Claire Armistead Posts

Hanya Yanagihara, “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara“Contracts are not just sheets of paper promising you a job, or a house, or an inheritance: in its purest, truest, broadest sense, contracts govern every realm of law. When we choose to live in a society, we choose to live under a contract, and to abide by the rules that a contract dictates for us… .” ( p.116) 

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life is a strong contender for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015. It will be announced on Tuesday, 13 October 2015. Meanwhile it has created a more than a little storm in literary circles around the globe. Inevitably comments are being posted about how powerful it is, the incredible writing and not a single reader has been left unscathed, many dissolving into tears while reading it. Needless to say it rocks you emotionally. It has to be one of the most exhausting novels from contemporary literature and this is not a testimony to the time spent reading the 700-odd pages. It is the story itself. Four young men, friends from their days as undergraduates at a prestigious New England University, who try finding their feet as professionals as adults. The novel spans their lifetime but instead of it being a straightforward old-fashioned bildungsroman, it delves into their past particularly their formative years as children focusing primarily on Jude St.Francis. There is forward movement, it is hard-hitting, at times a painfully descriptive yet grippingly told narrative. It is a book that demands to be read at one-sitting ( read minimum three days) without getting distracted by anything else, otherwise it will be impossible to finish reading.

A Little Life is already being termed as a “queer classic” within a few months of its publication. It is a devastating look at adult male relationships primarily through the prism of love that the four men have for each other. The story is mapped from their days as students to old age. A time when most people have mellowed or come to terms with the life they live except for Jude who continues to be consistent in his personality –notably his physical self-flagellation whereas Hanya Yanagihara sees Jude as being “consistent in his hopefulness”. ( Hear the Guardian podcast.) If it were not for the immense love, tenderness and understanding his inner circle has for him, Jude would have long been dead. Somehow this inexplicably violent aspect of his personality overshadows his brilliance as a lawyer. Along the way other forms of love are also explored — the love between parents ( biological, foster and adopted) parents for their wards, the expression of love ( at times horrifically warped — between lovers, rapists, perpetrators of child sexual abuse) and how the bonds of love are forged over time? The factor of trust is also explored in many ways. Trust is an essential part of the foundation upon which love between two individuals is built, so should it be ever taken for granted or does it require constant nurturing?

Hanya Yanagihara is a journalist who has been with Conde Nast and New York Times. She spent a few years writing this novel.  Here is an interview between her editor, Gerry Howard and her, published in Slate. ( 5 March 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/03/hanya_yanagihara_author_of_a_little_life_and_her_editor_gerry_howard.html ) There have been a deluge of articles, reviews, interviews, podcasts with the author, coming to terms with A Little Life. It is no mean achievement when a writer is able to create a work of art that has a phenomenal reaction. Over and over again readers are responding to the manner in which it transformed them. The only consistent element evident in the media buzz about A Little Life  is the astonished reaction at encountering this work of literary art. The fact that it is a work of fiction, but so magnificently detailed to make it powerfully moving and yet, as Hanya has discovered, young men have approached her saying this is remarkably true to their lives. But she clarifies in the interview with Claire Armistead that she has never known a Jude or a person who could have inspired the character. It is a novel that has created a new benchmark of literary fiction. Yet I cannot help feeling it is an example of a new form of decadence in the craft of writing. It rips apart the known “limits” of literary fiction immersing the reader in a vortex of pain, suffering, love, and relationships making it a harrowing experience but strangely addictive too — akin to the fascination upon discovering a mind blowing new art form. Even the author confirms that “this book is extravagant, its highly artificial, its large in its emotions…I want to push way up against the line almost of melodrama …and so I really wanted to push every single emotion, every single sensation as far as I could and I don’t think that is a very fashionable way to write fiction any more. Not that I was concerned about that.” ( Excerpt quoted from the Guardian podcast with Claire Armistead.)

Read it.

Some links to read:

  1. The Guardian Books Podcast with Claire Armistead, 28 August 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/aug/28/novels-books-podcast-hanya-yanagihara-andrew-miller
  2. James Kidd talks to Hanya Yanagihara, 23 August 2015. http://thiswritinglife.co.uk/e/episode-27-hanya-yanagihara-a-little-life-part-1/
  3. Lucy Scholes  in Bookanista “Hanya Yanagihara among friends” http://bookanista.com/hanya-yanagihara/
  4. Jon Michaud ” The subversive brilliance of A Little Life” 28 April 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life
  5. A interview and a review in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/26/hanya-yanagihara-i-wanted-everything-turned-up-a-little-too-high-interview-a-little-life and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/18/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-review-man-booker-prize
  6. An interview in the Bookseller http://www.thebookseller.com/insight/hanya-yanagihara-interview

Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life Picador, London, UK, 2015. Pb. pp. 734. Rs. 699

Anuradha Roy, “Sleeping on Jupiter”

Anuradha RoyAfter I had finished reading Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, I wrote her an email. With the author’s permission I am publishing an extract from our correspondence. 

