Why “A Little Life” is NOT a Gay Novel

So did anybody notice that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, last year’s literary sensation and finalist for the Everything Prize for Best Most Notable Book, is primarily…a book about an M/M relationship, by a woman, that features a “gay for you” storyline!

I know I’m late to the party here, but I didn’t pick up the book until it came out in paperback. There was a strong negative customer review on Amazon that really put me off it. But when I saw it for $10 at Costco, I bought it thanks to one of the most misleading reviews ever, quoted in the front of the book.

There are a lot of spoilers in this post, so if you intend to read the book, you might want to check outta here. But I can’t really address what I loved, and ardently disliked, about this book without them.

And really, my bone to pick is really more with gay novelist Garth Greenwell’s assertion in said review in The Atlantic that this is “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years” and that it’s quite possibly “the great gay novel.”

And I am Marie of Romania.

First off, there are four main characters. Two are heterosexual, one is gay, and one is the subject of so much sexual abuse that his sexuality is nonexistent, and whatever it would have been, given time, is now stunted and smothered. Even when he finally embarks on sexual relationships with men, the sex is so painful and repugnant that he only consents to it to get the emotional comfort from relationships that he feels he has to “pay for” with sex.

So there’s one self-defined gay man in the book, and he’s the most selfish, shallowest, and cruelest character of all four of the MCs.

Greenwell acknowledges this by saying that “Three of them form their primary physical and emotional bonds with other men, though sometimes in ways that challenge the usual nomenclatures. Of the novel’s main characters, only JB unambiguously embodies an immediately recognizable and unambivalent gay identity.”

Sure, sure, flexisexuality is the coming thing, but then that means the book is not the “great gay novel,” after all. Twice in the novel, the author hammers home that Willem, who becomes Jude’s lover, is not gay.

Willem the movie star doesn’t hide his relationship with Jude, but he’s not willing to be the poster child for gayness in Hollywood. He has a conversation with Max, a director who wants him to give a speech at a gay rights gala, where he tells Max that:

…he wouldn’t come out, because he didn’t believe there was anything to come out of: he wasn’t gay.

“Willem,” Max said, “you’re in a relationship, a serious relationship, with a man. That is the very definition of gay.”

“I’m not in a relationship with a man,” he said, hearing how absurd the words were, “I’m in a relationship with Jude.”

Willem notes that he understands Max’s POV, that Max had “come of age in a time when identity politics were your very identity.” But he doesn’t have a “gay identity.”

And, as the story progresses, and the sexual relationship with Jude fails as he finally realizes what Jude has hidden from him, that Jude loathes all sexual contact, Willem starts sleeping with other people, mostly women. Most of his partners start out confused:

“Aren’t you in a relationship with a man?” they would ask, and he would tell them that he was, but that they had an open relationship. “So are you not really gay?” they would ask, and he would say, “No, not fundamentally.”

The younger women were more accepting of this: they’d had boyfriends (or had boyfriends) who had slept with other men as well; they had slept with other women. “Oh,” they would say, and that would usually be it.

So, if anything, this is a post-gay novel, about flexisexual people who don’t diagram themselves as politically or sexually “gay” or “queer” or anything else.

And then there’s Greenwell’s tone deaf statement, that the book is an “ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men.” Umm, okay, even if they were all gay…it’s actually an ambitious chronicle of four Harvard graduates in Manhattan who all end up rich and famous. Maybe that’s the bubble within which Greenwell lives, but for the overwhelming majority of LGBT people in this country? Not even close. Ask anybody in North Carolina, Georgia, etc.

[Side note: I really hate the way the author elides around the fact that they’re at HARVARD, until you finally puzzle it out from “the Square” and roommates who attend MIT, etc. The “H Word” is, eventually, used, but it goes unsaid that Jude attended HARVARD LAW and was on the HARVARD LAW REVIEW, and the whole side-skippy thing around the fact of HARVARD made me nuts. Then again, when I was young and dumb in San Francisco, I managed to get a guy to go out on a reluctant date with me, and as I made nervous small talk with him, asking him where he went to college, he looked around the restaurant as if he’d rather be sitting with anyone else, and said tersely, “Connecticut.” I knew that Yale existed, but fuck all if I knew (or remembered (or cared for that matter)) that it was in Connecticut, so I just said, “Oh,” and left it at that. The way he said it, as if “one should know” what that meant…and it was only some time later that someone revealed to me that he meant YALE. It was my first real encounter with the awful power of meritocratic snobbery, the whole old-school-tie-waving secret language and false modesty which was probably why this whole I WON’T SAY HARVARD OUT LOUD thing made me grit my teeth. /Rant]

As for the book itself. One of the weaknesses in the story is that the author starts out painting the lives of four friends, from the time they meet in college, and decades forward from that, with varying degrees of backstory for each. She then gradually loses interest in two of them, one of whom (Malcolm) really should have just been dropped from the book.

