Sleeping on Jupiter – Anuradha Roy

[…]he had looked at her in the way people did: with a certain wariness, the kind that comes from encountering up close an animal that might prove unpredictable. His eyes had rested on her when he thought she wouldn’t notice, taking the measure of her. She was used to it and often played up to it, acting more erratic than she was. It was both method and disguise, one she had perfected as the eternal outsider, a way to disappear when physical escape was impossible.

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Four women travel to Jarmuli, a fictional town on the coast of India. Three are elderly friends – Gouri, Latika and Vidya – on their first outing together, the fourth is a young woman from Oslo, there to research a documentary. All four women are in the same compartment. When the train reaches one of its stops, the young woman jumps out and buys bread rolls and tea for a woman begging on the platform. As she goes to give the woman the food, one of two men ‘idling on the platform’ tries to get her attention and then brushes his arm against her breast.

The girl stepped backward and in a single move that appeared to take no more than a second, she thrust the bread at the woman and flung the hot tea in the man’s face. She kicked his shin and his crotch as his hands flew to his face. The man stumbled, fell to the platform.

All of a sudden, as if watching a silent film, the women in the train saw the food-stall outside starting to slide backwards. The lamp-post by the stall moved two feet back, then three. They saw the girl turning around to see her train moving out of the platform, the girl running towards the train, very fast despite her backpack, running as if her life depended on it, the second of the two men running after her.

The older women don’t see what happens next and worry for the young woman whose fate is unknown to them. The incident sets a tone of fear and unpredictability that hovers over the whole of the narrative.

The young woman – Nomi – tells her story to the reader in a first-person narrative. In it we discover that she has come to Jarmuli because she knows that, as a child, she had grown up nearby, in an ashram where going outside was forbidden.

Roy also tells the story through the viewpoints of the three women, there to see the temple; Badal, the temple guide, and Suraj, a local photographer helping Nomi with her documentary. She covers themes of love, friendship and aging, with a particular focus on dementia. The key theme of the novel, however, is child abuse. It’s a difficult topic to cover, in a number of ways. Roy’s narrative is a historical one, told in past tense, but that doesn’t prevent her from shying away from some graphic and disturbing scenes.

Sleeping on Jupiter is a taut, tense novel that considers power – who holds it and who abuses it – in a range of situations. It’s clear why it was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize; hopefully that nomination will help to bring the book the wide readership it deserves.

 

Thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy.

 

 

Hanya Yanagihara in Conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles

It’s a warm Wednesday evening in central London when Hanya Yanagihara and Cathy Rentzenbrink take the stage in Foyles’ flagship shop on Charing Cross Road. They’re here to discuss Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life, recently longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.

The event begins with Yanagihara reading from the fourth section of the novel, ‘The Axiom of Equality’. Before she starts to read, Yanagihara comments on the number of people in the room. ‘I feel like Donald Trump,’ she says, ‘Which would make you all Donald Trump supporters.’

Following the reading, Rentzenbrink conducts a straw poll to see how many of the audience have already read the novel. The poll will determine whether the event needs to be spoiler free or not. As over half of the audience have read the book, they decide to proceed with a full discussion. As a result, THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned!

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Rentzenbrink begins by asking Yanagihara about the inspiration for the novel. Yanagihara says that the first section of the book is a fairly typical post-college, New York novel based on the idea that everyone at that stage, living in New York, thinks they’re interesting! But then the book changes. She compares it to boiling a lobster. The change happens at the point the lobster realises he’s fucked but then it’s too late. She says the first turn happens at the end of part one and she hopes by that point the reader has realised they’re not reading the type of book they thought they were.

Yanagihara says she wanted to write a novel that if it were ombre cloth would run from a shade of light blue to dark indigo. She tells us that Jude was pretty fully formed when she began writing. She wanted to write a character who can’t get better or change or survive his own life. It’s very American to think that life is something to win, she says. Jude is oppressed by hope.

What about the lack of women in the novel? Yanagihara states that she wanted to marry fairytale with a contemporary naturalistic novel. She wanted it to lack parents, to be timeless. She wanted Jude’s redemption to be hollow.

