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Hanya’s Boys

The novelist tends to torture her gay male characters — but only so she can swoop in to save them.

Photo: Amanda Demme
Photo: Amanda Demme
Photo: Amanda Demme

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By the time you finish reading A Little Life, you will have spent a whole book waiting for a man to kill himself. The novel, the second from author Hanya Yanagihara, begins as a light chronicle of male friendship among four college graduates in New York City before narrowing its focus to Jude, a corporate litigator whose decades-long struggle to repress a childhood of unrelenting torments — he was raised by pedophiles in a monastery, kidnapped and prostituted in motels, molested by counselors at an orphanage, kidnapped again, tortured, raped, starved, and run over with a car — ends in his suicide.

An unlikely beach read with a gothic riptide, A Little Life became a massive best seller in 2015. Critics lavished praise on the book, with one declaring it the long-awaited “great gay novel” for its unsparing approach to Jude, who falls in love with his male best friend. (A rare pan in The New York Review of Books prompted an indignant letter from Yanagihara’s editor.) A Little Life would go on to win the Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize; it has since been adapted for the stage by the celebrated director Ivo van Hove, and last month, readers of the New York Times nominated it next to finalists like Beloved and 1984 for best book of the past 125 years.

But Yanagihara’s motivations remained mysterious. The author was born in Los Angeles to a third-generation Hawaiian Japanese father and a Seoul-born Korean mother; her father, a hematologist-oncologist, moved the family around the country for work. She has lived in Manhattan since her 20s, but her heart is in Tokyo and Hawaii. (She has called the last “the closest thing that Asian Americans have to Harlem.”) Her first novel, The People in the Trees, about a doctor who discovers immortality on an island paradise, was well but quietly received in 2013. That book featured homosexuality and pedophilia; not until A Little Life would these be revealed as consistent preoccupations. The People in the Trees took Yanagihara 18 years to write, off and on, during which time she worked as a publicist, book editor, and magazine writer. A Little Life, which she wrote while an editor at large at Condé Nast Traveler, took only 18 months.

How to explain this novel’s success? The critic Parul Sehgal recently suggested A Little Life as a prominent example of the “trauma plot” — fiction that uses a traumatic backstory as a shortcut to narrative. Indeed, it’s easy to see Jude as a “vivified DSM entry” perfectly crafted to appeal to “a world infatuated with victimhood.” But Jude hates words like abuse and disabled and refuses to see a therapist for most of the novel, while Yanagihara has skeptically compared talk therapy to “scooping out your brain and placing it into someone else’s cupped palms to prod at.” (Jude’s sickest torturer turns out to be a psychiatrist.) More compelling about A Little Life — and vexing and disturbing — is the author’s omnipresence in the novel, not just as the “perverse intelligence” behind Jude’s trauma, in the words of another critic, but as the possessive presence keeping him, against all odds, alive. A Little Life was rightly called a love story; what critics missed was that its author is one of the lovers.

This is Yanagihara’s principle: If true misery exists, then so might true love. That simple idea, childlike in its brutality, informs all her fiction. Indeed, the author appears unable, or unwilling, to conceive love outside of life support; without suffering, the inherent monstrosity of love — its greed, its destructiveness — cannot be justified. This notion is inchoate in The People in the Trees, which features several characters kept on the brink of death and ends with a rapist’s declaration of love. In A Little Life, it blossoms into the anguished figure of Jude and the saintlike circle of friends who adore him. In Yanagihara’s new novel, To Paradise, which tells three tales of people fleeing one broken utopia for another, the misery principle has become airborne, passing aerosol-like from person to person while retaining its essential purpose — to allow the author to insert herself as a sinister kind of caretaker, poisoning her characters in order to nurse them lovingly back to health.

Two years after A Little Life was published, Yanagihara joined T magazine, the New York Times’s monthly style insert, as editor. She has called the publication “a culture magazine masquerading as a fashion magazine” — though you’ll have to sift through many pages of luxury advertisements to confirm that. During her time at Condé Nast Traveler, the publication sent her on a staggering 12-country, 24-city, 45-day, $60,000 journey from Sri Lanka to Japan for a 2013 issue called, incredibly, “The Grand Tour of Asia.” “A trip to India isn’t complete without a stop at the legendary Gem Palace,” she wrote in a photo spread titled “The Plunder,” “and a few souvenir diamonds” — four diamond bangles, to be exact, priced up to $900 each. “When we wear a piece of custom jewelry,” she once told readers of T, “we are adding ourselves to a legacy as old as the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians — older.”

