“things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully”.
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
I have tried (and failed) for many years to write a review that entirely encapsulates the beauty of A Little Life. I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible.
Very rarely do I come across a book that remains with me for longer than a few months. Often, within a few weeks, plot lines begin to fade from memory and characters all but vanish; they become books I have on my shelf, vaguely remembered and almost forgotten. However, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is not one of these books. Having read it over three years ago on a solo trip to Madrid in January, characters remain as vivid and alive in my memory as though I finished it yesterday. Haunting, beautiful and tragic, A Little Life is a once in a generation novel, a novel that’s impression can never be adequately described in a review that I have attempted so many times to write.
Centred round four recently graduated friends in New York and spanning decades, Yanighara’s epic novel navigates the friendship of these four men as their relationships deepen and darken. Whilst Willem chases his acting dreams, Malcom begins his career as a frustrated architect at a prominent firm and JB seeks entry into the New York art world, it is with the troubled lawyer Jude that the novel tracks its course through the decades. Scarred by childhood trauma and increasingly more haunted by a past he feels incapable of overcoming, the novel navigates each characters’ relationship with Jude and each other. As their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success and pain, the reader is taken on a journey that is heartbreakingly beautiful in its raw depictions of love, loss and grief. Yanagihara’s prose is unashamedly raw in its emotional intensity; it is at times entirely overwhelming and yet it is also compulsively readable.
In an age where male mental health remains a taboo subject for many, A Little Life remains a novel that is both as culturally important as it is literary.
‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.’
–Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 1995)
Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism suggests that the West imagines, emphasises and distorts cultures of the East. Even though his book was published nearly 40 years ago, the idea of the East being portrayed in this way can still be seen in popular culture today, more precisely in the popular book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, written by George R. R. Martin and the TV adaption Game of Thrones, created by David Beinoff and D. B. Weiss. To summarise Orientalism, Said suggests there are three definitions to the word. The first being a term for anyone who teaches or writes about the Orient in an academic sense. Secondly, he views it as a way of thinking based on the distinction between the Orient and the Occident. Thirdly, it is a way of the West gaining control and authority over the Orient. These concepts and portrayals of the East are a man-made concept, according to Said, that have been cemented over time. Game of Thrones covers these definitions in different ways.
Landscapes In the series A Song of Ice and Fire, there are two main lands: Essos and Westeros. Although these names can be easily associated with the East and West, the TV adaption provides visual representations of the contrast between the continents. The architecture used in different cities and towns is inspired by certain parts of the world which provides viewers with associations of places they know.
In the north of Westeros, the House of Stark reside in Winterfell. The dark, stone buildings are similar to English and Scottish castles, making the connection between Westeros and Western Europe. In the novel, A Game of Thrones, Daenerys pictures the land she is from, whilst she is living in the East: ‘somewhere beyond the sunset, across the narrow sea, are a land of green hills and flowered plains and great rushing rivers, where towers of dark stone rose amidst magnificent blue-grey mountains’ (Game of Thrones, p. 26.) Daenerys captures the essence of Winterfell and portrays it as a place similar to English country sides and Western Europe.
The landscape in Essos demonstrates Said’s theory most clearly. Firstly, the city of Qarth is full of wealth and detailed architecture. With inspiration from the Middle East, such as Morocco, and focuses on arches, walkways, marble stone and detailed mosaic it illustrates a landscape associated with the Other, in contrast to the West. The architecture allows Qarth to be a place of magic and mystery for Western viewers and readers, due to its associations with the East. Here, Daenerys must tread carefully as many characters are suspicious and untrustworthy. Characters such as the Warlocks, who practise magic, live in Qarth which is unsurprising as the East is often portrayed as being magical and mysterious, which links to the exoticism. These are cultural norms different to ones seen in Westeros. On the other hand, the rest of
Essos portrays the other aspect of the Orient, where the East is depicted as being caught in the past and a fragment of its former glory. Said describes the Orient as a place of ‘romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (Orientalism, p. 1). This relates to Daenerys’ experience of travelling through Essos as the landscapes are ‘haunting’ due to their contrast to the West. The East often shocks Daenerys. For example, when she experiences the fighting for pleasure at her wedding to Khal Drogo she is ‘frightened’ (Game of Thrones, p. 97) Said’s use of the word ‘exotic’ also reinforces the differences between lands in Westeros and Essos; the people and land in the continents differ so greatly that the East appears exotic to the West.
