“You Can Imagine The Details For Yourself”: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”

Ottessa Moshfegh is one of those debut novelists whose first book in fact comes freighted with expectation. Beloved of The Paris Review, recipient of several awards, and, despite her much-heralded absence from social media, something already of a “personality” in literary circles, Moshfegh’s appearance on the 2016 Booker shortlist is not the surprise triumph of a rank outsider that it first appears to be.

That Eileen impresses despite all this is testament to the quality of its craft. Set in 1964 New England, and focusing on the eponymous protagonist during the week leading up to the Christmas of that year, the novel has all the claustrophobic intimacy of the short story – the form’s tart phrase-making, its taste for vivid imagery – and yet is expertly paced and packaged as a novel. Moshfegh leaps and bounds, then, over the hurdle which usually does for short story writers tackling their first novel-length project. This books works thoroughly as a novel, is a total formal success: it is both a compelling page-turner and an expansive conjuration of interiority.

Which brings us to character. Eileen has little time for any individuals beyond its titular anti-heroine – even the novel’s change-maker, the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca Saint John, is given a cliched, noir-ish treatment which renders her inaccessible as an individual. We experience her, and every other character – from Eileen’s alcoholic father to Randy, her oblivious crush at the young offendor’s institute where she works – through the filter of the narrator’s consciousness. It is a function of the extent to which Moshfegh conjures Eileen in her entirety that it therefore becomes almost impossible to read the other characters any more deeply than Eileen herself does.

This might be a flaw in another novel, but Eileen is ultimately a book about understanding and comprehension. Eileen is profoundly estranged from her own body. She abuses laxatives, is revolted by her own sexuality, and eats only compulsively (“I went in and bought a Boston cream, ate it in one gulp, as I was wont to do, and walked out immediately remorseful” [p. 56]). When she reflects at one point that “a friend is someone who helps you hide the body” [p. 97], she is not just teasing, as she does throughout, the crime she warns us from the off to expect. As a child, Eileen experienced no love from her parents – in one of the most memorable of the novel’s many flashbacks, Eileen recalls “a yellow rectangle of light” turning to blackness as her mother closed the door to the dangerously steep cellar stairs down which her daughter had just, unforgivably, fallen (p. 66). Her mother long dead and still stuck in her childhood home at 24, Eileen’s house-bound, raging father continues to abuse her and their relationship: “The worst crime I could commit in his eyes was to do anything for my own pleasure, anything outside of my daughter lay duties” (p. 158). There are intimations, too, of incest.

This twisted upbringing, which forms the sum total of her experience, has left Eileen unable, too, to understand others. She is filled with frustrated rage, is herself an alcoholic, and hates everyone and everything as the novel opens, imagining herself as a Joan of Arc accidentally born into the life of a nobody. “I was the only one whose pain was real,” she insists at one point (p. 118). She is thus unlikeable in almost every way, up to and including abusing others in her turn: in one darkly comic moment, her father drunkenly complains to the police that his daughter hides all his shoes from him to prevent him leaving the house; they discard his report as the ramblings of a crazy old man, but in fact his shoes are indeed locked permanently in the trunk of Eileen’s car. It is one of the novel’s quietly radical statements to render a female character so repellent: we are used, perhaps, to Holden Cauldfield and Patrick Bateman, both of whom Eileen resembles to one extent or another, but less so to Esther Greenwood; Eileen is a reminder that The Bell Jar was written fifty-three years ago (and published the year before the one in which Eileen is set) … and that we still haven’t got over the very expectations which so trap Eileen and the turnings of blind eyes which facilitate the abuse that has bent her so fully out of shape. “There are no prizes for good little girls,” she reminds us at several junctures (p. 73).