This may be surprising. But it is easy to forget that A Little Life is an unapologetic lifestyle novel. Jude’s harrowing trials are finger-sandwiched between Lower East Side gallery openings, summers on Cape Cod, holiday in Hanoi. Critics remarked on its mouthwatering (or eye-rolling) spread of culinary delights, from duck à l’orange to escarole salad with pears and jamón, followed by pine-nut tart, tarte Tatin, and a homemade ten-nut cake Yanagihara later described as a cross between Danish rugbrød and a Japanese milk bread she once ordered at a Tokyo bakery. The book inspired celebrity chef Antoni Porowski to publish a recipe called “Gougères for Jude,” based on the canapés Jude makes for a New Year’s party before cutting his arms so badly he requires emergency medical attention; it can be found on the website for Boursin, the French herbed-cheese brand.

Indeed, Yanagihara’s onslaught of horrors could allow readers to block out, like a childhood trauma, the fact that they were reading luxury copy. Her first book was quite literally a travelogue written by a pedophile; in To Paradise, Yanagihara has not lost the familiar voice of a professional chronicler of wealth. Here are rose-hued Oriental carpets, dark-green douppioni-silk drapes, wood floors polished with macadamia oil; here are wok-fried snow peas, ginger-wine syllabub, a pine-nut tart (another one!). As in A Little Life, Yanagihara cannot help giving cheerful directions as she maneuvers her characters, tour guide–like, through New York. “We’ll cut across Christopher, and then go past Little Eight and east on Ninth Street before turning south on Fifth Avenue,” a minor character proposes during a crisis.

Perhaps I am being ungenerous. Surely novelists should describe things! Better, they should evoke them, like the dead, or the Orient. Yanagihara has a tourist’s eye for detail; this can make her a very engaging narrator. Here’s that holiday in Hanoi from A Little Life:

“[He] turned down an alley that was crowded with stall after stall of small, improvised restaurants, just a woman standing behind a kettle roiling with soup or oil, and four or five plastic stools … [He] let a man cycle past him, the basket strapped to the back of his seat loaded with spears of baguettes … and then headed down another alley, this one busy with vendors crouched over more bundles of herbs, and black hills of mangosteens, and metal trays of silvery-pink fish, so fresh he could hear them gulping.”

Now here’s days 23 and 24 of that “Grand Tour of Asia” from Condé Nast Traveler:

“You’ll see all the little tableaux … that make Hanoi the place it is: dozens of pho stands, with their big cauldrons of simmering broth bicyclists pedaling by with basketfuls of fresh-baked bread; and, especially, those little street restaurants with their low tables and domino-shaped stools … [The next day] you’ll pass hundreds of stalls selling everything for the Vietnamese table, from mung bean noodles to homemade fish paste to Kaffir limes, as well as vendors crouched over hubcap-size baskets of mangoes, silkworms, and fish so fresh they’re still gulping for air.”

Now it is no crime to put your paid vacation into your novel. My point is simply that Yanagihara remains at heart a travel writer, if not an unreconstructed one. She seems to sense that wealth can be tilted, like a stone, to reveal the wriggling muck beneath. In a few cases, she is even making a political point, as with her abiding interest in the colonization of Hawaii. But more often in these books, wealth’s rotten underbelly is purely psychological: There are no wrongful beach houses in A Little Life, no ill-gotten hors d’oeuvre. Luxury is simply the backdrop for Jude’s extraordinary suffering, neither cause nor effect; if anything, the latter lends poignancy to the former. This was Yanagihara’s first discovery, the one that cracked open the cobbled streets of Soho and let something terrible slither out — the idea that misery bestows a kind of dignity that wealth and leisure, no matter how sharply rendered on the page, simply cannot.

To Paradise is not a novel at all. It is three books bound into a single volume: a novella, a brace of short stories, and a full-length novel. The conceit is that its three tales are set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 in alternate versions of a Washington Square townhouse. The first is a Henry James–esque period romance: David, a wealthy scion with a secret history of nervous breakdowns, rejects a proposal from the boring Charles to flee west with roguish pauper Edward. The second, a weird postcolonial fable, finds gay paralegal David hosting a dinner party with his older HIV-positive boyfriend, Charles, in honor of a terminally ill friend, while David’s father, the rightful king of Hawaii, lies dying in a psychiatric facility. The third book, the novel-length one, is a fitful attempt at speculative fiction complete with surveillance drones (“Flies”), boring names (“Zone Eight”), and a biodome over Central Park. In this New York ravaged by a century of pandemics, brain-damaged lab tech Charlie discovers her husband Edward’s infidelity, while her grandfather, a brilliant virologist, reveals his role in creating the current totalitarian government. (In a desultory bid to sew the three parts together, Yanagihara has given multiple characters the same name, without their being biologically or, indeed, meaningfully related.)

