Still trying to plow my way through A Little Life (I paid full price for the hardcover, so I feel obligated to finish the thing). So–it’s a spoof of JT LeRoy, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation.

It can’t be a coincidence, right? The logistically impossible academic and personal achievements—there simply would not have been enough hours in the day (in between being raped, whipped with a lash dipped in vinegar, and so on) to study French, German, calculus, piano, choral singing, horticulture, animal husbandry, etc. etc., even positing the improbable presence of qualified teachers with time to spare (in between raping and torturing him) or his own presence of mind (in between being raped and tortured) to absorb the material. Brother Luke travelling around with him, pimping him out, always with the promise of the cabin in the woods later; but somehow finding clients, shady doctors, whatever else is needed, effortlessly, while also finding time and materials to continue Jude’s excellent education. Later, the concurrent law degree and masters in math? Seriously? Law students at prestigious schools don’t sleep as it is; no saying what the MIT math department’s masters program is like, I guess, since it doesn’t exist. (“What’s your favorite axiom?” Does Yanagihara imagine this is how conversations go at MIT? Jesus Christ.) Then somehow–the icing on the proverbial fucking cake, a little on the nose, don’t you think?–he’s become a professional cake decorator, and he’s doing that on the weekends, perfectly, of course, at the same time.

The weirdest part is that it’s not simply improbable: it has the specifically unverifiable improbability of a JT LeRoy or a Tony Johnson. The absence of birth records, foster care records, academic records. The social worker with boundary/professional ethics issues, taking Jude home with her—then conveniently dying, so she can’t be interviewed later. Brother Luke hanging himself, so he never goes to a trial that could be verified in court records. The doctor who sees Jude after hours, at his home, and doesn’t bill him or accept insurance. The vagueness of the actual injuries. Jude’s concealing clothing, with what is concealed never questioned by, and never accidentally exposed to, people who actually share a bedroom with him. For years. The invisibility of Jude himself—we see his undeniable charismatic effect on others, but we never see him, his physicality, as it appears to others, even down to an ethnicity that would allow us to picture him in the broadest outlines; we see only the scars, that parts that are concealed, and those through the lens of Jude’s awareness. Jude is an absence at the center of his own story.

If this what Yanagihara intended, kudos for conceiving an interesting project and carrying it through. I am still unimpressed by her writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, but the project would explain many of what would otherwise be the book’s most egregious flaws. If it’s intended as a spoof, that is–as a commentary on the literary audience’s appetite for grue, or as a statement about the othering and consequent secondary victimization of actual survivors of abuse that the commoditization of these themes produces. I suppose it’s possible that she simply admires Laura Albert’s work, finds it powerful, and wishes to emulate it. Or that she recognizes the commoditization and her potential to profit from it.

In any case, Yanagihara’s intentions wouldn’t excuse the pronoun thing:

Passages in which Jude is the point-of-view character never use his name; he is always identified by a third-person pronoun (except within dialogue). Combine that with the fact that the dramatis personae is almost exclusively male (this thing scores negative infinity on the Bechdel test) and you’ve got some serious challenges for resolving pronoun reference. Passages with different POV characters don’t show the same mannerism; Yanagihara seems to be using it to say some specific thing about Jude. I don’t know what that thing is, though, and the result is a failure, as far as I’m concerned; it’s confusing and intrusive–an object lesson in the shortcomings of high-concept syntax.