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Ian R Macleod

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


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A novel about the progress over the decades of four New York friends doesn't sound a particularly fresh concept, and I must confess that it took me a while to be won over by A Little Life. Yanagihara makes no particular effort to draw the reader in, and the starting scenes involving finding and moving into a very small apartment (again, hardly radical for a New York novel) are functional, but little more. I suppose when I'm entering what is, at least in terms of scale, a Big American Novel, I was expecting more vividness, more conflict, snappier dialogue and, frankly, better writing. Characters don't just "say" in the dialogue far of A Little Life often than they need to, but they "ask" and "respond" — often "patiently" or "swiftly" or "abruptly" as well. But I persisted, and I'm very grateful I did.

Several reviewers have mentioned the patient, pointillistic, miniaturistic nature of Yanagihara's approach, and I think that, as a reader brought up on far showier American writers, one of the gifts this exceptionally ambitious and generous novel gave me was to reset my frankly rather superficial expectations. In many ways, this is a gentle book, and the four main male characters and their satellites spend most of their time treating each other with consideration and kindness. You could say that, at least at one level, it's a celebration of friendship. But there's another level to this book which, frankly (and impressively) makes parts of A Little Life about as difficult to read as American Psycho, or some of the harsher passages in Stephen King.

Jude St Francis, the main protagonist (the first name chosen, I imagine, both because of the betraying apostle and the Hardy novel) has suffered a horrendous upbringing – the details of which slowly emerge as a counterpoint to his (and his friends') struggles to make sense of who he really is. But the elephant in the room, the tiger in the toilet, the blade in the washbag of A Little Life is self-harm. Like any form of destructive addiction, it's a subject which can be frustrating — you simply want the character (or the real person, for that matter) to get a grip and move on, but A Little Life drags you so deep into Jude's world that you end up feeling as if, horrible though his experience is, you almost understand why he acts as he does. That, and despite the book's length (and it really is long, not only in terms of page count, but number of words on each of them) you enjoy the company of the characters, and their frustrations and progressions too much to want them to leave.

In some ways, A Little Life slips under the radar of a lot of what counts to me as "good fiction". It's not particularly atmospheric (at least, in any traditional sense), the style is rather flat, and New York, although clearly there as the main background of the novel, never really comes to life. Although the book includes punk bands, mobile phones, performance art, the New York gay scene and the like as it progresses across the decades, I was often left feeling that it could almost have been set in any city, in any century. But, of course, that level of universality and clarity of prose is also a considerable achievement.

I guess everything I've described about A Little Life amounts to a series of pre-conceived "faults" that actually end up as strengths, but of course no work of this breadth, scale and ambition (and is really is a Great American Novel) can get it all right. My main beef with this work is the way all four main characters succeed so spectacularly in their careers. Of course, they're all clever, and charming, and good-looking, and driven, and very good at what they do. I can buy that; fiction is supposed to project a kind of hyper-reality. But four friends all reaching the very top of their fields? That feels to me more of a distraction than a reflection of any kind of real world. Then there's Jude's upbringing, and the problem of evil... But, as Hardy himself said, a novel is an impression not an argument, and the impression A Little Life leaves goes very deep. It's one of the best, and most thought-provoking, books I've read in a long while. Oh, and watch out for the "other" cover. I can think of a few great albums I did't buy over the years because of the cover (Television's Marquee Moon for starters) and this the literary equivalent.

 
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House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

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I’m embarrassed to have come to this book a decade and a half late, when it represents so much of what I admire in fiction. It’s smart, streetwise, full of ideas, and cares about its characters, but it also actually tells a compelling story — or several stories. You might also call it experimental, but, if so, the experiment succeeds. It’s not the Borgesian twists, or the wild footnotes, or the concrete text, or the bouts of meta-critical self-referencing that make House of Leaves so impressive. All of these have been done before, but rarely if ever have they all been carried through with such mad verve, or has form matched function so well. As you fall through the narrative layers of a guy who works in a Los Angels tattoo parlour finding an obsessional book written about an even more obsessional video about exploring the endless reaches of a M C Escher-type house in Virginia, the twisted logic soon becomes compelling.

Of course, haunted house tales have always offered writers the opportunity to deal with far more than shadows and monsters. Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger — equally impressive in its own quite way — is a fairly recent example. Then there’s Stephen King’s The Shining,  which is as much about the horror of family breakdowns as it is about ghosts, and his and Straub’s The Black House, of which, for all its ambition, the least said the better. But the only writer I can think of who’s tried to embrace quite both logic and insanity as wholeheartedly as Danielewski within this kind of framework is William Hope Hodgson in The House on the Borderland, and that was wayback in the Edwardian era. As the different tones, voices and cross-references collide and break apart in House of Leaves, and the dead-ends loom and slide away again, it certainly makes for a wild ride, but the core narrative of an exploration of the dark halls, corridors and stairways of an ever-expanding house is so strong that it pretty much bears everything else along with it.

