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Nathan Green
Nathan Green

A Little Life: A Novel

I feel like at the bottom of all of these essays is this Oedipal impulse to murder A Little Life and all it represents because that novel and novels like it represent some inaccessible realm of sentiment or set of aesthetic moves that lie outside of the interest or mode of the person doing the projecting. No one is making them or you or me or anyone write anything. You are free. Nobody is going to make you put a sad gay boy in your book. No one is going to make you make your character come out to someone in order to get a book deal. The barrier between you and your goals is not Hanya Yanagihara or Garth Greenwell or Ocean Vuong or Douglas Stuart. They are not holding your dreams captive.

A Little Life: A Novel

this!! is so good! When I was younger, I invested a lot of energy (for some reason) in decrying the way that queer people were depicted in media. But as I've gotten older, I just don't have the angry energy for attacking other queer people for the types of stories they want to write. I'll still make fun of the occasional big media schlock-fest, but otherwise, none of us will get out of our ambivalence about marginalization through yelling at people on Twitter. Should being gay be normalized, legal, mainstream, and safe? Or should it be cool and edgy and involve lots of drugs and orgies? I don't know, and I don't really want to tell other people what to think. I'll just write my little things in the corner.

Gay men are writing this tiresome genre of Oedipal essay in which they decry the status of contemporary gay writing as being too serious or not serious enough, too sad or too happy, too focused on trauma or too irreverent, too ironic or too sincere, too much about sex or not enough, not realistic about apps and hook ups or too realistic about apps and hook-ups. Contemporary gay fiction is a place where one can arrive and leave satisfied and by satisfied, I mean, with sufficient cause to be annoyed online and in their little Google docs across media. They type away, sneering and furious, or sad, or horny, or bored, or distracted, or amused, or glad, or perhaps, they aren\u2019t typing at all. Perhaps, they are dictating. Or holding forth in a bar, gesturing, trying to get a thought or set of thoughts to cohere, trying out arguments for the death of Big Gay Literature on their friends. Telling them provocative, mildly homophobic, acidic things about how gay novels with gray book covers have so maimed the public consciousness that we\u2019re all just tender faggots full of feeling. Or something. The Homosexual Essayist is perhaps drinking something clear or something dark, something vinegary, something like piss, something not at all like piss that they imagine to themselves that they will describe as being like piss. Perhaps they flick ashes from their cigarettes and type a little note to themselves on their phone. Musing all the while about all the great thoughts they will one day fashion into a slinky, amusing little number that is by turns serious and unserious, faggy and masc, camp and delightful, full of allusions and alliteration, full of all the shaggy shambolic things stripped out of art by the Emotion Industrial Complex of the Iowa Writers\u2019 Workshop\u2014which, did you know, was a CIA thing?

Sometimes, when you are mad and wild with hunger, you think to yourself, I should kill a God. You think, Everyone who reads my work thinks that I\u2019m trying to do what that faggot over there is doing but I am not like them because I think bareback sex is funny but also not funny and once I let a man spit on my lower back and sometimes I do coke in public, and also I read Marx while stoned one summer and I think that these novels are bourgeois and dishonest and we have to stop them. Don\u2019t we all feel that way as we watch people do what it is that we want to do in a way that feels slightly too close to the way in which we want to do it? Particularly when our sense of ourselves is not robust and not strong, when we are full of doubt and anxiety. The first we way know to secure the ego against death is to kill. To rend and make the God over in our own image.

When Hanya Yanagihara\u2019s second novel came out, it became a bit of a cultural phenomenon. It was hailed and lauded and came very close to winning major awards, and did win others. It sold like gangbusters. And became kind of a moment, no? The novel, if you are unfamiliar, is about a group of gay and gay-ish men living in New York. The novel tackles themes of abuse, violence, trauma, sweater porn, aspirational wealth, etc. It\u2019s one of those novels that people read and then spend their whole lives telling people, I sobbed. All the way through. I mean, it was fine. I didn\u2019t sob. I didn\u2019t feel anything. It gave fanfiction, if we are being totally honest. And I understand that very brilliant people (some of whom are dear to me) have made robust critical arguments on behalf of the novel and its importance, and I believe that they feel that way. And I think the arguments have merit and stand on their own. It just was not one of my favorite books, though I have learned not to be surprised that books take hold of people in mysterious ways. Life is a rich tapestry.