Dear Anuradha,

I am stunned by your book on many accounts. Primarily because I did not expect this after the first two novels. You caught me off guard. It is a sobering lesson on respecting a writer’s evolution and not necessarily expecting the author to be predictable. Unfortunately given the way publishing is working these days, if an author has been successful with a certain style of writing, not necessarily formulaic, it is assumed the person will continue in a similar vein.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

You took my breath away with this novel. I think it was the violence depicted in the story that rattled me. I know you are a brilliant novelist but I seriously did not expect this from you. It requires great deal of reserves to come up with such a story, detailing the violence, rape, brutality, lynching, hitting the dog etc. You have a wide range of depraved human behaviour depicted in the supposedly peaceful, religious, sleepy town of Jarmuli. It is probably not only the real and physical violence that is chilling but also the pain evident in the conversation of the three women pilgrims from Calcutta — typical women who are old friends feel they can get away by saying anything, sharing secrets, but are very barbed hurtful remarks; the son ( Suraj) not paying heed to his chattering mother, so taken off guard when he spots the elderly women in Jarmuli;  the violence that faithful experience such as the pilgrim rolling on the temple floor leaving bits of pink flesh on the stone; the sad, sad sub-plot of Badal and Raghu — it stung when

Raghu gave Badal a twisted smile and said, “So, that’s how things are, is it? You don’t say!” (p.201)

Even the experience of the girls at the ashram, the Guruji, the adoption process requires immense strength on your part to observe, assimilate and write as you have done. The power of your writing lies in its details. After I had finished reading the book, certain locations such as the layout of the ashram, the hotel room, the tea shack, the beach, the train compartment etc were crystal clear in my head. I kept thinking, this is exactly what Ibsen set out to achieve in 19C theatre, Anuradha has done it with words and the relationship an author develops with the reader. It is a feat not easily achieved. How did you do it? The only explanation I find lies in the tautness of your writing, not a single word out of place, yet it is the display of a master craftsman — the exquisiteness with which you find appropriate words; the sentences and paragraphs befit the emotion, setting, pace of novel and personality of characters; the structure of the novel too is fascinating — with the first five days of journey + being in Jarmuli being 2/3 of the novel, interspersed with the flashback technique and then rapidly you move to the eighteenth day. In a way I keep feeling the novel is like an Aristotlean tragedy ending in catharsis for Nomi. It holds true even for Suraj, Nomi, Toppo, Badal etc.

I like the way you said in an interview you can only write once it is clearly visual in your head. “…made up places make me feel free to wander and in my head I can see every bend and building in Jarmuli”. ( All though I have no idea why the interviewer was being polite when referring to the rape scenes “loss of innocence”. It makes your novel sound so Victorian which is far from the truth!)

The link between materialism, religion and exploitation is so real, to place it in a made up place does not in any way mitigate the shocking reality. Godmen and their ashrams are mushrooming all over India like a bad rash. Frighteningly being endorsed by powers that be. There was a time when one heard of Osho, Waco, Aum Shinrikyo etc as stray cases but now with religious fundamentalism on the rise and religion continuing to be an opiate of the masses, exploitation cannot be far behind. Hats off to you for not describing the “faith” Guruji ascribes to. Making him so “universal”, the character can be true to any ideology.

Given the wide variety of literature (printed and digital formats) being produced on women and violence, this particular novel shines. I am very glad you wrote it, however hard it may have been on you. It is a novel that has to be read at one go, otherwise the horror depicted will be so overwhelming it would be easier to abandon the book than persist in reading it.

There is a quiet strength and determination in your writing that is admirable. It is as if the ills evident in society are not being addressed sufficiently. Instead you have converted the pent up anger in you to constructively portray it in fiction. Hopefully this magnificently disturbing storytelling will have the desired effect.

Oh, this is a book I am going to recommend for a long time to come.

Thank you for writing it.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

7 May 2015 

Anuradha Roy Sleeping on Jupiter Hachette India, Gurgaon, India. Hb. pp.260 Rs 499