 
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doggett2There's a Riot Going On by Peter Doggett

I’m going to miss HMV. Not so much for the music — they rarely seem to have anything in that I’d be remotely interested in buying — but for their eclectic selection of cult books. Without them, I’d never have come across the funny but sad tale of Nico’s last tours, Songs They Never Play On The Radio. Or this. A fat old book for a fat old subject: the links between music and the revolutionary/counter culture of the late 1960s. In a way, I thought I knew this story, but in many ways, I realised I didn’t. Sure, I can just about remember the Vietnam War, the Kent University shootings, and the Yippees and the Weathermen, and Black Power, and the early feminist demonstrations at the Miss World contest (this last being something I was actually witness to, at least televisually). Not to mention John Lennon’s sloganeering singles, and of course Dylan’s protest songs. But I was too young to get it, and by the time I was possibly old enough to do so, there was little left to get.

Doggett does a really good job at pulling together the strands, and never lets a good, funny or simply mad anecdote go by without telling it. To be honest, the whole movement for change — if it was ever even that — in the USA and the UK which he chronicles always seems to be in far too much of a mess to ever achieve anything. Yet, at the same time, people on all sides were dying in Vietnam in ridiculous numbers, black people and women were treated as second class citizens, and the men (and it was men) who held the reins of power were old-fashionedly cynical, with little regard for other than their own self-advancement. In a way, of course, nothing much has changed, especially if one looks at the world as a whole, but at least this book talks about a time when some young people in the world’s most privileged countries were prepared to attempt to take a serious stand.

I wouldn’t say that many books change my view about things (I’m probably too old now anyway) but this one did. The early Lennon solo stuff, for example, not to mention Dylan’s work, and Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe McDonald and The Grateful Dead, all came a tad too early for me to absorb as much other than “music”, and by the time I was able to see it as something else, the spirit which had spawned it was mostly dead. So, if Lennon’s singles seemed simplistic to me, and Dylan couldn’t sing, and the Dead were meandering, and the Airplane had changed into the FM-friendly Starship, they all became easy to dismiss. For me, music was always just about music, and the stuff I came to like always was and probably always will be art for art’s sake. One thing this book does make very clear, though, is that art that’s created for any other purpose never works. But at the same time, the friction between this impossibility and the desire to write great music at all did produce some fabulous stuff. And, even if you weren’t there — or were there and can’t remember it — the context of what was going down and the righteous anger many people felt is something that needs to be understood, as much as an understanding of, say, Beethoven’s music requires some sense of the broader sweep of the Romantic Movement.

Lennon comes across as naïve, and, initially as stupid as well. But he does at least give it a go, even if he ended up even more disillusioned and selfish than he was before. Dylan, who wrote some of the most overtly political songs of the century, comes across as someone who realises from the start that the divide between good music and honourable politics simply can’t be bridged, and then resolves to remain as obliquely above it all as he can. Then, there’s Mick Jagger, who’s basically reduced in this book to the role of self-serving clown, putting on frocks and mock-cockney or mock-bluesy accents to sing of stuff he doesn’t understand before heading off to tax exile in the south of France. But there’s the rub, for the songs the Stones produced in this era are undoubtedly their greatest, and do, in their cocky urgency and aura of sex and danger, somehow reflect the times better than anything else. Sadly, no one will probably care that much about Vietnam or even the Black Panthers in a hundred years time. But they’ll still be listening to Street Fighting Man.

 

 
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islanders roughThe Islanders by Christopher Priest

 My admiration for Chris Priest goes back almost as far as my enthusiasm for good fiction. He’s there on the still fairly short list of writers who made me think “I want to do that”, and this book reminds me of why. I have to say that news that he’d written a new novel set in the Dream Archipelago didn’t immediately ignite my enthusiasm. Not that I didn’t enjoy The Affirmation, his earlier novel set in this world, but he’s the kind of writer who I associate with fresh fields and experiment, rather than re-visits to the scenes of past successes. But, as you slowly enter the hall of mirrors and echoes that The Islanders creates, you begin to see that that, in its way, is part of the point. Rather than a sequel or follow-on, it might be better to think of Priest’s Dream Archipelago as akin to Hardy’s Wessex. Or, for that matter, Dickens’ London. It’s a space he can expand to suit his needs, whilst keeping hold of an essential — I suppose you might call it Priestliness. His voice is quiet, detached, sometimes almost wilfully plain. The descriptive flourishes are few, and thus stand out all the more, and a lot of the emotional clout of what is, in some ways, a fairly unemotional book, comes from this detachment. The narratives which make up this alphabetically arranged gazetteer of islands swirl, then softly interlock. Priest, or his book, is a god, distantly arranging and rearranging the people on his islands into strange, resonant states that we slowly pick up on as the gazetteer evolves. He’s a master of the unfolding surprise, the slow shift of perception, the quiet landmine beneath the surface of the page, and I think that this is possibly his most characteristic and successful work.

 

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