Why male friendship? Rentzenbrink says she doesn’t think it’s been written about this way in literature before. Yanagihara says that she thinks men are allowed to have a more limited emotional toolkit: shame, fear and vulnerability are not there. They’re not encouraged to express these emotions. She says society asks men to change as they grow up and relates an anecdote about two male friends of hers who would wrestle with each other. She says they were wrestling the inexpressible: their love for each other.

Rentzenbrink asks about the reader and how much thought Yanagihara gave to them when she was writing. She mentions Jude and wonders how much a reader can take. Yanagihara says you can never guess accurately what the reader can take but they can tell if you’re withholding. She says readers want to be taken somewhere they haven’t been before. She mentions her two editors – it was edited in the USA and the UK simultaneously – and said they talked to each other which was like having annoying parents! She said they had very different reactions to what they thought were the problem areas in the book: her UK editor thought Jude and Willem’s relationship was a problem, while the US editor thought the length of the novel and the violence were the biggest issues. Yanagihara says that if you believe strongly in something and can answer why it’s in the book, you shouldn’t have to change it.

She goes on to talk about the structure of the book which was the trickiest part to get right. Initially it was two novellas and a coda. The first novella looked at Jude as a success and the second at Jude with a marginal life, the characters from the first novella becoming his counsellors. The coda was his childhood. She wanted to explore different reactions to damage.

Retzenbrink asks about New York City as a setting. The book’s about the sorts of characters and kinds of people who come to NYC, says Yanagihara. There’s a shared sense of collective ambition and whilst that ambition takes wildly different forms, these people are united by being on the run and running to something.

What about the absence of time in the book? Initially every chapter was in present tense, she says, but that was too artificial. She hates readers having to fill in how characters react to big events. Mentioning 9/11 or even that a character is wearing a Prada suit is lazy shorthand, it also dates quickly and the references are never quite right. She says she wanted the reader to have no tethers. The reader is surrendering to the emotional lives of the characters with nothing to ground them. She wanted the reader to feel like they were on one of those wobbly balls.

Yanagihara goes on to talk about social media. She’s not on it, apart from Instagram and she doesn’t read reviews. She says she thinks Twitter’s a great boon for fiction writers now there’s no central cultural authority. She’s too fragile and insecure to read her reviews. She says if you only believe the good ones, you’re a douchebag and if you only believe the bad you become a walking mess.

The discussion turns to the difference between the UK and US covers. The latter is a photograph by Peter Hujar (a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe) called Orgasmic Man. It dares you to look then dares you not to look, says Yanagihara. You don’t know whether the expression on his face is pleasure or pain. Yanagihara tells us that she fought with the US publisher for months over using the photograph for the cover: ‘It’s so obvious he’s coming,’ she says was the comment from the US publisher.

Rentzenbrink says that the book is gruelling to read, what was it like to write? Yanagihara says that when you’re in the groove you have to stay in it so there were long jags of writing, several hours each day. She found it physically hard, working on it at night. She had one reader whom she burdened with questions while she wrote in a sprint. ‘I think it was a singular writing experience.’

The final question from Retzenbrink is whether there’s any redemption for Jude in a parallel universe. ‘I don’t even know what redemption would look like here,’ says Yanagihara. ‘His life concludes in the only way it could possibly conclude.’

With that, the discussion opens up to questions from the audience.

Did she think about the moral responsibility of considering anew the horrors of child abuse?

She didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t think of the book as cathartic or as a book with a moral. She’s interested in sexual abuse because of the impact on someone’s life. She describes it as the ‘ultimate abuse of power of the most vulnerable in our society’.

Why is the end of the novel narrated by Harold?

Jude is meant to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator but Harold stands in for the reader and provides another perspective. He’s a Greek Chorus appearing after traumatic moments in Jude’s life, providing a pause. She says she knew what the last line was going to be and wrote towards it.

How long was she living with the characters before she began writing?

Five years but she didn’t realise that until she sat down to write.

Which questions was she pondering whilst writing?

She was thinking about friendship, what it can do for us and what we can expect from it and about love, how it can never save or redeem you. Is there a moment when life becomes unbearable? Do we owe it to the people we love to help them find a way out of it?

How do you feel about redemption?

She doesn’t believe in it but thinks that as humans in society we have to pursue it.

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

How do you get into the minds of your male characters?

