Dark Medicine: Thoughts on Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'

Life won't let you go; not because brighter days are right around the corner, but because it just won't

Crying is its own special kind of moral argument. Many years ago when I was an undergrad at NYU's acting school, we were all awestruck by the first few students who cried real tears during a scene or an improv exercise. After President Barack Obama's recent speech on gun control, the covers of the two main New York tabloids featured close ups of his tear-streaked face. And on the back cover of Hanya Yanagihara's new book A Little Life, a prominent critic is quoted as saying that it's one of the only novels she's ever read that reduced her to tears. Crying, or admitting to having cried about something, is another way of saying that a particular book or idea or event was somehow singular and powerful enough to penetrate your defenses and self-involvement, forcing you to drop everything and face it wholly


But crying exposes and embarrasses us, too. So once the gravitas wears off, public acts or admissions of crying can provoke an eye-rolling backlash — accusations of showboating or spinelessness. Real tears mean something, but as a public statement, they can backfire.

This is all by way of prelude to saying that Yanagihara's A Little Life made me cry more than once, for reasons that I think make it one of the deepest, most morally resonant novels I've ever read. Up there in the mental canon alongside The Brothers Karamazov

One of the most common refrains in reviews of the book is the idea that it's painful or grueling to read because it deals with deeply uncomfortable subjects. That's not inaccurate, but it's beside the point. While the book is completely engrossing and beautifully written, it's difficult in the way that picking up the scalpel and making an incision in that first cadaver must be for medical students. Difficult but necessary. Yanagihara puts Jude (arguably the book's main character) through tortures and self-tortures no human should have to endure. Real humans do endure torture, though, often silently and alone — and in writing unflinchingly about Jude's experience Yanagihara is practicing (and teaching her readers) the most difficult kind of compassion. The kind that refuses to look away no matter how bad things get. 

From his early childhood and adolescence (which is revealed progressively in flashbacks) through middle age, Jude survives a relentless series of amputations, physical and figurative. He survives not because life is great or brighter days are just around the corner, but because his mind and body compartmentalize and compensate for the losses, sometimes in horrible ways. For example, he's what popular psychology calls a cutter. He slices up his forearms with razorblades in a (usually) tightly controlled nighttime ritual. At the same time, he becomes a formidable corporate attorney because in that sphere he has total control over his identity. His past is irrelevant — all that matters to the firm is his ability to bring in clients and his efficacy in the courtroom. And when Jude's powerful survival mechanisms (the cutting, the workaholism) fail, his close-knit group of friends and adoptive family rises up like an immune response to protect him — to keep him alive even against his determined will to die. 

In striking contrast to the sentimental survival narratives that drive pop culture these days, stories in which people overcome all obstacles in order to become their true, amazing selves, A Little Life presents survival as a raw biological imperative that's almost impossible to escape. Life won't let you go; not because brighter days are right around the corner, but because it just won't. 

The second thing A Little Life is mainly about is friendship. How real friendship, like real life, takes many surprising forms. Having survived his meat grinder of a childhood, college freshman Jude meets Willem, Malcolm, and JB. For the next three decades, until some things happen that I'd better not disclose, their lives remain deeply intertwined. Friendship — one friendship especially — is the defining feature of Jude's adult life, so much so that he almost becomes part of a larger biological system. This is what pop-psychology likes to call co-dependence, and Yanagihara refutes this charge explicitly. Why, Jude wonders at one point, does psychology construct these models of normalcy and attempt to force real life to conform to them? By what right does it label certain patterns of behavior "pathological" outside of the mitigating and infinitely varied circumstances of individual lives? In other words, who are they to tell me what it is I need to survive? 

The third and final thing the book is about, in a sense the effect for which it seems to have been engineered, is empathy. Not the kind that smiles condescendingly and sends flowers, but the kind that's there for you when the phone rings at four in the morning. The book draws you in and forces you to face how singular a human life can be — how utterly different from yours or any other.

Hence the weeping: Reading the book, I was hit full force with Jude's little life and reminded of how very little I ever see of anything outside of myself. How little anybody sees. That's captured in the triple-entendre of the title, too: literally, it's a dark reference to one of Jude's most terrible memories (another one I'll leave it to the reader to discover). But it's also about how few things any one person really lives for. And the inverse of that — the tunnel vision only unconditional love, life-changing trauma, and experiences like reading this book can break through. 

-- 

@jgots is me on Twitter

You might also like our podcast, Think Again, where we surprise smart people with unexpected ideas. Salman Rushdie, Maira Kalman, George Takei, Maria Konnikova, Henry Rollins, Bill Nye, Sam Harris and more have been on. 

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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