Eileen objectifies the men and women in her life, has no sympathy for the brutalised boys resident at her place of work, and even when apparently enraptured by someone can develop no empathy for or connection with them. That almost everyone else in the novel is similarly attenuated gives the novel a terrible bleakness that its narrative frame, set at a half-century’s remove from the main events and told from the point of a view of a much older Eileen, cannot entirely dispel. “It’s hard to imagine that this girl, so false, so irritable, so used, was me,” this older Eileen opines; but her references to repeated marriages, numerous empty flings, and her apparent continued lack of understanding of many of the drivers of her story’s plot, provide little redemptive material for the attentive reader.

In fact, at times I read Eileen as I do America Psycho: as the essentially deluded outpourings of a narrator so unreliable as to make them an outright liar. Indeed, the over-riding tone of the novel and its climactic events seem so generically and stylistically divorced that we seem positively encouraged towards this reading. Stylistically, the novel throughout is Eileen’s work rather than Moshfegh’s – though sentences and paragraphs are turned expertly, often diction and turn of phrase are naive (“It was 1964, so much on the horizon” [p. 17]) – but those scenes in which the crime at the novel’s centre and climax is revealed and explained seem in some ways to belong to a different, less interesting and conflicted, book. There’s nothing explicit in the novel that confirms Eileen as a novel of this sort; but there is a generic slippage, from literary to noir to gothic and back again, that doesn’t quite have the proper intonation. The rest of the novel is so well-crafted that it is hard to write this off as poor writing; it is surely a feature, not a bug.

All that said, and for all its scatological content and bold approach to gender and issues of abuse, Eileen also feels curiously old-fashioned. Its 1960s setting renders it a little safely distant, and its relatively straight-forward first-person voice adds few wrinkles to the usual template of the unreliable, unlikeable narrator. It is part of its success, perhaps, that the novel reads like a period piece – like Patricia Highsmith for the Vice generation. That it reads already like a rediscovered classic is one of the reasons, I am sure, it has been shortlisted for the Booker – and a very good reason, I suspect, why it should be considered a favourite. But the canonical air belies the novel’s decidedly more violent, and more vituperative, heart. Eileen is a novel that persuades us to gulp down an awful lot of nasty stuff, and experience it as a pleasure; its familiarity may be part of its spell. But familiar it sometimes feels regardless.

Quis Corbyniet Ipsos Corbynes?

corbynsmith

It has taken me months – more or less fully the close-to-a-year that he has been leader of the Labour Party – to find the courage to write about Jeremy Corbyn. Undoubtedly, courage is what is required – never in my lifetime has Labour politics in particular, but British politics in general, been so querulous and febrile. That our politics requires courage is not, I think, a bad thing – for decades it has been more often characterised if not by cowardice then a queasy caution. Even Thatcherism, lionised by some and despised by others for its hatchet-job temerity, strikes me as a form of capitulation – to American hegemony or global capital or simply compensatory managerialism. It is this technocratic approach which is most despised by those flocking to Corbyn’s banner. That it requires courage now to be political speaks of a moment in which we might actually be doing something.

But doing what? Part of the courage we now require is simply in predicting events – the kaleidoscope is over-shaken. What next depends, of course, upon whom you ask. For my part, I haven’t shifted on the subject of Corbyn from initial scepticism: for all the rapture which welcomed his original leadership campaign – the huge turn-outs, the excited spike in membership, the unassailable mandate – it never seemed to me that what Corbyn was saying was terribly interesting in anything other than its distinctiveness from the barren pronouncements of his opponents. “If the best the left can do is go back to the planned economy, we are screwed,” I texted a friend last July, who seemed surprised I wasn’t embracing Corbynism’s first flush with enthusiasm. Corbyn is a Bennite; for many this is his selling-point. For me it is the best expression there might be of the wider malaise of the left. Corbynism badly needs a Jeremy Corbyn figure to shake it up and put it on a righteous, radical path.

But Owen Smith has matched Corbyn policy-by-policy (except on keeping Trident and inviting ISIS to tea) – and why vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket when you can vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket that really means it? Where are the bright ideas from Corbyn’s leadership – even bright ideas, like those of Paul Mason, which seem doomed to remain in the middle chapters of lesser-read Charlie Stross novels? Why has he failed to do anything more with his ascent to the apex of his party than continue to advocate for his ascent to the apex of his party?

