Hanya Yanagihara, author of the acclaimed 2015 novel A Little Life, has not – and will never – read a review of her book.
‘I just don’t read them,’ she says. ‘I have not read one review for this novel. I really don’t think anything good will come of it. At this point of my career, I’m not going to change my writing to please critics.’
I recently met with Yanagihara at an unassuming coffee shop in New York’s chic SoHo district, ahead of the novelist’s appearances at a Wheeler Centre event in Melbourne and the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This will be Yanagihara’s first trip to Australia and one she’s very excited for – partly, she confesses, to experience Melbourne’s rich dining scene. Before our interview, we spoke about Melbourne’s world-class restaurant culture and about her penchant for food photography – something she often indulges in on her Instagram account.
While other contemporary writers – Bret Easton Ellis, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead – relish using social media, Yanagihara avoids public platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
‘I think for me I don’t want the chatter. I think it’s a wonderful tool, but one that I’m not that interested in. But I am on Instagram!’
Running just over 700 pages, her landmark novel A Little Life chronicles the lives of four young men, fresh out of college and living in New York, exploring the intense but sometimes precarious bonds they share as each maps out their new life in the Big Apple. Critics have called it ‘a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits’, ‘an epic study of trauma and friendship’, and a ‘monument of empathy’.
Indeed, the novel is a sharply-drawn character study, one set in an overwhelmingly claustrophobic world of the author’s creation. Yanagihara strips away all sense of history and time, unfurling the story from the intensely introspective lives of her four male characters. Soon enough Jude – an assistant prosecutor at the US Attorney’s office – becomes the book’s chief focus, as we learn more about his tragic upbringing and the inner demons that rage away inside him.
For Yanagihara, removing the cultural, social, and political references within the book was a very deliberate decision.
‘By taking those things out, what I was really doing was trapping readers in the emotional world of these particular characters, so that it felt incredibly intimate, claustrophobic.
‘It makes the reader feel off-kilter. You can’t explain any of the characters’ behaviour by what’s happening in the outside world. Their lives exist in a closed-off one. You then give the reader deeper access – but the trade-off is, of course, that you are now a prisoner of this world.’
Yanagihara’s use of word ‘prisoner’ couldn’t be more appropriate. Many have struggled to cope with the penetrating, sometimes aggressive, emotional stories the book thrusts on its readers. This immediacy, especially concerning protagonist Jude, can be overwhelming, as Yanagihara shares his attempts at self-mutilation in graphic detail.
But this is all part of the trade-off for the author. To her, A Little Life is about mining the kinships that both bind and fragment male bonding. Yanagihara describes her years spent at Smith College, an all-women’s liberal arts university in Massachusetts, and then her early years in publishing, which meant she had few friendships with men, either gay or straight. It was this absence of male socialising early in her life that partly inspired her novel.
‘I simply didn’t spend a lot of time around young men,’ she explains. ‘And so I was always fascinated by how particular their sense of expression was – sort of a language of physical interaction, but that was always limited. There was this real sense of a limitation in language between them.’
A Little Life can be read as a study of male kinship, studying how homosocial bonding ebbs and flows between men, while also exploring this ‘unsaid’ language – looking at how love, affection, and joy are communicated within such fraternal ties. I ask Yanagihara how she thinks A Little Life would have looked if it was about four women – she chuckles, and suggests it actually may have been a ‘boring’ read: ‘And would probably be a third of the size!
‘It is a book in which the characters literally cannot speak that often – they don’t know how to express what they cannot quite name,’ she says. ‘One of the reasons it is so long is because these characters cannot make conversation about a subject they have not been taught to identify, much less express, and so it comes out in different ways and takes longer.’
In a controversial review published in The New York Review of Books, critic Daniel Mendelsohn argues that Yanagihara ‘duped many into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain’ with her novel. (Strangely enough, Yanagihara was actually once Mendelsohn’s publicist, an irony that has not escaped her, and a fact Mendelsohn fails to mention – but as with all reviews of her work, she has not read Mendelsohn’s.) The ‘abuse’ Yanagihara levels at Jude, Mendelsohn later claimed, ‘alienates the sensible reader’ while the violence depicted is utterly excessive.
But to Yanagihara, the violence is more figurative than literal. ‘The book is a very exaggerated book with a lot of artifice. Everything is turned up way too high in it: the suffering, the joyfulness. It’s like a modern day fairy tale. Like a fairy tale, everything is to the extreme.’
The violence portrayed is necessary part of it, Yanagihara says, arguing that violence is actually needed more in contemporary literature.
‘Fiction is the realm where we’re less used to seeing violence,’ she says. ‘But it is a part of life and it should be a part of fiction. When we stop seeing it in fiction, we stop seeing it everywhere.’
I ask Yanagihara about the future – she recently resigned from her position as deputy editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, with plans to take the next year off. There are no immediate writing projects, only a handful of essays (one travel-themed) she has been commissioned to write.
Working as an editor, she says, has given her valuable insight into the editing process when it came to her novel. ‘Part of the job of an editor – especially if you’re an editor who writes – is maintaining this belief that anything can be improved – but that’s not really always entirely true.
‘One of the things I’ve learnt as I’ve become older is doing less to a piece. To me, a great editor is someone who reaches in deep and grabs the writing’s subconscious – something you really didn’t even know you’re expressing.’
A Little Life is published by Pan Macmillan Australia, and is available now through Readings.