The Dothraki are portrayed as savage and barbaric with limited character development, apart from Daenerys’ husband Khal Drogo. The rest of the tribe do not receive the same development that characters in Westeros do. David J. Peterson suggests: ‘Martin’s Dothraki are portrayed as violent, warlike people. They steal what they will and rape who they will, and do so often, in the course of the history.’(1) Peterson highlights their aggressive nature and how they are grouped together. Katherine Tullmann comments on how ‘the further away some cultural practises are from our own, the less likely we are to condone them. This would suggest that moral practises vary by
culture – and who are we to say they’re wrong?’ (2) Tullmann’s views link to Orientalism as the Dothraki are seen in this negative way due to having a contrasting culture to those in the West. However, although it is a different culture and way of living, yet Game of Thrones shuns it, suggesting it is wrong as we see it through the eyes of a Westerner. David J. Peterson observes the lack of voice the East have: ‘we never see the Dothraki through the eyes of the Dothraki. Though Daenerys comes to admire and respect the Dothraki, what right has she to pass judgement on them at all – as if she were explaining the ways of God to men?’ (3) This links to Orientalism as we only view the Eastern places and characters through a Western perspective. The East is only visible through the language and perspective of the West and primarily through Daenerys.
Even nearly 40 years on from when Said published Orientalism, his ideas can still be seen in modern pop culture and Game of Thrones is no exception. The power dynamic between Westeros and Essos is displayed in many aspects of the books and TV series, such as the landscape and how the different locations inspired Essos and Westeros. Also, the contrast in characterisation and how characters in Westeros are fully developed with complex personalities, but those in the East such as the Dothraki receive basic descriptions further shows Orientalism.
Image 4: ‘Winter is Coming’, Game of Thrones. Season 1, episode 1. (HBO, 2012)
Primary Sources: 1, George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones, (London: Harper Voyager, 2014)
2, David J. Peterson, ‘The Languages of Ice and Fire’ in Mastering the Game of thrones: essays on George R.R. Martin’s a song of ice and fire, edited by Jes Batis and Susan Johnston, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015) pp. 15-35, p. 20.
3, Katherine Tullmann, ‘Dany’s Encounter with the wild: cultural relativism in a Game of Thrones’ in Game of Thrones and philosophy, edited by Henry Jacoby (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012) pp. 194-204, p. 195.
‘What I do I do because I like to do.’
-Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, p. 31.
Anthony Burgess’ novella, published in 1962, invites discussion on the question of what is true freedom, and how much of it should we be permitted to have? T. H. Green’s definition of true freedom includes negative freedom, as well as positive.1 This is indicative of the idea that when freedom is desired, this idea of true freedom may not be implied. Instead, he suggests a sense of freedom with limitations, in which individuals are not free to do entirely as one wishes due to the potential negative consequences of this, as the more desirable concept.
Burgess’ protagonist, Alex, demonstrates Green’s idea of true freedom, as he is initially free from coercion or restriction and regulation. He also seemingly possesses the freedom to do as he pleases, committing monstrous crimes for his own pleasure. Although, as a society, we may supposedly crave a full sense of freedom, it is clear through characters such as Alex, that this complete sense of freedom may be detrimental to the community and therefore limitations must be enforced. The character narrates that ‘what I do I do because I like to do’, exemplifying his freedom of choice at the beginning of the novella and his application of this full sense of freedom.2 On the issue of morality, Burgess tells us in his introduction that ‘The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities’.3 Through the obscenities and gruesome crimes that the protagonist and his gang commit, we learn that with freedom comes moral choice and with good comes evil. Therefore, if we, as a society, allow freedom to be used for good, then it inevitably will be used in the same way for evil.
Once Alex’s actions have been altered by the aversion therapy, the state have influenced and limited his sense of true freedom, manipulating his freedom to act as he chooses, as well as removing his freedom from coercion. However, Sumner argues that Alex’s choices were never free for him to make, as he has always been manipulated by the state. He contests that the character’s criminal actions, and even the cause of these, being the desire for criminality, are ‘socially or institutionally conditioned.’4 This idea suggests that, although Burgess depicts the authoritative state to deprive Alex of his free will, and freedom to choose to act independently, in fact, the protagonist did not possess this to begin with. Sumner argues that Alex acts against the state, as his personal form of resistance. He furthers these ideas, claiming that ‘In a social and political register, Alex is forced to choose between totalitarianism and anarchy. That choice is false and, if anything, testifies to a lack of individual freedom. If there are no good options, then individual choice is a mere abstraction; one might as well flip a coin.’5 Although the character seemingly actively chooses to behave violently and break the law, Sumner argues that this, in fact, is his choice between two options dictated to him by the authority, and therefore, he does not possess the true concept of freedom. Alex is a product of the totalitarian state and he is therefore conditioned to behave violently as his form of resistance.