Because, Corbynistas will retort, he has been given no room to express an agenda, and no space to relax into the role. That is, the ‘Labour right’ has prevented anything but an immediate bunkerisation of the Corbyn project. I no longer know what is meant by the ‘Labour right’ – the old right of John Spellar or the “Blairism” of the King over the water, David Miliband? Or perhaps what was once the soft leftism of Angela Eagle, or the plain-speaking bullishness of Margaret Hodge. The ‘right’ has morphed into a bogeyman, a label with which to tar and defang Corbynism’s opponents. The breakdown of meaningful dialogue between heterodox political positions characterises our new hard-knock politics more than any other phenomenon: Brexiters and Remainers, one half seemingly hardly knowing a member of the other; Cameroons and Mayites, unable to serve in the same Cabinet even when the transition period between the two regimes is wafer thin; the one per cent and the ninety-nine; the Scots and the English.

But Corbyn’s heart is in the right place – Corbyn wants to stop all this. His is a kinder, gentler politics. He means well. With much of this it is hard to disagree, since his has been a career defined by stubborn advocacy for the under-dog; but my issue is that I have never been sufficiently tribal to believe that at least a fair number of Tories, too, also bleed if we prick them. What matters is not intention but plans of action; we all want that which we define as “best”. But what is that? And how will you achieve it? Robert Halfon wants to tackle poverty, just like Jeremy Corbyn. I know how he proposes to do so, and disagree; Jeremy shrouds his strategy in good intentions.

Perhaps all of this is due to the failure of communications ably identified by (for it is he) Owen Jones. But the dispassionate observer might instead conclude that the principal project of Corbynism is not to craft a platform for government but to build a means of achieving creative destruction within the Labour Party. From the forming of a social movement to the application of extra-parliamentary pressure on legislators, the Corbyn project is so inchoately anti-establishment that it can attract even anarchists like Alan Moore as fellow travellers. This is yet another sign of the abject collapse of the social democratic left. This moribundity can be observed across Europe and beyond; but its ubiquity offers no defence. The lack of a compelling narrative from Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper in 2015; the ham-fisted incompetence of the so-called coup against Corbyn; and Ed Balls’s abject appearances on Strictly Come fucking Dancing are all symptoms of this malaise. But no consequence of social democracy’s senescence is as eloquent as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, the malaise may well require the sort of revolution Corbynistas hanker for. If Owen Smith is the solution being sold, surely everyone must go to another store. The issue is, however, that the Corbynmania whipped up by the Socialist Campaign Group in order to win last year’s election serves to occlude any policy platform they might now wish to develop: in this excellent piece (the most balanced I have read), the LRB’s Tom Crewe writes that “the failure to separate Jeremy Corbyn from the project of a revived left … obscures (and by extension denies) the existence of legitimate concerns about his leadership.” That is, while you’re busy sharing all those stories from the Canary about how the attacks on Corbyn are all one big conspiracy, you are failing to take the log from your eye. Where are the propitious signs which do not rely on blind faith that Corbynism can, in Moore’s words, “struggle towards a future that we and all of the people who came before us could breathe in”?

I worry. How devastating that UKIP’s Douglas Carswell often seems to express the world-historical underpinnings of our particular moment better than John McDonnell. How fractured a left that cannot occupy or express any truly radical position until it has destroyed itself.

Owen Smith is not the answer to all this, of course. But is Corbyn-as-Moses any more a solution? Who could salvage from Corbynism’s under-whelming performance the trailblazing transformation that was promised? Might Jeremy lead his people to the promised land but never enter it, leaving the storming of the land of milk and honey to McDonnell or Clive Lewis? In the face of a possible early election, an uncooperative parliamentary party, an unprecedented period of constitutional flux and an at-best nascent movement outside Parliament, this seems a slim possibility. It might be made more likely by a war of slow attrition inside the Labour Party – the only body in Britain today, by the way, even faintly capable of mounting a proper opposition to Conservatism. Should Corbyn win on Wednesday, there is little doubt that his allies will recommence with renewed energy exactly that project. But while they are helping themselves, who is helping the people in whose name they are recreating their party? How many years will it take to reach the promised land, and how many of us will fall down during the long trudge through the desert?

