I have recently read two long novels, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas. That I got through both of them is testament to their ability to grab a reader since, in my cranky old age, I now abandon novels sixty, eight, even a hundred twenty pages in, if I lose interest.
One striking thing in both novels is that the characters become wealthy way past ordinary dreams. A thirteen year old son in the Wolas novel starts a software company that makes him a billionaire by the age of twenty-two, while his mother, the Joan Ashby of the title, just has to have her fiction submitted anonymously to a literary agent to secure million dollar advances and two million dollar movie deals. In A Little Life the climb to fame and fortune takes a little bit longer (one of the novel’s strengths is its portrayal of young artists on the make in New York City), but the four friends at the core of the novel each succeed in ways denied to 99% of humanity, becoming a famous movie star, an acclaimed painter, a highly successful architect, and a top corporate lawyer respectively. And they have the multiple houses and fabulous vacations to show for their virtue-gotten wealth.
Yanagihara is shrewd about the moment of the “turn,” the moment when her protagonists realize that they have “made it,” that they have stepped across the line into success. But the shrewdness doesn’t extend to a realization that the “turn” happens to very few. Most people slug along, with successes here and there, but without ever crossing that line, without even securing permanent fame or security. They have “good enough” careers that are always a struggle, always retain the possibility of collapsing, don’t ever “make it” once and for all. Just like very few people attain the levels of wealth that allow all money worries to disappear entirely. Both novels do suggest that for people under forty these days, especially if your life is centered in New York City, it is obvious that being a millionaire doesn’t cut it. Only hundreds of millions reaching toward a billion register in today’s economy—or today’s dreamscape.
Does this matter? In one way, no. If an author wants to take money and career anxieties off the table in order to focus on other things, that’s OK. But in another way it does raise the question of the “realistic” novel. Both of these novels tell stories about people presented as our contemporaries. Both aspire to psychological depth and complexity. They do aspire to be reports to readers about our current physical, mental, and spiritual condition. So I can’t help but think that their wet dream visions of fame and wealth are telling in and of themselves. It seems to suggest that what the two authors truly want is fame and fortune. Even if they, F. Scott Fitzgerald fashion, must rely on sheer magic to get to that promised land. The rest be damned.
Wolas’s novel comes very, very close to making that point its main theme. Her heroine, Joan Ashby, deeply regrets having sacrificed her art to family life. Her “resurrection” comes with abandoning that family and, especially, her responsibilities as a mother. Of course, she is rewarded by writing a best-selling novel and meeting a dreamy new lover. Naturally, the new man is not just a hunk, but also a world-famous photographer. When we occupy such a blatant script of wish fulfillment, it’s hard to know how to credit the “truths” the novel clearly aspires to convey to us.
Even more confusing is the fact that the central event of the novel makes no sense at all. Joan Ashby’s son (the other one, not the computer genius) steals an unpublished novel of hers and has it published under a pseudonym. Somehow this is meant to assuage his horror at being the untalented one of the family. But how? Since the book is published under a pseudonym and he must refuse all in-person interviews or book signings in order to keep his nefarious deed a secret, what exactly did he expect to get out of this?
His mother, upon finding out, doesn’t confront him and ask why he has done this, but flees instead to India in hopes of meeting the Dalai Lama, who will bring her enlightenment. But she also nurses a sense of deep grievance. Her son has stolen her soul by stealing her novel, committing a sin that is irreparable. But the remedy lies directly to hand. Just announce to the world that the book was published under a pseudonym, but is actually the work of Joan Ashby. There are plenty of hints, although never a direct statement, that Joan craves the attention and acclaim that comes with successful authorship. It is that which the son has stolen from her since, after all, she has all the rest: the satisfaction of having written a well-received novel, the knowledge of having gained many readers, and all the money the book has earned. Yet—and this is the kicker—the novel clearly expects us to sympathize entirely with Joan, to feel as outraged as her with what has transpired, and to see her flight (and refusal to deal with either her son or her husband) as not only understandable, but as heroic and noble. The lack of any dissenting perspectives on Joan robs the book of the very depth to which it aspires. Chasing fame and fortune trumps all else—and it is just assumed that, of course, readers will agree. We will root for Joan and be thrilled when, in the end, she gets to have it all.
The Yanagihara novel is more complex. It is, as its many readers and reviewers have noted, a melodrama. Characters come in only two shades: black and white. The one exception is the painter J.B., who drops out of the novel about half-way through. But what the reviews I have read did not mention is how class-bound the melodrama is. There is a wild America out there, the America of what we now think of as Trumpland. It is a violent place, made up of sexual perverts and violent sadists. It has no redeeming qualities and can only treat an innocent like Jude (the novel’s victim) with endless abuse. But if you can sail from that hell into a liberal arts college and get taken up by the members and scions of the professional upper middle class, all will be well. These people are so well-behaved, so well-meaning, so nice. Except for one bad encounter with a violent lover, Jude is only surrounded by supportive, loving, non-violent people once he gets to college at age sixteen. Niceness can’t overcome the traumas of Jude’s horrible childhood—which is why the New Yorker review found the novel so bracing. Here was a writer brave enough to forego redemption or recovery for its victimized protagonist. But that’s not really how it happens. Jude is saved by Willhelm’s love. The author has to kill Willhelm off in a car accident to get Jude to the desired end: his suicide. Daniel Medelsohn in the New York Review of Books thus proclaims the author the true sadist of this tale—and wonders why readers have loved a book that tortures its main character over hundreds of pages.
The lesson in Wolas’s novel seems pretty clear: money and a love of art will get you through. Neither alone is enough, but if you have both, then you can survive this rough world. There is more than that to Yanagihara’s tale. What makes A Little Life such a moving novel (it is a very, very powerful melodrama, with the full Dickensian ability to make you cry) is its insistence that the real key—even though money and satisfying, well received work are essential—is friendship. Neither novel believes (if that is the right word) in romantic love. For Wolas, such love is a trap. For Yanagihara, such love is only valuable the more it resembles, shades into, friendship. Companionship is at the heart of A Little Life and the source of its emotional richness. A disdain of companionship as weakness is what finally marks the airlessness of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.