References Featured Image: Front Cover of Penguin’s 2013 edition. See Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Classics, 2013).
‘The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.’
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, p.8.
The Labouchere Amendment (1865) meant that ‘any man committing acts of sodomy would be sentenced to life imprisonment’. 1 In Victorian English society, therefore, homosexuality became synonymous with secrecy; fear of societal ruin arrest led to a repression of unbridled sexuality.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, public opinion is of great significance to the characters, framing and ultimately shaping their respective identities. In Dorian Gray, when informed of Sybil Vane’s suicide, Harry tells Dorian that ‘one should never make one’s debut with a scandal’. 2 This fear of public perception not only results in the repression of sexuality, but clearly informs Victorian Gothic’s preoccupation with the ‘doubled’ self. It is this fear of public condemnation that provides the purpose for Dorian’s doubling; it is only through his doubled ‘Other’ that Dorian’s repressed sexuality can successfully be expressed. This distinctly echoes the anxieties of the period. Public knowledge of homoeroticism was feared as it was punishable by law. In this way, the doubled figure comes to physically manifest the excess of the protagonist’s sexuality. In Dorian Gray, Basil’s painting of Dorian comes to act as Basil’s double; it is in Dorian’s portrait that his secret desire for Dorian is implicitly hidden from the public sphere. Clearly, Basil has created his own double in Dorian Gray as he informs Harry that he has put ‘too much’ of himself into the picture and therefore cannot be exhibited for this reason. Again, by failing to exhibit the picture Basil reinforces the fear of public judgement as he worries that exhibiting the picture will allow people to discover his secret. Additionally, Basil explains:
[…] every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.’ (p. 8)
Here, Basil alleges that the painting itself says more about the artist than the sitter; this indicates that the picture is more of a reflection of Basil than Dorian. Therefore, Basil has created an image of Dorian so that he can express his sexuality secretly; the picture consequently acts as Basil’s double, physically manifesting his desire for Dorian. When confessing his feelings to Dorian, Basil notes that ‘When you were away from me you were still present in my art’; this corresponds with the argument that the picture is a way in which Basil can express his desire for Dorian without doing it directly (p.97-98).In relation to this, Ed Cohen states that ‘Dorian is an image – a space for the constitution of male desire’ and that he ‘provides a surface on which the characters project their self-representation’. 3 Therefore, the ‘projection of self-representation’ results in the doubling of characters in the text. The painting allows both Basil and Dorian to convey their homoerotic desires without public judgement.
However, the picture also serves as Dorian’s double, mirroring his deteriorating moral conscious. When first noticing the change in the picture after Sybil’s death, Dorian states that the picture ‘was to bear the burden of his shame’ from ‘wild joys and wilder sins’ (p. 90). Dorian, doubled with the picture, allows it to be punished rather than himself as he explores deviant sins and homoerotic desires. Before being murdered, Basil asks Dorian ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ (p. 127). The fatality of the relationships between Dorian and other men can, once again, be related to public opinion and perception. As we see with Alan Campbell, Dorian holds many secrets that these other young men fear being made public (p. 144). In the same conversation with Basil, Dorian informs him that all humans have ‘Heaven and Hell in him’ (p. 132). Presented in the picture of himself, Dorian’s ‘Hell’ is able to be kept hidden from the outside world. Philip K. Cohen writes:
‘[…] the deliberate fragmentation of self through split consciousness. In order to avoid responsibility for participation in life, the self divides into contemplative and active halves, becoming distributed between participation in life and observation of that involvement as though it were art.’ 4
Here, Cohen indicates that the gothic double in Dorian Gray allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for their sexuality. Both Basil and Dorian can freely explore their sexuality without facing their problems directly or taking responsibility for themselves, suggesting that the author views this expression of sexuality as both necessary and yet sinful. Supporting this, Cohen writes that the ‘fatal issue of these two works suggests the cul-de-sac Wilde faced. While he considered homosexuality a sin, he saw that an existence of repression and hypocrisy was also damnable.’ 5 Therefore, the doubling in these texts, especially Dorian Gray, can be seen as reflecting the contrasting opinions in relation to homosexuality. In order to avoid repression but also avoid directly expressing homoerotic desires, the double represents a way in which sexuality can be expressed indirectly. In this way, the double life of the characters is openly commenting on the hidden lives of the homosexuals in the Victorian era.
References Featured Painting: Ivan Albright, Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943, Oil on Canvas (85 x 42in), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
‘It’s intellectuals like ourselves who are the only free men. Not bound by conventions, patriotic emotions, sentimentality […] we haven’t what they call a stake in the country.’
-Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, p.29.
The London Blitz caused large scale destruction and unrest in London which, naturally, fuelled anger towards the enemy. During this time of conflict there existed a myth of an innate social cohesion, where London was united against the perpetrator. Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear deconstructs this idea of a united Britain against a common enemy. Suzan R. Grayzel notes the large scale destruction during the Blitz. She argues:
Those whom air raids affected had to confront an essential feature of modern and total warfare: every home could now come under fire. As a result, civilians mattered in wartime as never before.1
The large scale ruin and the effect on the civilians would assume a negative reaction to the Blitz. However, Arthur Rowe focuses on his own personal experience with disregard to the collective struggle. Buildings that once held memories are destroyed, and the destruction is liberating for Rowe who’s past, according to the narrator, both traps and defines him. Memories of his wife are intertwined with the streets of London and Rowe lives with the guilt of killing her. The narrator says, ‘after a raid he used to sally out and note with a kind of hope that this restaurant or that shop existed no longer-it was like loosening the bars of a prison cell one by one.’2 The bars of the prison cell metaphorically represent his past and when London is bombed he is free; the physical destruction purifies him of his guilt. The stranger who attempts to kill Rowe in Mrs Purvis’ house summarises Rowe’s indifference to the destruction caused by the blitz. He says, ‘it’s intellectuals like ourselves who are the only free men. Not bound by conventions, patriotic emotions, sentimentality […] we haven’t what they call a stake in the country.’ (p.29) Rowe becomes immune to patriotic emotion and instead he is occupied with thoughts of his own past. Choosing to disengage with the political discourse of war does not render Rowe a free man. Instead, patriotic emotions are replaced with imprisoning feelings of guilt. He is ‘othered’ from a collective fight against one common ‘enemy’ as he fights his personal war against his past. Greene presents a system of living based on personal salvation and redemption, rather than a desire to be part of a larger ideology. The novel continues to feature a discourse of imprisonment surrounding him. Greene writes, ‘for more than a year now Rowe had been imprisoned- there had been no change of cell, no exercise yard, no unfamiliar warder to break the monotony of solitary confinement.’ (p.46) The language used by Greene renders Rowe an outsider trapped in the cell of his own mind, confined by his past. Greene depicts a conflict of language and ideas within the novel: Rowe is liberated and cleansed by the bombing, but equally, remains trapped by his past. This state of stasis Rowe experiences renders him an outsider from any social cohesion. By focusing on internal strife and finding relief in the bombing, Rowe is ‘othered’ from a patriotic unity against a common ‘enemy’. The definition of ‘other’, then, is not only a description of a foreign enemy, as would be assumed war time London. Instead, Rowe himself is the enemy, as he is wages a war against himself.
At the beginning of the novel, Rowe attends a fête, a place he would go every year as a child. Imagery of war is reoccurring throughout the fête, reminding the reader of the greater social events happening at the time. Greene writes, ‘of course, this year there would be no coconuts because there was a war on’ (p.11) and, ‘they would have to close early because of the black-out.’ (p.11) The novel depicts a community trying to cling onto life pre-war by hosting a fête. The event, however, cannot be separated from the discourse of war which penetrates each aspect of the day. Greene depicts the loneliness the people felt during the war by clinging onto an idyllic, British tradition and gathering together to create a sense of community. The novel shows that collectively people in Britain were endeavoring to re-create a piece of the past in order to escape their own horrific, brutal reality of life during the London Blitz. Instead of using the fête to escape the horror of the Blitz, Rowe uses it as a way to fantasize about his own past, and attempt to re-live his childhood experience. He immediately becomes ‘othered’ from the collective experience of the other fête goers. Instead, Rowe spends his time attempting to reconnect with his childhood innocence. In doing so, he momentarily rids himself from his present overriding feelings of guilt. The narrator defines Rowe’s perception of childhood as, ‘liv[ing] under the brightness of immortality […] God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock.’ (p.95) In short, childhood is a simpler, blameless time with no moral ambiguity. For Rowe, the fête is symbolic of the past as the narrator says, ‘the fête called him like innocence: it was entangled with childhood.’ (p.11) The novel suggests that Rowe endeavours to reconnect with his lost sense of identity and reunite with who he was before he murdered his wife: an opportunity to cleanse himself from his past. The text says, ‘he came to these fêtes every year with an odd feeling of excitement as if anything might happen, as if the familiar pattern of his afternoon might be altered forever.’(p.13) Greene continues to recall Rowe’s desire to ‘mislay the events of twenty years.’ (p.13) The novel depicts Rowe in a state of stasis: unable to escape his past, with no clear direction for his future. The fête represents a longing for the past, as other people who attend the fête unite in their hatred of the war, and desire for some normality amongst the chaos. Rowe, on the other hand, isolates himself from the shared experience of escaping the Blitz. Instead, he uses the event to escape his own, personal past. His inability to forgive his own past means he fails to connect with his own present, rendering him an ‘other’, but at his own will.