The Labour party is Corbynism’s cocoon, and it is struggling to make its way out. What it will look like if it ever does manage to emerge is uncertain – as is why anyone, as a consequence, might feel at all qualified to vote in the party’s current leadership contest with anything but trepidation.

Higher Education: Deeper Than Data

The data-driven nature of the regulation, representation and marketing of Higher Education in the UK and beyond is a well documented phenomenon, about which many of us currently working in the sector often lament.  Higher education seems to have become driven by statistics, ratings and rankings – the National Student Survey (NSS) results, for example, were out this week, and have seen universities and departments take to their Twitter streams to extol their respective virtues.  We already know about the various league tables, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is explicitly linked to the results of the NSS, and so on.  There aren’t really many arguments I can relay here that are not already well-known and discussed, whether online, on social media, in the press and behind closed doors within university departments themselves.

But one thing in particular got me thinking this week.  The UCU began sharing a web link, which enables anyone to type in the name of a university, and their vague relationship to that institution (past student, future student, concerned parent…) to find out some basic employment-related data.  The online tool then reveals the percentage of temporary teaching contracts within that university and male-to-female average earnings (which, invariably, reveals that HE uses a lot of temporary contracts and that the gender pay gap is still dire in HE).  This got me thinking, as, yes, clearly it’s very important for such information to be made public, for average earnings and the security of staff contracts to be public knowledge, for universities to be accountable, and especially welcome is the notion that parents and potential students should be aware of how staff are treated within various institutions.  Indeed, however shiny a prospectus may seem, and however well a particular course is marketed, the academics teaching it are more than a significant factor in how a student may experience their university life.

But, is there not a case to be made regarding the use of bald statistics alone?  They can give us indicators – how happy students were on a particular course, how quickly coursework was returned, how much women are paid when compared to men.  Yet, for a sector which is so driven by culture, cultures within universities and departments, work cultures, learning cultures – reflection upon and creation of culture – should we not look more deeply?  Cultures vary between universities and departments, and in themselves they create different sets of expectations within their own communities, which may, ultimately, lead students to answer questions in different ways.  Universities which have, seemingly, according to this basic data, higher levels of permanent staff contracts may be hiding other things.  How secure do ‘permanent’ staff feel?  Is a low level of temporary staff necessarily a good thing in a sector in which staff need to take research leave?  And although I would be the last person to in any way justify any kind of gender pay gap (pay should be equal and opportunities so much more readily and equally open to female academics) but the statistics can only give us rough indicators of a culture.  What is daily life like in university departments?  How are women treated (and colleagues more widely), encouraged and supported?  What roles are they given on a day-to-day basis?  And to come back to that idea of culture – what is the working culture like?

Having worked in and for various universities throughout my career, I can attest to the different nature of cultures – and I am lucky enough to find myself currently working in an institution which seems to me to be at the healthier end of the spectrum.  In a sector driven so wildly by average scores, data and competition, however, it is easy for the academics to find themselves on the harsh edge of an institution which sees itself as marketing a product, rather than providing transformative education and inspiring genuine cultural change.  When that happens, when competition for students and funding is fierce, when staffing is low, and redundancies likely – what is it like to work in those institutions?  What kinds of culture are young people, embarking on their degree study, really entering?  If it’s one of exploitation, bullying and workplace violence, what will the HE sector really teach our young people?  If academic staff members are treated as merely marketable and disposable resources, what will we be able to pass on to younger students about their own rights and inherent value in the workplace?  How will we influence their expectations, and then how will they answer the questions which inform the very data which is now driving our HE sector?  I have no answers to these questions – just a wish for us to scrape beneath the surface, to think about the cultural and social value of our universities, and to look to protect those cultures, for universities to be fully accountable for those cultures – and to consider more than the basic marketability of staff and degrees – for the good of all who work and study in them.

