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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara'sA Little Lifeis the thinking person's big book of the year so far, a long, complex and pretty dark look at the intertwined lives of four college friends. It reminds me of The Corrections, or a starker The Interestings, or a more linear work by David Foster Wallace. Really. It's that huge and important. We asked Yanagihara "“ whose first book was the cult-hit The People in the Trees "“ to talk to us about her novel, and other favorites.
A Little Life is about New York, and aging, and ambition, and memory, and the limits of endurance. But at its heart, it's a book about male friendship. I specify "male" because I think friendship between men is different than friendship between women, or between a man and a woman: men are given (not just in our society, but in every society) a much smaller emotional toolkit to work with"”they're discouraged from expressing an entire range of feelings that women take for granted. The below are some of my favorite books about friendship between men.
Coral Glynn, by Peter Cameron: You begin this brief, brilliant shape-shifter of a novel thinking you're reading a post-war English country house book. And then it becomes a mystery. And then it becomes a dark social comedy. And then it becomes"”well, I won't say (and not least because I'm not sure how to categorize it, ultimately; only that I loved the experience of reading it). Coral may be the titular star, but I was most affected by the close, not-so-submerged sexual friendship"”shades of E.M. Forester's Maurice!"”between two of the male characters, one of whom is Coral's betrothed; they primarily express themselves in banter, but there's some beautiful and true expressions of love and devotion between them.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: Entering this novel is like entering a room completely covered in jewels"”so much glitters and beckons that for a moment, you might find yourself too dazzled to see anything at all (and what a wonderful, rare feeling that is). So it's easy to miss that beneath its awe-inspiring technical flights of fancy and sheer imaginative integrity is a very old-fashioned story about the necessarily complicated relationship between a mentor (Mr. Norrell) and his protÃ©gÃ© (Jonathan Strange), which gives this book its depth and punch.
The Untouchable, by John Banville: Banville is one of the writers I admire the most"”few people can create an image as beautifully or precisely. In The Untouchable, he accomplishes two very difficult things: first, like Hillary Mantel can and does, he writes against his own style (the sentences here are crisp, but not nearly as lush or plush as you'll find in his other works), and second, he makes new a very well-trod story"”that of the famous Cambridge spies of the 1930s. Standing in here for Anthony Burgess is Victor Maskell, and while the novel is masterful, and pin-point brilliant, on everything from upper-class English anti-Semitism (and anti-Irishness) to the group's cynical and callow embrace of Marxism, it's Victor's love for the friend of his youth, Nick Brevoort, who will eventually betray him in ways obvious and not, that makes this story as pained as it is, at times, savagely, bitterly funny.
Latecomers, by Anita Brookner: Thomas Fibich and Thomas Hartmann are emigres in London who as children were smuggled out of Nazi Germany, and grew up navigating their new country together. Brookner's beautiful novel is largely concerned with how the two Thomases"”dreamy Fibich and relentlessly optimistic Hartmann"”incorporate their pasts and vanished histories into their adulthoods, and how memory, and loss, can be passed down through generations. But at its most elemental, it's a story of how friendship, while sometimes born out of necessity, can ripen and change into something deeper and more complicated, a relationship we're unable to define even as we're unable to determine where one life begins and the other ends.
Frog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel: It's a little startling when you realize how many memorable children's books are about friendship (and how many memorable friends populate the genre: George and Martha, Benjamin and Tulip, Frances and Albert). And then it's not startling at all: friendship is, after all, how we first learn to conceive of the world and its occupants beyond our immediate family; indeed, your first friend is a defining relationship, as he represents the first person you've chosen to belong to. Of course, friendship grows more complicated as we get older"”but (or should that be "and"?) it also becomes devalued. Lobel's classic books take friendship seriously: Frog and Toad may be just a frog and a toad, but they illustrate that the first thing a successful friendship demands is that both people in the relationship want it, and know that they must work at it"”the same as in any relationship. This was the first love story I ever read, and remains one of the truest and best.