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Book Nook - 27-06-2016

Monday, June 27, 2016
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

THE friendships depicted in Hanya Yanagihara’s a award-winning, much feted novel A Little Life, seem almost fairytale-like. Can ordinary people love so unconditionally? Can real-life friendships be so selfless and pure?

In the book, four young roommates in college form a bond that lasts all their lives. The writer covers their journey from childhood to adulthood that includes  remarkably successful careers. They are all very different in background and temperament, but something binds them tightly to each other.

Willem Ragnarsson, is the son of a Wyoming ranch hand, who works as a waiter in a posh restaurant while he waits to become an actor and soon attains stardom; Malcolm Irvine, the mixed race son of a wealthy family, becomes a celebrated architect; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, is the son of Haitian immigrants, and after a few low-end jobs becomes a famous painter. However, the fulcrum around whom these lives revolve is Jude St. Francis, a lawyer and mathematician, whose past is a secret even to his friends. But he seems physically and emotionally damaged and won’t confide even the smallest problem to anyone—and he has been buried under a mountain of them.

Gradually it is revealed that Jude was dumped on a garbage can by unknown parents, and grew up in a monastery, because nobody else would have him. As the lives of the friends unfold—parties, romances, holidays, squabbles, career paths— Yanagihara uncovers layer by layer of Jude’s past—and it is horrific. The reader can only guess at the abuse he suffered at the monastery, but the real reasons for his physical and mental troubles comes much later, and the reader can only wonder at what inner reserves of strength Jude might have deployed to survive.

He is lucky in the way how people he meets after his monstrous childhood and adolescence give him nothing but love and care—particularly Willem, his doctor Andy, the couple Harold and Julie who adopt his as their son, and many other buddies and colleagues who gather together to pull him out of every crisis— and the thick novel (800 odd pages)— is indulgent in creating fresh traumas for Jude. So damaged is he, that he can only face hismental demons by cutting himself and hurting his body even more.

Yanagihara covers almost half a century but curiously keeps the narrative within the circle—never letting the outside in; no time markers, for instance, or indicators of what is happening in the world around them.

As Jude suffering increases, as well as the disruptions in his friends’ lives, the novel abandons its optimistic tone and plunges into darkness, cruelty, and unbearable despair, that even overwhelming love cannot quite obliterate.

The first real indication of Jude state of mind comes when he wakes his flatmate Willem, saying, “There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry.” Jude arm is wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. He refuses to go to a hospital, asking to be taken to Andy instead. Willem with his natural reserve, has been detached from Jude’s emotional turmoil, and is shocked when Andy, after stitching up and bandaging Jude tells him, “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?”

Jude believes he is ugly, deformed and disgusting— though others describe him as handsome— for himself-mutilation is his escape route. Interspersed with his anguish are sections of amazing tenderness, humour, sparkling conversations; also demonstrations of love that are sometimes harder to bear than Jude’s pain, because of what the one who offers that love is willing to sacrifice.

That’s why, in spite of its gloomy undertones, some harrowing passages of sexual abuse, and overdose of hysterical melodrama, A Little Life is a profoundly optimistic and life-affirming book. And one that puts friendship on an impossibly high pedestal.

A Little Life
By Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Anchor
Pages: 832

Excerpt of A Little Life
MALCOLM was the only one of the four of them who lived at home, and as JB liked to say, if he had Malcolm’s home, he would live at home too. It wasn’t as if Malcolm’s house was particularly grand--it was, in fact, creaky and ill-kept, and Willem had once gotten a splinter simply by running his hand up its banister--but it was large: a real Upper East Side town house. Malcolm’s sister, Flora, who was three years older than him, had moved out of the basement apartment recently, and Jude had taken her place as a short-termsolution: Eventually, Malcolm’s parents would want to reclaim the unit to convert it into offices for his mother’s literary agency, which meant Jude (who was finding the flight of stairs that led down to it too difficult to navigate anyway) had to look for his own apartment.

And it was natural that he would live with Willem; they had been roommates throughout college. In their first year, the four of them had shared a space that consisted of a cinder-blocked common room, where sat their desks and chairs and a couch that JB’s aunts had driven up in a U-Haul, and a second, far tinier room, in which two sets of bunk beds had been placed. This roomhad been so narrowthatMalcolmand Jude, lying in the bottom bunks, could reach out and grab each other’s hands. Malcolm and JB had shared one of the units; Jude and Willemhad shared the other.

