Yesterday was a big day for books. More to the point, it was a big day for big books; on the same day Marlon James’ 700+ page A Brief History of Seven Killings was awarded the 2015 Man Booker prize, the most hyped debut novel of the year, Garth Risk Hallberg’s 944 page tome of New York in the 1970’s, City on Fire, hit shelves. Yesterday was a big big book day for me, as well: I finished the completely immersive, completely devastating A Little Life, the 736 page Man Booker finalist by Hanya Yanagihara.
There was some personal symmetry with me completing A Little Life on the same day City on Fire was released. They are two of my favorite novels of 2015 and, while hefty page counts and a New York setting are obvious points of comparison, they are both, at their hearts, books about memory. These points of comparison are, in truth, fascinating and instructive points of contrast that illustrate different ways authors can conjure the magic that only books can deliver.
A Central Park shooting of a teenager girl on New Year’s Eve 1976 is the inciting action that brings the 8-10 “main” characters of City on Fire together. Their lives are connected and intersect in Dickensian fashion and their various stories converge in the July 1977 city-wide blackout. City on Fire is about art, high finance, punk rock, outer borough suburban life, city union contracts, fireworks, anarchists, high society, Tom Wolfe-style “new journalism”, police procedure amidst budget cuts, etc. The scope is luxe, rich, focused. Hallberg switches points of view and moves back-and-forth through time effortlessly.
Hallberg paints with a hand as sure as any I recall. The audacity to take on this scope and ability to, by god, absolutely pull it off is remarkable. About 700 or so pages into the 924-page novel, it struck me what an incredible job of pacing he’d done. Nowhere dragged. No one storyline pulled the narrative down.
I’m not sure City of Fire is a Great American Novel (TM), but it is pretty great and it is so American. Hell, it’s America*: it’s the cry of the lone individual always a part of, grasping for, rebelling against, relying on and resenting in equal measure the systems and institutions that make us who we are.
* Predominantly a White America story, despite a prominent African American character and a major supporting Asian American character, City on Fire not a complete American story. This is hardly a knock: even a book this massive can’t capture the entire American story
I’m hesitant to write too much about what A Little Life is “about”. First, I just finished it and, frankly, I haven’t fully recovered. Second, I don’t want to unduly (mis)direct anyone’s reading of it. It is simplest and, hopefully, most accurate to say that A Little Life is about…life. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the power of memory.
A Little Life follows the lives–the personal and professional triumphs and failures, the joys and sorrows, the everything-in-between–of four college friends: Willem Ragnarsson, dreamboat, waiter/aspiring actor, orphan and only surviving member of a family Montana ranch hands; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, life of the party, utterly assured painter raised by a doting Haitian-American mother and aunt; Malcolm Irvine, architect, dreamer, self-doubting scion of the 2nd African American CFO of a major Wall Street financial house and white mother, an author; and Jude St. Francis, quiet, withdrawn math savant and legal whiz.
Yanagihara introduces us to these friends as college students at an unnamed prestigious New England university (read: Harvard) and follows them over 30 years. The story is told from each character’s point of view, though, as the novel progresses, one character’s story, by design, takes on more prominence and becomes the focus.
As I noted before, I hate to give too much more detail about A Little Life. It should be experienced. But it should also come with a warning label. This is so not a book for everyone.
A Little Life is an emotional dirty bomb. It is dark, so dark. It took me to emotional neighborhoods I’ve never seen from the highway, much less driven through…lingered in…taken up squatting in. On two separate occasions it caused me to spontaneously erupt in tears. Tears of grief. No book has taken such an emotional toll. Yanagihara could be tried for emotional war crimes.
This book is powerful. It rearranged my insides.
This book haunts me. I miss being able to rejoin these lives.
It’s amazing. It’s is not for everyone.
With their heft and weight and (somewhat) shared locales City on Fire and A Little Life stand in near-perfect symmetrical counterpoise to each other. Both will end up in my top 10 books of 2015, but they couldn’t be more different in how they achieve their effect.
In City on Fire, Hallberg utilizes memory (and nostalgia) for a specific time and place, recreating New York City in the 1970’s with precision and detail. You can see and hear and smell the City and its people. He so effectively paints an enormous picture with exacting detail, then uses this specific moment in time as an inflection point to tell us a larger story about who we, America, are today.
Yanagihara’s use of memory is masterfully impressionistic. As much as anything, A Little Life is about how memory constructs and gives us shape, how it enriches and inhibits. Her story structure itself mimics the vagaries and subjectiveness of an individual’s memory. Our memories are not temporally proportional within our personal narratives: one moment can shape our self-conception forever from which no number of opposing moments can undo. “Big” events can fall away, becoming a faded, fuzzy watermark on memory, while the seemingly insignificant day-to-day moments can be what we treasure most. We can be desperate to hold on to memories when we lose a loved one and even more desperate to banish memories that haunt us. We can’t control them. They come and go as they please and, at their worst, they control us.
While their methods and aims are different, both Hallberg’s and Yanagihara’s books succeed because of the specificity of the memories they vibrantly bring to life. Hallberg’s is wide and pointillist. Yanagihara’s is deep and all-consuming. Both have created wildly immersive experiences that are, in very different ways, unforgettable, and bring to mind one of my favorite quotes I’ve picked up along life’s way:
“You and I come forth as possibilities of essential nature, alone and independent as stars…The self is completely autonomous, yet exists only in resonance with all other selves.” (Robert Baker Aitken, Zen master and peace activist)
Or…”You are infinite. I see you. You are not alone.”