It seems that Daniel Mendelsohn isn’t that impressed with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I haven’t read the book yet–it’s in the stack–so I look forward to approaching it with his comments to inform my reading. He seems to be saying that he initially expects the book to be short on plot, but then finds that it’s “sidetracked” by (you guessed it) a plot; this is the kind of observation that may turn out to be either a deep insight into a flaw in the novel’s structure, or simply dumb, so I’m curious to see which it is. I am somewhat fatigued with homosexual pedophilia as the go-to trauma in fiction, I’m uncomfortable with physical disability as a metaphor for a “crippled”* spirit, and Mendelsohn’s comments on reading A Little Life as a “gay novel” are worth attention, so I suspect I may end up on his side on this point.

However, I was confused by this bit:

The awkwardness of “which he didn’t yet consider himself among” is, I should say, pervasive. The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical—“his mother…had earned her doctorate in education, teaching all the while at the public school near their house that she had deemed JB better than”—and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects: “His silence, so black and total that it was almost gaseous…” You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out—and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.

I won’t dispute “gaseous silence,” but for the other two examples in this paragraph: “incoherently ungrammatical”? Mendelsohn … doesn’t accept preposition stranding? That is a bit surprising; as he points out, A Little Life is a novel of the twenty-first century, and modern American English is pretty comfortable with stranded prepositions. Mendelsohn, indeed, doesn’t eschew them in his own prose:

Yanagihara’s new book would seem, at first glance, to have satisfied her wish for a “tribe” she could devote an entire novel to.

…by the priest he runs away with…

In the end, her novel is little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in—unsurprisingly, the very emotions that, in her Kirkus Reviews interview, she listed as the ones she was interested in, the ones she felt men were incapable of expressing: fear, shame, vulnerability.

That last example earns bonus points for two stranded prepositions in a single, convoluted sentence. I’m sure Mendelsohn prides himself on his frequent “in which”es and “to whom”s, but in point of fact, he’s perfectly willing to strand a preposition when the mood, or the context, takes him.

It just goes to show you what an education in linguistics is worth; here I sit ranting to the saltshaker about the nattering nabobs of normativity, as Mendelsohn fails to parse grammatical English sentences for a substantial audience, railing all the while at standard syntax that he fancies himself better than.

*Mendelsohn’s review uses the word “cripple,” repeatedly. I’m not pleased. Perhaps this is Yanagihara’s term? If so, the New York Review of Books‘ style guide should disallow it unless called out as such. We get “queer” in scare quotes in the same piece, for god’s sake.