“It’s blacks versus whites,” JB would say.

“Jude’s not white,”Willemwould respond.

“And I’m not black,” Malcolm would add, more to annoy JB than because he believed it.

“Well,” JB said now, pulling the plate of mushrooms toward him with the tines of his fork, “I’d say you could both stay with me, but I think you’d fucking hate it.” JB lived in a massive, filthy loft in Little Italy, full of strange hallways that led to unused, oddly shaped cul-de-sacs and unfinished half rooms, the Sheetrock abandoned mid-construction, which belonged to another person they knew from college. Ezra was an artist, a bad one, but he didn’t need to be good because, as JB liked to remind them, he would never have to work in his entire life. And not only would he never have to work, but his children’s children’s children would never have to work: They could make bad, unsalable, worthless art for generations and they would still be able to buy at whim the best oils they wanted, and impractically large lofts in downtown Manhattan that they could trash with their bad architectural decisions, and when they got sick of the artist’s life--as JB was convinced Ezra someday would--all they would need to do is call their trust officers and be awarded an enormous lump sum of cash of an amount that the four of them (well, maybe not Malcolm) could never dream of seeing in their lifetimes. In the meantime, though, Ezra was a useful person to know, not only because he let JB and a few of his other friends from school stay in his apartment--at any time, there were four or five people burrowing in various corners of the loft--but because he was a good-natured and basically generous person, and liked to throw excessive parties in which copious amounts of food and drugs and alcohol were available for free. “Hold up,” JBsaid, putting his chopsticks down. “I just realized--there’s someone at the magazine renting some place for her aunt. Like, just on the verge of Chinatown.”

“Howmuch is it?” asked Willem.

“Probably nothing--she didn’t even know what to ask for it. And she wants someone in there that she knows.”

“Do you think you could put in a good word?”

“Better--I’ll introduce you. Can you come by the office tomorrow?”

Jude sighed. “I won’t be able to get away.”

He looked at Willem.

“Don’t worry--I can.What time?”

“Lunchtime, I guess. One?”

“I’ll be there.”

Willem was still hungry, but he let JB eat the rest of the mushrooms. Then they all waited around for a bit; sometimes Malcolm ordered jackfruit ice cream, the one consistently good thing on the menu, ate two bites, and then stopped, and he and JB would finish the rest. But this time he didn’t order the ice cream, and so they asked for the bill so they could study it and divide it to the dollar. The next day, Willem met JB at his office. JB worked as a receptionist at a small but influential magazine based in SoHo that covered the downtown art scene. This was a strategic job for him; his plan, as he’d explained to Willem one night, was that he’d try to befriend one of the editors there and then convince himto feature him in the magazine. He estimated this taking about six months, which meant he had three more to go.

JB wore a perpetual expression of mild disbelief while at his job, both that he should be working at all and that no one had yet thought to recognize his special genius. He was not a good receptionist. Although the phones rang more or less constantly, he rarely picked them up; when any of them wanted to get through to him (the cell phone reception in the building was inconsistent), they had to follow a special code of ringing twice, hanging up, and then ringing again. And even then he sometimes failed to answer--his hands were busy beneath his desk, combing and plaiting snarls of hair from a black plastic trash bag he kept at his feet.

JB was going through, as he put it, his hair phase. Recently he had decided to take a break from painting in favor of making sculptures from black hair. Each of them had spent an exhausting weekend following JB from barbershop to beauty shop in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, waiting outside as JB went in to ask the owners for any sweepings or cuttings they might have, and then lugging an increasingly awkward bag of hair down the street after him. His early pieces had included  The Mace, a tennis ball that he had de-fuzzed, sliced in half, and filled with sand before coating it in glue and rolling it around and around in a carpet of hair so that the bristles moved like seaweed underwater, and “The Kwotidien,” in which he covered various household items--a stapler; a spatula; a teacup--in pelts of hair. Now he was working on a large-scale project that he refused to discuss with them except in snatches, but it involved the combing out and braiding together of many pieces in order to make one apparently endless rope of frizzing black hair. The previous Friday he had lured them over with the promise of pizza and beer to help him braid, but after many hours of tedious work, it became clear that there was no pizza and beer forthcoming, and they had left, a little irritated but not terribly surprised.

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