Malcolm is the least interesting person in the book. He’s basically abandoned by the author after one scene of him at work, bored with his life, bored with his job, and I think she also realized he was boring, and after that she pretty much just…drops him. Which makes me think, as a reader and as an editor – honestly, then why keep him at all? Just to make a nice round number of four? He’s really a wraith as a character.

The central character is Jude St. Francis. (I know, but he’s so named by an order of monks when he’s a baby, so it’s not as heavy-handed as it would have been, if the author had pulled it out of thin air.) Jude has been abused all his life, physically and sexually, and it’s left him a tortured creature, whose pains we see in excruciating detail.

The problem I have with her portrayal of Jude is that every single person he meets abuses him, one after the other, until the improbability stretches credulity, and the painful intensity of living through each ordeal with him strains the reader’s ability to keep going. I mean, at a certain point it’s almost torture porn, and I had to set the book aside for days before I could pick it up again.

She acknowledges this on nearly the last page, when Jude’s adoptive parents read the narrative he’s left them of all the abuse, and it’s so overwhelming and intense that they have to “keep putting the pages down and walking away from them, and then bracing each other – Ready? – and sitting down and reading some more.” Same here.

There are the monks at the monastery, where he’s abandoned as a baby, who beat and sexually abuse him, the monk who spirits him away into a life of child prostitution, the “counselors” who rape him at the home where he’s placed later, then a doctor in Boston who imprisons him in his basement, and then as an adult, when he finally meets a handsome stranger, that man, too, beats him and rapes him.

As a child, there’s only one person who really cares about him, and she dies of cancer. There are people who care about him, as an adult – his friend Willem, who becomes a famous actor, his adoptive father Harold, his law school professor, and his doctor Andy, who treats him for the injuries he’s sustained from a lifetime of abuse, and the cutting he does to himself as the only therapy he’ll allow himself. But by this time, he’s so fucked up he can’t even permit himself to think of himself as deserving of anything but pain.

The author told the Guardian newspaper that “I…wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high.” Well, she nailed that.

Greenwell’s apologia for all these Perils of Pauline is that “it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera.” This just knocks me out. The Dying Queen is indeed “long coded” in the history of gay characters, the suicidal mangenue who impersonates Judy Garland, gets beat up by the sailor he loves, and kills himself to the sound of Maria Callas.

What that has to do with gay life today is beyond me.

Greenwell is reaching way beyond the text when he goes here:

The novel’s darkness is leavened by its portrayal of Jude’s friends, whose attempts to care for him inevitably recall the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis. Each of Jude’s friends cares for him differently, uniquely: Malcolm by designing spaces that will accommodate his disability; JB by painting portraits “kinder than the eye alone would see”; Willem by being the one person to whom he can tell his entire history. They make innumerable accommodations to Jude’s daily needs; in periods of crisis, they monitor him, making sure he eats and doesn’t harm himself.

Umm, no. I definitely read a different book. First off, there’s JB, who shamelessly uses Jude, photographs him and his other “friends” and appropriates their images to secretly create paintings of their candid moments. When Jude discovers this, the only thing he can get out of JB is a promise (soon broken) that JB will only use photos Jude approves of. One of JB’s many betrayals comes in a scene in an art gallery when Jude finds a painting of himself in a weak and vulnerable moment. JB does not care for Jude – just the opposite.

Then he stages an act of appalling emotional cruelty towards Jude, which in and of itself gives the lie to Greenwell’s proposition of his being part of a “community of care,” and then he pretty much disappears from the novel, relegated offstage with passing mention of his rehabilitation and regret.

There is a “community of care” around Jude, but it’s not (other than Willem) composed of the other three college friends. Who are Jude’s real caregivers, the ones who actually move heaven and earth for him? His adult-adoptive father Harold (heterosexual), his doctor Andy (heterosexual), and his best friend Willem (also fundamentally heterosexual). And everyone in the book, and I mean everyone other than the social worker who dies of cancer early on, accommodates Jude’s desire to hurt himself, isolate himself, punish himself, out of fear that pushing him “too hard” will result in losing him from their lives.

At least Malcolm designs a handicapped-accessible home for Jude, who vigorously refuses the fixtures, and in the end Malcolm (again) accommodates him for the most part, save for the bathroom where he slips in railings and a sit-down shower. So there’s that.

And even they fail him in ways that nobody would fail an AIDS patient. Imagine this conversation in the AIDS Era, for instance: “Oh, you don’t want to see a doctor and you don’t want to take your pills, well, that’s your decision, I respect that.”

The “gay for you” story line comes in after about 500 pages, after Willem has stuck with Jude through thick and thin, and realizes that he’s in love with Jude. That he wants to be his lover, to be with him physically. Which Jude wants but doesn’t – he wants Willem in his life, but sex is a nightmare to him, and he puts up with it to keep Willem around, and lies to his lover that he likes it out of fear of losing him. So I have a really hard time letting a reviewer class Jude as a “gay man,” either.