June 16th, 2016

I have for the last few days been ruminating on a blog post about the UK’s current referendum on EU membership, and the horrifyingly destructive standard of its associated debate; about our creaking political system and its readily apparent failure to create a sphere in which meaningful, representative and rational conversations can be had. And then a Member of Parliament was murdered in the street.

That this unspeakably shocking event somehow does not, however, come as a surprise is testament to the parlous state of our national public discourse – and rather overtakes, for now, any other concerns.

We have allowed venom and spite to infect and pervert the ways in which we speak to each other about ideas and people. This has been happening for some time, on both left and right, and it is born of frustration, fear and, in some cases, brute strategy. It is a pyrrhic and paranoid form of politics which necessarily leads to nullity.

The EU Referendum is not the cause of this situation; it has, though, become its clearest expression. Both sides – all sides – are guilty of pandering to the paucity of the age; both sides – all sides – must pull back and remember that, though we may disagree, we must not doubt the sincerity of the other’s convictions.

Nevertheless, convictions, like assassinations and like rhetoric, are political acts – and acts can be evil. It is the responsibility of each of us to fight not those with whom we disagree (that is what debate is for), but the sorts of political act which do damage to our shared polity, our increasingly fragile community.

Remain in the EU or leave it; adhere to Corbynism or to Cameroonery. Do whatever you must, but principles are only worth fighting for insofar as they contribute to a climate in which we as individuals might all live peaceably.

Let us all measure our aims and our methods by their capacity also to achieve these wider goals. Let’s aim for mutual respect, not endemic suspicion; for informed scepticism, not knee-jerk cynicism. Jo Cox’s husband has written a dignified, open-hearted statement in which he urges us all to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. Which of us would object to that? So let’s begin.

“Only One Sexist Comment”

kuenssbergOkay, so yes, Laura Kuenssberg is exhibiting political bias.  That’s one problem for and about the BBC for sure.  But, so are many journalists. When Nick Robinson was attacked by Scottish Nationalists for his Indyref reporting, there were several petitions which didn’t attract many signatures.  One on change.org gained 19,000, although it didn’t reach its target, compared to the speedily reached 35,000 on the now removed 38 Degrees petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg’s sacking.  And the Robinson petition asked for his suspension, not for him to lose his job and whole career. Go figure.

The question is, what is the appropriate level of response to this bias? And it is not insignificant that we’re having this conversation about the BBCs first female political editor.

This morning, blogs and news sources are sharing this link to the comments on the removed petition – stating that only one comment was sexist, and therefore it shouldn’t have been taken down.

Aside from the more extreme defamatory language used about Kuenssberg, especially on Twitter,  a quick skim of these comments (I haven’t included all of them) reveals more than one sexist, gender biased statement, such as:

‘She almost spits and gurns whilst attacking them. She was at it again last night!’

‘She is entirely bias towards the Tory Party, Cameron in particular I think they may have had or are having a thing. There is definitely something there’

‘The bias this woman shows on repeat is repugnant.’

‘Laura is not a political commentator. But she can be a very good gossip columnist’

‘this woman is an insult to the general populace’s intelligence and spouts utter drivel.’

‘She sucks badly’

‘The woman is an utter disgrace’

‘She’s a Jewish extremist.’ (Oh, so a bit of anti-semitism in there too.)

‘She’s a Scottish cow who should keep her name out of UK politics.’

‘mad woman’

‘Like a whippet curled up in the lap of George Osborne. He feeds her a Corbyn bone and she gnaws at it savagely.’

‘She is a self centred witch’

‘daddy donates to red tories..’

‘Look at that mouth. It matches the rhetoric.’

‘VILE EVIL COLLABORATOR WITCH!!!’

‘she’s rubbish – bring back Nick Robinson’ (Who also has a politically biased opinion … but is safely male?)