References: Featured painting: Nettie Moon, The Spirit of London during the Blitz, 1979, Oil on Canvas, 55 x 65.5 cm, Museum of London.
1.Susan R. Grayzel, At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
2.Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (London: Penguin, 1943) All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.
‘I know not what attraction they [men] can find in such ugliness. It is beastly.’
-George Moore, John Norton, p.332
A queer sense of desire is shown in George Moore’s ‘John Norton’, destabilising dominant models of sexual identity. John Norton projects his sexual impulses onto unconventional ideologies, such as art and religion. Roger Luckhurst writes, ‘[d]ecadence was associated with ostentatious but pointless display […] [the decadent] became absorbed in an obscure, private and perverse world.’2 Norton’s sombre, reclusive lifestyle, rejection of marriage and indulgence in art is (according to Nordau) influenced by Schopenhauer. His philosophy states that a will to live is damaging since death is the inevitable consequence of life, and therefore, in order to escape pain, one must seek comfort in art and contemplation rather than actively participate in life. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is summarised by William Van der Will, who writes, ‘In the aesthetic moment man reache[d] a stage of “will-less perception” in which all desire to increase, to multiply, to consume, all craving and wanting [was] suspended in the recognition of beauty.’3 Therefore, the world of will, as believed in by Mrs Norton contrasts with John’s belief, as he refuses to participate in life, and instead directs his attention to ideas. From the beginning of the novella Mrs Norton is trying to reinforce her paternal authority to get John to return home to marry and be an heir to the estate. Her frustration at John’s resistance to social norms is shown through her repetition of the word ‘why’: ‘[w]hy, is it nearly two years since he’s been home. Why does he not come and live at this beautiful place? […] Why does he not marry?’ (p.320-321). Mrs Norton cannot understand that John does not see beauty in the home and estate as the home represents a return to convention, and the adoption of a ‘will’ to live. Mrs Norton sees it as John’s ‘duty’ (p.321) to marry, depicting how John’s reclusive lifestyle and rejection of marriage does not align with the social conventions of heterosexual love. John finds a queer sense of comfort in the refusal to engage in the conventional social structure of marriage alliance, and so transgresses dominant ideologies.
John Norton’s story could be read as one of repressed homosexuality. Throughout the novella he is disgusted by the fleshly form of women. He says, ‘I know not what attraction they [men] can find in such ugliness. It is beastly’ (p.332). Norton also retreats into a homosocial environment at his college to avoid returning home and becoming pressured into heterosexual marriage by his mother. Yet, despite his repulsion for women, the story depicts a queer and twisted version of heterosexuality rather than repressed homosexuality. The fin de siècle bachelor is typically associated with homosexuality, yet John’s main preoccupation is worshipping art, something Nordau singles out as a typical feature of a degenerate. Even when John is engaged to marry Kitty he describes her in a queer way. John says, ‘[h]er face is a pretty oval[…] her eyes are large and soft’ (p.381). He continues to address her ‘boyish figure’, and Kitty is purged of material aspects of womanliness. John sees Kitty as both androgynous and an art object rather than a real-life woman. Therefore she cannot challenge him with real life, sexual demands which John refuses to engage in. When he intends to praise Kitty he describes her as a flower. He says, ‘[a]nd you, in your white dress, with the sunlight on your hair, seem more blossom-like than a flower’ (p.393) Comparing her to a flower is another way of refusing to accept her in her fleshly, bodily form, and therefore, denying her existence as a woman. Instead, praising her beauty as though she is art. Heterosexual love and desire become twisted and challenge dominant structures of heterosexual desire, as John projects his desire onto Kitty in a way which denies her fleshly womanliness and instead places her in a category of androgynous art.
References Featured Painting: Henri Toulouse- Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1895, Oil on Canvas, 123 x140.5cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
1. George Moore, ‘John Norton’ in Celibates (London: Walter Scott, 1895) p.332. All further references to Moore’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
2. Roger Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late-Victorian Gothic Tales, ed. Roger Luckhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. ix-xxxi.
3. Wilfried Van der Will, ‘Schopenhauer, Arthur’, in Makers of Nineteenth-Century Culture, 1800-1914, ed. Justin Wintle, pp. 553-6.