The third part of To Paradise may sound topical, but Yanagihara has a lifelong fascination with disease. She was a self-described “sickly child” whose father used to take her to a morgue where a pathologist would show her the cadavers, folding back the skin flaps like flower petals so the young girl could sketch their insides. Years later, The People in the Trees would center on a zoonotic disease that extends the sufferer’s life span while rapidly degrading cognitive function. In A Little Life, Jude’s history of abuse is equally a nutrient-rich soil for infection: his venereal diseases, acquired from clients; his cutting, which results in septicemia; his maimed legs, which, after decades of vascular ulcers and osteomyelitis, must finally be amputated. That’s to say nothing of the many minor characters in the novel who are summarily dispatched by strokes, heart attacks, multiple sclerosis, all kinds of cancer, and something called Nishihara syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease so rare the author had to make it up.

Like its predecessor, To Paradise is a book in which horrible things happen to people for no reason. The agents of misery this time have become literally inhuman: cancer, HIV, epilepsy, functional neurologic disorder, a toxic antiviral drug, the unidentified viral hemorrhagic fever that will fuel the next pandemic. A virus makes perfect sense as Yanagihara’s final avatar after three novels. The anguish it visits on humanity — illness, death, social collapse — is just an indifferent side effect of its pointless reproductive cycle. Biologists do not even agree on whether viruses are living organisms. A virus wants nothing, feels nothing, knows nothing; at most, a virus is a little life.

This is ideal for Yanagihara: pure suffering, undiluted by politics or psychology, by history or language or even sex. Free of meaning, it may more perfectly serve the author’s higher purpose. Reading A Little Life, one can get the impression that Yanagihara is somewhere high above with a magnifying glass, burning her beautiful boys like ants. In truth, Jude is a terribly unlovable character, always lying and breaking promises, with the inner monologue of an incorrigible child. The first time he cuts himself, you are horrified; the 600th time, you wish he would aim. Yet Yanagihara loves him excessively, cloyingly. The book’s omniscient narrator seems to be protecting Jude, cradling him in her cocktail-party asides and winding digressions, keeping him alive for a stunning 800 pages. This is not sadism; it is closer to Munchausen by proxy.

Yanagihara provides a perfect image for this kind of love. Jude’s lover, Willem, trying to prevent him from cutting himself, hugs Jude so tightly he can barely breathe. “Pretend we’re falling and we’re clinging together from fear,” Willem tells him; for a brief moment, the fiction of imminent death cuts through Jude’s self-loathing and allows him to crumple helplessly into his lover’s suffocating embrace. As he loses consciousness, Jude imagines them falling all the way to the earth’s core, where the fires melt them into a single being whom even death cannot part.

If disease is Yanagihara’s angel of death, gay men are her perfect patients. The majority of her protagonists to date are gay men, or at least men-loving men, and she approaches them with a distinct preciousness. When Jude finally reveals the details of his horrific childhood to Willem, the two are lying on the floor of a literal closet. In A Little Life, this tendency could be fobbed off as a literary technique in line with Yanagihara’s stated desire to make the novel “operatic,” but in To Paradise, her sentimentality has begun weeping like a sore. “We could never be together in the West, Edward. Be sensible! It is dangerous to be like us out there,” pleads one David. “If we couldn’t live as who we are, then how could we be free?” Indeed, the entire first book of To Paradise is set in an alternate version of 19th-century New York preposterously founded on the freedom of love; you’ll forgive me for being unmoved, at this moment in history, by the heartbreak of marriage equality.

And then there is the matter of AIDS. It’s true that To Paradise is not an AIDS novel; the actual crisis, which unfolds here just as it did in reality, is little more than a faint backdrop for a hundred pages. But this is only because Yanagihara appears to see all diseases as allegories for the human immunodeficiency virus. Charles’s ex-boyfriend Peter may only be dying of “boring old cancer, I’m afraid,” but the virus hovers over his farewell party and lingers through the novel’s succession of pandemics. The next Charles, persona non grata in a fascist state of his own design, will join other mildly oppressed gay men of New York in seeking love and support in a riverside rowhouse on Jane Street in the West Village — three blocks from the real-life AIDS memorial in Hudson River Park. This detail is mawkish in the extreme, a shameless attempt to trade on the enviable pathos of a disease transmitted through an act of love.

When A Little Life was first published, the novelist Garth Greenwell declared it “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years,” praising Yanagihara for writing a novel about “queer suffering” that was about AIDS only in spirit. This was a curious claim for several reasons. First, many of the novel’s characters, including Willem and Jude, fail to identify as gay in the conventional sense. Second, Yanagihara herself is not gay, though she says she perfunctorily slept with women at Smith College. Indeed, if A Little Life was opera, it was not La Bohème; it was Rent. Now perhaps the great gay novel should move beyond the strictures of identity politics; Yanagihara has stubbornly defended her “right to write about whatever I want.” God forbid that only gay men should write gay men — let a hundred flowers bloom. But if a white author were to write a novel with Asian American protagonists who, while resistant to identifying as Asian American, nonetheless inhabited an unmistakably Asian American milieu, it might occur to us to ask why.