‘If she were an ex-, you’d have taken out a restraining order – her Twitter feed reads like a stalker obsessed with Corbyn.’

So only one sexist comment, then?

We should have a zero tolerance approach to any form of sexist language. Here we have the continual reference to ‘this woman’ (would you say ‘this man’?), the comments on her physical appearance, her father, clear sexual innuendo and the old favourite, comparing her to a witch (witch-hunt anyone?). It’s the same effect as calling girls and women ‘bossy’.  The language is based in negative gender assumptions, and it creates a negative discourse.

It’s a very significant issue that we think we can talk about women in this way (and defend others talking about women in this way).  Arguably, this is actually a bigger, more destructive and socially ingrained problem than one person’s reporting of one politician.  Because if we let this way of speaking continue, about any woman, whatever her perspective, it harms all women, for a long time, and shapes the language we use about women in all contexts.  Check yourself!  And the language you use and support.

In Memoriam: Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Whenever I heard someone ask Paul Murphy, the Birmingham-based and Belfast-born songwriter and storyteller whose death has sadly been announced today, what he did beyond music, he would respond simply: “I’m an educator.”

This answer was typical of Paul’s thoughtful and humane approach to every experience, concept and individual. He had an unerringly generous eye for the human condition, and understood that everyone is special in a way particular to them – that everyone has a story and a value. He was eternally curious about people and ideas, and implacably committed to social justice. Most importantly, he made this into art of quite remarkable emotional scope and reach: in his songs he was able to make an audience laugh and cry within the space of a verse.

Indeed, to see Paul perform was to become part of a community, however temporary. This is what he did – he connected. Though he received much deserved exposure for his role as frontman of The Destroyers, there was something alchemical in the intimacy of his solo work. Paul was able to hold an audience, but would never manipulate one: he was always in dialogue with people, exchanging ideas and emotions with them.

Anna, whose thoughts inform this piece as much as mine, has also written some words about Paul on Facebook which I think really capture something  important about the man, and I’d like to share them here:

I’m so saddened to hear of the loss of dear Paul Murphy. Such a beautiful man, with the most generous and open hearted spirit. He cared about people and he cared about the world, and making people and the world better. It was impossible to feel alone or forgotten in his company. He will be greatly missed. Bless you Paul, I’m so glad to have known you xxx

When Anna says that it was impossible to feel alone with Paul, she nails exactly his special gift not so much for making people feel special, which sounds confected, but for helping them appreciate their own value, for nurturing and encouraging them. This is why his death has prompted such an outpouring amongst all who knew him: the word ‘inspiration’ is included in almost every tribute because Paul was inexhaustably engaged in understanding people; for him everything and everyone was fascinating and worthy of closer inspection – and in that space of learning would be the key to unlocking both their and his further potential. This is a rare gift which he gave again and again to his audiences, to Birmingham’s musical community, and, to go by their remarks about him online today, to his students. It seems impossible that we can repay such bottomless generosity.

Except that, perhaps, we can – by taking him as a role model. One of the last conversations I ever had with Paul was about labour rights and immigration, and the injustice of blaming those newest to our land for its ills and wage deflation; Paul was sharing issues of political importance on social media until the very end; his Songwriter’s Cafe project provided a glorious and crucial platform for emerging and established talents alike to practice their craft. We can all be more open-hearted and more capacious in our sympathies, more creative and more curious; we can all take from the important sadness we feel for his passing a resolution that at least a portion of what he offered us will continue through us.

Anna and I would not claim to have known Paul as well as some; we spent memorable evenings with him, enjoyed parties in his company. Given how saddened we are by his passing – and we have both cried today – we can only imagine the grief of his family and closest friends. We are a small part of a much broader and deeper community of loss, which has been brought together by love and respect for this astonishing, incisive, humble man.

Knowing you, Paul, was a privilege and an education. May we all learn and grow always, as you inspired us to do.

“People Don’t Change”: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little LifeI’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.

This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.

Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.

The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:

In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.

That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.

The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).

I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).

The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563]  It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688]  That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.

That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.

But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.