She says it helps if your characters aren’t meant to stand in for anything larger, including men in general. How do you write something other than you and do it convincingly? You don’t make them stand in for or represent a group. They just need to be compelling, distinctive, interesting characters.

Was A Little Life the first title?

Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days was the alternative title. She says she wanted to show that all of our lives are equally meaningful and meaningless at the same time. She says the title has proved difficult to translate into some languages.

Would she consider writing any extra scenes for A Little Life?

There are things she wishes she’d done to make the book a little longer, particularly with Jude and Willem’s relationship, which she describes as defying what a relationship is allowed to be. It’s a more lineal relationship – it borrows from love and friendship but takes a third path.

Why did she decide to give all of the characters a level of privilege that meant they’re all successful? Does it allow her to go to dark places with them?

She made them successful because groups like this are a phenomenon in New York City. Also Jude’s life is easier with money to cope with his disabilities and constant care. Money prevents people from seeing Jude clearly, he’s reduced to being successful.

Which books move you/do you enjoy/appreciate?

 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is the best book this year. Ishiguro has a single theme – the oppression of memory – but does it differently in each book.

Hilary Mantel had a complete change of style mid-career with The Giant O’Brien and she’d love to know how she pulled that off.

John Banville writes beautiful prose. She tells us she hid from meeting him in Dublin when he came to her event there.

Rentzenbrink ends the evening by asking Yanagihara if there’s anything next. She’s interested in ships and books set on ships because they’re a microcosm of people thrown together. She’s interested in the change the shipping trade brought to Asia in the 1840s but knows that this will take a lot of research so she might write something else in between.

With that, Yanagihara takes her place behind the signing desk as the queue to meet her stretches the length of the room.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Are you happy? he once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).

I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last, as if Willem had been offering him a dish he didn’t want to eat.

A Little Life starts as the story of four friends living in New York City. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm met at college and have remained friends into their late twenties. Jude and Willem are renting an apartment together. Malcolm’s living at home and JB’s living in a ‘massive, filthy loft in Little Italy’.

JB is an artist but is working as a receptionist at an art magazine in Soho trying to convince them to feature him. Early on in the novel he begins to take photographs of their group, photographs that will eventually make him very successful although that success will come at a price. Willem is an actor, waiting tables at the beginning of the novel but, like JB, he will go on to become incredibly successful. Malcolm works for Ratstar Architects, a position he only took to please his parents. He wants to create buildings and makes small, detailed models. He will also go on to be incredibly successful. Jude is an assistant prosecutor in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Guess what? He will also go on to be incredibly successful. However, Jude becomes the focus of the novel as his background and the consequences of it are far more complex than those of the other characters.

They were talking but Jude’s eyes were closed, and Willem knew – from the constant, hummingbird-flutter of his eyelids and the way his hand was curled into a fist so tight that Willem could see the ocean-green threads of his veins jumping under the back of his hand – that he was in pain. He knew from how rigid Jude was holding his legs, which were resting atop a box of books, that the pain was severe, and he knew too that there was nothing he could do for him. If he said, “Jude, let me get you some aspirin,” Jude would say, “I’m fine, Willem, I don’t need anything,” and if he said, “Jude, why don’t you lie down,” Jude would say, “Willem. I’m fine. Stop worrying.” So finally, he did what they had all learned over the years to do when Jude’s legs were hurting him, which was to make some excuse, get up, and leave the room, so Jude could lie perfectly still and wait for the pain to pass without having to make conversation or expend energy pretending that everything was fine and that he was just tired, or had cramp, or whatever feeble explanation he was able to invent.

 Jude has problems with his legs that stem from a car incident. The nature of this incident isn’t related until late on in the book but it is revealed early in the novel that Jude was abandoned by some bins as a baby and discovered by monks who took him in and brought him up whilst systematically abusing him. Jude’s friends know little about his upbringing, only Andy, his doctor, knows the details of his childhood. Andy treats Jude for the long-term injuries inflicted by the abuse and for Jude’s self-harming which is frequent and often very severe.

As well as his close friends, Jude develops a strong relationship with his university tutor, Harold Stein. Jude begins working for Harold as a research assistant. Eventually he’s invited for dinner and then, along with Willem, JB and Malcolm, to their house on Cape Cod. Over the years, visits become a ritual and finally, Harold and his wife, Julia, adopt Jude as their adult son.