Why, then? “I don’t know,” Yanagihara told one journalist. To another, she insisted, “I don’t think there’s anything inherent to the gay-male identity that interests me.” These are baffling, even offensive responses given that she has had almost a decade to come up with better ones. But I do not think Yanagihara, an author who believes in fiction as a conscious act of avoidance, is being dishonest. “A fiction writer can hide anything she wants in her fiction, a power that’s as liberating as it is imprisoning,” she has written, explaining her refusal to go to therapy despite the urging of her best friend, the man to whom A Little Life is dedicated and whose social circle inspired the book’s friendships. “As she grows more adept at it, however,” Yanagihara continues, “she may find she’s losing practice in the art of telling the truth about herself.”

That well may be. Regardless of Yanagihara’s private life, her work betrays a touristic kind of love for gay men. By exaggerating their vulnerability to humiliation and physical attack, she justifies a maternal posture of excessive protectiveness. This is not an act of dehumanization but the opposite. There is a horrible piety to Jude, named for the patron saint of lost causes; he has been force-fed sentimentality. When the author is not doling out this smothering sort of love through her male characters (Willem, for instance), she is enacting it at the level of her own narration. Indeed, the conspicuous absence of women in her fiction may well express Yanagihara’s tendency, as a writer, to hoard female subjectivity for herself.

This brings us to Charlie, a narrator in To Paradise and Yanagihara’s only female protagonist to date. Charlie is a technician who takes care of mouse embryos at an influenza lab in Zone Fifteen. The antiviral drug that saved her life as a child has left her affectless and naïve, pitifully incapable of comprehending the extent of her own loneliness. After Charlie is raped by two boys her age — the only rape in this whole book, if you can believe it — her grandfather Charles desperately tries to ensure her safety by marrying her off to a homosexual like himself. But it is with Charlie, who longs for her husband to touch her even as she knows he never will, that the sublimation of romantic love will finally slouch into despair. When Charlie follows him to a gay haven in the West Village, having discovered notes from his lover, she is heartbroken. “I knew I would never be loved,” Charlie thinks. “I knew I would never love, either.”

But this isn’t entirely true. After Charlie’s husband dies of an unknown illness, the only woman Yanagihara has ever asked readers to care about will lie next to his corpse and kiss him for the first time — the space between them closed, at last, by death.

There is no paradise for Charlie. The odd and tuneless phrase to paradise provides a destination but withholds any promise of arrival. Perhaps this is why Yanagihara has tacked it half-heartedly onto the last sentence of each of the novel’s three books. Doom shadows every character who decides to abandon one apocryphal heaven on earth for another: the plutocratic Northeast for the homophobic West, the colonized state of Hawaii for a delusional kingdom on the beach, totalitarian America for the unknown New Britain. Every paradise is a gossamer curtain; behind it lies a pit of squalor, disease, torture, madness, and tyranny. Freedom is a lie, safety is a lie, struggle is a lie; even the luxuries Yanagihara has spent her career recording are nothing in the end. For paradise, insofar as it means heaven, also means death.

Not even love will save Yanagihara’s characters. Her fantasies of suffering and illness are designed only to produce a very specific kind of love, and this love is not curative but palliative — it results, sooner or later, in the death of the thing. If this is fatalism, it is not the sanguine fatalism of Prospero, another rightful king on another island paradise, reminding his audience that “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” No, it is the exsanguinating fatalism of Jude, who, out of love for his boyfriend, will try to show “a little life” — a phrase he learned from his pimp — while Willem makes love to his reluctant body. The same phrase appears in The People in the Trees, where it describes the bleak vegetative state that befalls the islanders whose disease has stretched out their life spans. In To Paradise, Charles reflects on a set of immune-compromised twins, explaining that he never became a clinician because he “was never convinced that life — its saving, its extension, its return — was definitively the best outcome.” The twins die, possibly by suicide, and Charles goes on to design death camps. “There’s a point,” Yanagihara once said of Jude, at which “it becomes too late to help some people.”

These are difficult words to read for those of us who have passed through suicidal ideation and emerged, if not happy to be alive, then relieved not to be dead. It is indeed a tourist’s imagination that would glance out from its hotel window onto the squalor below and conclude that death is the opposite of paradise, as if the locals did not live their little lives on the expansive middle ground between the two. But even Yanagihara’s novels are not death camps; they are hospice centers. A Little Life, like life itself, goes on and on. Hundreds of pages into the novel, Jude openly wonders why he is still alive, the beloved of a lonely god. For that is the meaning of suffering: to make love possible. Charles loves David; David loves Edward; David loves Charles; Charlie loves Edward; Jude loves Willem; Hanya loves Jude; misery loves company.

Hanya’s Boys