This could be the last book of the year, unless I hurry up and finish the one I'm into now (more about it later) by Friday. But this one was so big, in every way, that I'd be happy to say it was the last of 2015.
The title, A Little Life, is clearly ironic. The lives rendered here, of four college friends, who remain in each other's lives for the many years the novel covers, are grand. They all become famous, they have gobs of money, famous trips, stunning homes. But nothing is ever played to impress, and despite their good fortune in so many ways, we are never jealous of this foursome. Life has played too hard and fast with them, particularly the character at the center of the story: Jude.
Jude is a mystery. We know nothing of his origins because he knows nothing of them. Abandoned as a newborn, his upbringing borders on fantastical; the level and multitudes of cruelties and abuses are hard to believe, and harder to read about. They leave him a broken man. What sustains him, as much as he can be sustained, are his friends.
It's a strange book, hypnotic, suspended somewhere outside of time. The four men meet at an unnamed college in New England. There is no date given, and very few signifiers of where we are in time. It feels like a perpetual, vague now. There are cell phones, and computers, but no details of the world--no politics, no wars, no 9-11. Time passes, but the things that mark the passage of time in a book of this scope--marriages, children--don't happen. None of the four main characters has a child, and there is not one scene with a child in the book, other than the flashbacks to the main character's childhoods. Once I realized this vagueness was deliberate, I stopped thinking about it, and lost myself in the beauty of Yanagihara's writing. It felt like being immersed in a dream, or a nightmare.
The book raises interesting, big questions, in interesting ways. There are no easy answers. In most books about someone with a tragic childhood there is redemption, there is change. Wounds are healed, lessons are learned. But that doesn't happen in A Little Life (and probably doesn't happen much in real life, either).
I read more than half the book (and at 736 pages, half this book is more than most other books whole) with tears in my eyes. It is deeply sad, but not hard to read. I'm not sure how Yanagihara pulls it off, but she does. It is a moving, tragic, beautiful, compelling read.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
I feel so guilty. I'm not gonna do it.
I made a vow at the beginning of the year that in 2015 I would read two big books that I've been vowing to read for ages and ages:War and Peace and The Power Broker. But life got in the way.
I was all set to go for the summer. Had my books, the latest W&P translation, and a paperback copy of TPB (because in hard cover it weighs more than that cute guilty puppy over there). Had a quiet summer planned, not much work (not necessarily a good thing), and a comfortable hammock.
And then life got in the way. Work came rolling along, requiring massive hours glued to a computer. Company arrived, then more company arrived.
The work lasted into the fall, nearly until Thanksgiving. And then there was actually Thanksgiving! And after the holiday cleanup and goodbyes, this book came my way from the library:
City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, all 944 pages of it. How could I say no? It's one of the year's most talked-about novels, certainly the biggest debut novel of the year (maybe literally the biggest debut novel of all time?). And the library was offering it to me for two solid weeks.
I said yes. And that used up my time until yesterday, when I finished it and brought it back. Which leaves me with 25 days left until the end of the year, which would, maybe, be enough to read one of those two giant tomes, but the library has done it to me again, with this doorstop, 720 pages long:
It's due back on the 18th, at while point I will have 13 days in which to read those two I promised to take on this year. Can I even do one of them? With Christmas Eve, Christmas, the birthday of the figlio minore, company, feasts to prepare, presents to wrap, cards to address, etc etc etc? Stay tuned and find out.
In the meantime, what did I think of the 944-page debut novel? Mixed, sadly. I love a big fat juicy book more than anything, and I also love books set in New York, especially the 1970s. And Hallberg does a great job of recreating that dark time, particularly impressive because he wasn't even alive then. He totally gets that shadowy decade, and what it meant to be young then -- the combination of electricity and optimism and scary end-days futility.
But the book has more than enough -- too much, in fact -- of everything. Too many characters, too much plot, too many story lines. It goes from being plenty to being too much somewhere around page 500, and when a new character gets introduced around page 700, I felt kind of like I felt after Thanksgiving dinner -- this is all really good but there's way too much of it.
The book centers around a mystery and unfortunately, the solution to the mystery lands incidentally, like a big who-cares, since there's been way too much information to absorb along the way. Most of the characters are well developed, although, like Dickens, to whom Hallberg has inevitably been compared, there's much more invested in plot than character. There is little warmth -- in the characters, the settings, the stories -- and absolutely no humor. This is a SERIOUS book. He's a skilled writer, perhaps a brilliant writer, but if I don't care -- if I can't wait to pick it up again and instead pick up a three-months-old issue of Vanity Fair -- then there's something very wrong, and 900 pages becomes a long, slow slog.
His writing is wonderful, but with better editing this could have been a better book. I have nothing against bigger and longer (Middlemarch, A Suitable Boy, and The Goldfinch are three of my all-time faves), but at 500 pages this would have been a work of genius instead of a 900-page near miss.