition, since to do so would be to participate in the very regime of sexual identities and strategic essentialism that its characters openly disavow (to his friends, Jude is “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity”). This refusal of codified categories of identity is less about seizing the emancipatory potential of Sedgwick’s “open mesh of possibilities,” I suspect, than something more reactionary: imagining an historical present in which renewed skirmishes over identity politics, and the persistent demands of social justice, are either illegible or have somehow disappeared.