A Little Life is a harrowing read. The abuse inflicted upon Jude and the abuse he inflicts upon himself is brutal and relentless. The detail Yanagihara writes in gives the novel an overwhelming, claustrophobic feel. As a reader, you are entombed in Jude’s world, watching and feeling his suffering but unable to do anything about it. You are placed in the same position as his friends and it’s a heart-breaking position to be in.

But it’s the portrayal of these friendships that are key to the novel’s success: Yanagihara details the shifts as the men get older and become successful in each of their fields. She shows what happens as romantic relationships form and priorities change. The friendships revolve around Jude, the absence of knowledge about his childhood creating a magnetic effect that draws them to him and keep them orbiting, wondering at the contents of the void and trying to support him through the damage inflicted upon him.

There’s been a lot of discussion about this novel on Twitter recently and it’s interesting to see the range of reactions. A Little Life is clearly not for everyone. It is harrowing, it is intense, it is an experience. It details an unusual life. What I think is particularly impressive is that Yanagihara has taken four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through.

My problem with the novel is that once again, a brilliant female novelist is being lauded for a brilliant book written about men (see also Hilary Mantel and A.M. Homes). I have no doubt that if A Little Life had a cast of four female characters reviews would have made comparisons to Sex and the City and heavyweight prize panels wouldn’t have been anywhere near as keen to shortlist it. It’s been interesting on a similar note to see people criticize Yanagihara for having completed the first draft of this 720 page book in 18 months. Last year when Kashuo Ishiguro revealed that he drafted the 270 page, Booker Prize winning, The Remains of the Day in three weeks, he was a genius and everyone else should quit trying.

Despite my concern, there’s no doubt that A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s rare for me to become so absorbed in a novel that I feel as though I’ve lived it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing it and I couldn’t read anything else for days after either, there was no space left in my brain.

A Little Life moves the idea of what the Great American Novel is on to something a little more representative of actual people. Yes, Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm are all living the American Dream but – at last – we have moved beyond the realm of the white middle class. I look forward to seeing Hanya Yanagihara celebrated on the cover of Time magazine.

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

Bravo The Booker Prize!

If you’d told me I’d be writing a post with the title above a year ago when I wrote this about the lack of women on the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist, or even on Tuesday when I tweeted this:

then I would have laughed at you. But yesterday at midday the 2015 longlist was revealed and it’s the most exciting, most diverse longlist the prize has ever created.

For only the second time since longlists have been published, there are more female writers than male writers (7 to 6) and for the first time ever, almost half of the list are books by writers of colour (6 to 7 by white writers). I’ve read and reviewed three of the books and enjoyed them all: Lila by Marilynne Robinson, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. I’m particularly thrilled about The Chimes as I think it’s been largely ignored in the UK and it’s a clever, inventive book with a gripping story.

I’ve also read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (review coming on publication week) and it’s my tip for the win at the moment. It’s an extraordinary novel, one of the best I’ve ever read. I already have two of the other novels by women on my TBR: The Green Road by Anne Enright and Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy so I’ll be making a start on those shortly. I’m intrigued by The Moor’s Account by Leila Lalami and will pick that up when the paperback’s published.

A brief mention for the men too as, for the first time in years, I’m excited to read books listed by them too! I’m very keen to read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I had a peek at the first page yesterday and its lyrical prose had me hooked. Sunjeev Sahota’s from down the road and his book The Year of the Runaways is set in Sheffield which gives it added interest for me. I also heard him read from it earlier in the year and was intrigued. Finally Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family for two reasons: several years ago I read his first memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man which was very well written and the novel has a female protagonist, which intrigues me.

It’s impossible to know whether the diversity of this year’s list has been instigated by new director, Gaby Wood, or this year’s chair of judges, Michael Wood (or indeed the judges collectively), or whether there’s been a change in submissions from publishers (although I find it hard to believe the 156 submissions are split equally by gender and white writers/writers of colour). Whatever the reason for this development, it’s a welcome one. Although it’s still possible (although I would have thought unlikely) for the judges to create an all-male or an all-white shortlist, it is both possible for them to create an all-female or an all-writers of colour shortlist and impossible for them to create an all-white male shortlist and, at last, that looks like progress.

Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)

Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)

Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)

Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)

Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)

Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)

Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)

Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)

Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)