Friday, 30 December 2022

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

It seems to me that it is impossible to describe in one paragraph, or write one blurb on what this book is about in a way that would feel accurate or satisfying - it is “about” too many things to summarise without missing or excluding something important, the light that accompanies the shade, the love and healing that sits alongside the trauma, the building that challenges the broken.

A Little Life is tremendous in each of its 720 pages. At times I wondered if it was needlessly morose: the unrelenting abuse and trauma experienced by protagonist Jude St Francis, topped with the loss of people who represent important crossroads and the possibility of shifting his narrative, and with that, the possibility of a life where health triumphs over illness, love over cruelty, togetherness and acceptance over isolation and dismissal. At other times, it felt that perhaps these life events have been necessary to the story and that perhaps some lives are just so unlucky and the question of whether life can and should be endured endlessly is the point - and that perhaps, finally, the proposal Yanagihara presents us with is not the one we’ve been taught is right, moral, healthy and yet we must now consider it. 

There is an undeniable cleanliness, relief and sensibility when Jude finally releases himself from his pain. To say there is a justice isn’t right because there is nothing just, fair or for good reason about his life experiences up until he turns 16 (and their everlasting ripple effects), and because despite the acquiring of unconditional love, the opportunity to test this love on sturdy adoptive parents in his 50s and to see them still standing, whole and begging to keep him alive, he is unable to do so. Paired with the realisation that he is loved so deeply, which represents, in some ways, a cosmic release from his torment caused by continuing to stay alive—a partial resolution of his pain—is Jude's conviction of his own debt, owed in exchange for having been chosen or loved. But for Jude, the price for his gratitude is ultimate and totalising—his life—and despite his efforts to fulfil what he sees as his obligations, his failure to do so aligns with the belief he has even at his death: that he has been deceptive about who he is and that he is undeserving of the love he has received, which could or should be withdrawn. And so, we feel he is finally at peace.  

As such, another argument runs through the book: that maybe we have wrongly valued life as living for oneself and maybe it is the people around us who love us specifically and especially that tether us to the world and maybe that is natural and normal and not ill. Throughout the book is the spectre of what ifs: if that one abuse hadn’t taken place, if that one person hadn’t died when they had, etc., could Jude’s life have been endured? And then we again face the question if life should be “endured” or “survived” at all and that some people, who are given early love and stability, confidence in their existence are just lucky and can live life, where hardships are sandwiched between happy years, while those who haven’t been so lucky must try to balance the scales to determine what is less torturous and thus what is more kind: living (enduring, surviving) or not living. It is necessary for us as a society to believe in therapy and medicine and love and that these should always provide a person with the right tools to continue working to the goal of staying alive because if we don’t unquestionably accept that these life rafts can save anybody, we open the possibility of doubt and with this doubt, comes the risk that some people may be worth giving up on. And with that shameful thought may follow the acceptance of the possible (unacceptable) death of those we love and with that acceptance comes the risk of complicity and with that, guilt and failure against this universally accepted and righteous goal. And yet, we don't give up but learn to live with it differently. 

The outcome of the novel reminded me of what Michael Pederson said to me when I asked him about his friendship with Scott Hutchison at his book reading a few months ago, which has stayed with me: that being Scott’s friend came with the understanding, acceptance, that losing him to suicide was always there as a possibility and it could happen abruptly, with no clues or opportunity for intervention and this came with the territory of loving him and and enjoying life with him for every day in which he chose to be alive.

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Black river

The river is insistently, intensely black
fast-moving with untold depths
in process
the moment before viscous liquid becomes solid
when all motion stops.

The river is so black
the water spurns all expectation
of light and shade
in partnership
so that the darkness is endless without outline, dense: cornstarch and water.

The stress could kill me if I keep on like this.
If I keep on like this my hair will fall out
unrecoverable down the shower drain
traces of my skin will flake off leaving a trail behind me
a spectre of folkloric breadcrumbs to signpost the
direction of home or haven.

In the night in the park
I can hear more than I can see
and I don’t know which is safer.

The black river gains momentum
it has been preparing for hours
swallowing drunk men who lose their footing
petrified and preserved,
cold and still.

The stress might kill me if I keep on like this.
My skin is on fire and my arms are burning
the smell of scorched protein matter
the light is orange even in my kitchen
the sky is red and brown and furious.

I can see the dust coming through the window
which has always been there already
a sense of awe that it announces itself so suddenly and how much of it there is around us
a sense of disgust and the timely arrival of a cough
so when the particles settle on my lungs
it feels so unacceptable.

I will myself to dissolve, and it works!
I become the floating specs
I am weightless and unhindered
moving slowly, but constantly.

The day progresses and the chill arrives
a window is opened and I am transported.
The frost kicks in and the window is shut.

I land on the black water
freezing but finally freezing.
The river moves me with plan and purpose
but has me in a familiar hold:
a baby at a breast on a rocking chair
with no other intent than to soothe.

Saturday, 17 December 2022