Given Willem’s own words, how does Greenwell parse that as being about a gay man? Does he just think to himself as Max the director does, that well, Willem’s obviously in denial? In a day and age where the “social and emotional lives of gay men” have never been more flexisexual, does Greenwell feel a need to “lock in” Willem’s sexuality despite the character’s own firm attestations to the contrary?

The thing is, I do buy the GFY storyline, for the most part. The two of them have been so intensely connected for so long, and that connection has always made Willem’s girlfriends into the third wheels of all his relationships, that yeah, shit, at a certain point you just accept as Willem does, after five hundred pages, that this is my primary relationship. For Jude, it’s a need for Willem’s company, his steadying influence, his care and compassion, that motivate him to accept the “relationship,” but ironically, the subject of the GFY isn’t really “gay” at all, as he has no sexual desire for another man.

Even near the very end of the book, where the author lets Jude have a vision of what a normal childhood might have been, Jude dreams what it would have been like to be a happy child, and his undeveloped sexuality is left open.

Maybe he is wearing a soccer uniform, his arms and legs bare; maybe he is accompanied by a friend, by a girlfriend. He has probably never had sex before; he is probably trying at every opportunity to do so.

Because we’ve seen Willem and Jude as friends for so many years, what might feel like Jack-In-The-Box popup GFY realization in a thinner narrative works for me here. It doesn’t feel like bi-erasure by the author, as noted in the quotes in Willem’s voice above – if anything, it’s bi-erasure by Greenwell, in his attempt to define the novel as “gay.”

But. As far as “gay literature” goes, no, this isn’t even, not…at…all. It’s about love, and affection, and tragedy, and betrayal, but it’s not a “gay novel.” Maybe a “post-gay novel.”

I will tell you this. If the world is waiting for the Great Gay Novel, it won’t be yet another tale of rich people in Manhattan, who can literally afford to be flexisexual, who live in a cosmopolitan, non-judgmental world. It will be set in North Carolina where its main character works at a fucking Waffle House and has to face the pressures of school, family, church and state, all arrayed against him or her. It will be set in Uganda, where gay love is truly worthy of operatic descriptions of misfortune, considering that you can be killed for it.

That’s the Great Gay Novel I’m waiting for.

EDIT, 7/22/17 – People keep reading this post, so I wanted to add here that I’ve found what I consider to be “A” great gay novel (there being no such thing as “The” great gay novel, since there are too many ways of growing up gay and living a gay life for there to Be Only One). It’s Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy. It’s a story of growing up poor and gay in a dreary small town in France. It adheres to the classic gay novel ending, the Escape to the Safety of the City, but that ending feels earned, and it feels good.

13 Comments on Why “A Little Life” is NOT a Gay Novel

  1. Sounds like 80% of the yaoi novels I’ve read in the past. All the young yaoi fan-girls flock to it and love it. I’ll be avoiding this one. I came across it online before, read a few excerpts and decided against it.

  2. A phenomenal review. Kudos.

  3. Harper Miller // March 30, 2016 at 1:31 pm // Reply

    Oy. Lol I wanted to know what you thought and I got an earful. Not sure if I’m interested in reading this anymore. Bummer!

    • Yeah it’s good but fuck me it’s hard sledding with all the abuse and tragedy. Reminds me when I read the book we are not ourselves, not knowing it was about someone’s long descent into Alzheimer’s. If I’d known how gruesome it was going to be I never would have read it.

  4. Excellent review. I was one of the people that loved this book, but I don’t think it’s The Great Gay novel. I see it as a book about 4 people and human nature and overcoming adversity and all that.

    As for a the great gay novel being about a guy that works at Waffle House, you might want to check out “Get Your Shine On” by Nick Wilgus, if you haven’t already.

  5. Oops I’m sorry, I meant “Shaking The Sugar Tree” by Nick Wilgus.

  6. There are so many reasons why this novel is as awful as it is long and I appreciate you taking on the ridiculousness of the ‘Great Gay Novel’ trope. I would argue that not only is caregiver Andy not a gay caregiver, he isn’t a caregiver at all. He is an enabler who makes it easier for Jude to get away with decades of self harm.

    • Yeah my issue is that all the characters are so afraid of alienating Jude completely that they accept the limits he says on how much he will allow them to do. I get that he holds that threat over their heads that he’ll cut them off completely if they push too hard , but calling them a community of care is also pushing it.

  7. Totally agree with this review. Two characters in an homo-amorous relationship does not a “gay novel” make. It does not represent gay life. It’s a particular relationship of a badly abused and suffering person and another who found his greatest love in caregiving (for his brother and subsequently for Jude).

  8. Wish I could “upvote” this article on the Google results page. Nice takedown of pretentiousness.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. $25 to IAVA from “A Little Too Broken”! $5,125 and counting to veterans’ orgs! – Brad Vance Author
  2. Book Review: *A little Life* by Hanya Yanagihara. [Let’s Deal with Individualism & Identity.] – Books, Films & Art, Plus a Bit of Life I've Squeezed In.

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