I bring up A Little Life because it represented something of an aberration. The novel on its surface is as commercial and generic as you can get when it comes to a bestseller. It\u2019s a sweeping, multi-decade epic about a small kinship group that chronicles the changes in their lives and relationships against a vaguely familiar urban American backdrop. Where it diverges is that at the center of this novel is not a white family or a troubled but charismatic ethnic family, but a found family of sorts. A Little Life represents a kind of mainstreaming of queerness, coinciding with marriage equality and all that Obama optimism and Drag Race, of course. At its core, the novel is sentimental. It affirms and reaffirms bourgeois family values. There is violence in the novel, yes, but even this violence, which might have turned the novel gothic if not for the fact that even in its darkest moments, it affirms a belief, quite homophobic, that deep down, perhaps some people aren\u2019t meant to go on and that some people are forever disfigured by their trauma and their wounds. And, like, yeah, that kind of seems wild and provocative, but I am not sure the novel actually\u2026has the guts to back up that claim? Like, spoiler alert, Jude, the abused character, dies by his own decision. And, in doing so, exerts agency for the first time in his life. Because to live would have been for the benefit of others, and, like, yeah. But also\u2026the final gestures of the novel is that his loved ones accept this decision and they view it as a way of loving him, and in this way, the loop is closed and we\u2019re back to sentiment. Like, the novel is not actually that deep. It\u2019s actually the least surprising thing in the world that a sweeping multi-decade epic about a family\u2019s changes in a shifting America would be a commercial success? The surprise was that it was about gays.

But times have changed. Slightly. In ways mostly measured in capitalist accumulation. Which is to say that people feel that A Little Life spawned a genre of books about harrowing trauma and difficult life circumstances, and that such books painted contemporary queer life as being one-dimensional and uniformly sad. Where was all the cum guzzling? The felching! The fisting! The delicious right of strobes over a slick linoleum dance floor? Where was the orgy of pleasure, sensation, the hedonistic blitz and glamor that had launched a thousand boyhood fantasies of moving to large urban centers and going home with men who looked like their PE teachers? WHERE WAS IT?! All we had were lyrical novels of contemporary experience! Men being sad in bathrooms! Men being sad after sex! Men getting raped by trusted family friends or being attacked for being femme! No one got attacked for being femme anymore! RuPaul was on TV! Lin Manuel Miranda said Love is Love! It\u2019s giving misery porn, my loves. It\u2019s giving trauma porn, my loves. Where is the porn, my loves? Call Me by Your Name didn\u2019t even have barebacking! Where are the gay romcoms! Where are the gay love fests?! Where are the gay spy dramas! I wanna see Daniel Craig grip them ankles! Mine or his!

I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the\u2026I don\u2019t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative. Where the field of combat is Twitter, the narrative in question is, well, movies and television or whatever streaming counts as these days. Where the venue of combat is the essay, then the narrative is often a novel or a film you might watch with your Mubi subscription or whatever. Yet the terms of engagement often remain the same. How best to let our white dolls fuck in the made-up stories we play in our minds. Or not fuck. Or do ketamine. Or not do ketamine. Whatever. Like, when these people are arguing about gay fiction being humorless or gay fiction being too sad, they are not arguing about, like, a genre of gay fiction that includes my work or the work of someone like Bryan Washington or James Hannaham or Saeed Jones or Robert Jones. Jr, even. They are arguing about depictions of white gays. Cis white gays. And they dress it up in concerns re:what is bourgeois or what is not bourgeois enough, etc. Black people. Blackness. Does not figure into their critique or their arguments, because in their minds, the general case is a white case. The exception is Ocean Vuong\u2019s work. But in that case, they foreground his style in their critique without dealing with, like, the fact that his work grapples with the experience of living in a diaspora shaped by colonial violence? Like??? And you could say, like, Yanagihara is not a white man! And I agree. And her novel isn\u2019t about white people! Most of the cast is black! And yes, that is true. On its surface. But, like, do the white people who read that book know that? I would argue that that book is a kind of passing fantasy because most of the characters in it achieve a level of functional whiteness that was aspirational for certain people. Like, I think Yanagihara\u2019s book is interesting re: race in a meta way, and I would love to have that conversation, but that is very much not the conversation happening around that novel. 041b061a72


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