ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Weston Ochse is a former intelligence officer and special operations soldier who has engaged enemy combatants, terrorists, narco smugglers, and human traffickers. His personal war stories include performing humanitarian operations over Bangladesh, being deployed to Afghanistan, and a near miss being cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His fiction and non-fiction has been praised by USA Today, The Atlantic, The New York Post, The Financial Times of London, and Publishers Weekly. The American Library Association labeled him one of the Major Horror Authors of the 21st Century. His work has also won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, his military supernatural series SEAL Team 666 has been optioned to be a movie starring Dwayne Johnson. His military sci fi series, which starts with Grunt Life, has been praised for its PTSD-positive depiction of soldiers at peace and at war. Weston likes to be called a chaotic good paladin and challenges anyone to disagree. After all, no one can really stand a goody two-shoes lawful good character. They can be so annoying. It's so much more fun to be chaotic, even when you're striving to save the world. You can argue with him about this and other things online at Living Dangerously or on Facebook at Badasswriter. All content of this blog is copywrited by Weston Ochse.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Brief Notes on "A Little Life" - Here Be Dragons

I'd planned on writing an epic blog post about a book I'd read that took up the first four months of 2017. My intent was to break out each character -- Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude -- and tell you what each one meant to me. I wanted to relay the aching sensation I had every time I returned to read the book and the intense joy I felt with being in love with the character Jude. But in the face of Hanya Yanagihara's epic words, mine would seem but unintelligible whisper. 

This is not a book review. I'm not going to tell you the plot, except only that it is about a not so little life. What I will tell you is that this is not only the best book I've ever read, but it is my favorite book of all time.

Allow me to share my journey to this book. 

In 2016, I'd read about this Pulitzer Prize winning novel called The Goldfinch (2013) written by Donna Tartt. Although I write horror, thriller, and science fiction, I don't generally read a lot in my chosen genres. I spend most of my time toiling through the sub-genres of literary fiction, such as neo-romanticism and  meta-fiction. I dabble in the classics, love a good detective novel, and when I see a list of best of books, I tend to try them out. 

For instance, the three great books I read in 2016 were The Goldfinch, The Secret History (1992), and A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). The Goldfinch lived up to its reputation and was a magnificent journey through a life that began with an explosion, a theft, and a promise. I chose to read The Secret History next, because it was also written by Donna Tartt and advertised as being a modern A Catcher in the Rye. I thrashed through that novel gleefully, enjoying the academic bildungsroman journeys of its cast. Because I'd read The Secret History on my iPad, Amazon's sagacious algorithm advised me to read A Gentleman in Moscow next. I enjoyed it as much as the other books, even though the bildungsroman was completely different. I found in this book a new soul and an idea that was was old can always be new. I loaned a copy to my mother, because we often enjoy the same sort of books. She didn't read it right away and I was worried that she hadn't liked it and was too gracious to tell me. Then the other day, I received a short succinct Facebook message reminiscent of a teletype from last century that read: You are correct. A Gentleman in Moscow is one of the great novels of our time. Thank you for introducing me to it. Hard Stop.

What does one do after that? What does one read? As it turned out, I'd also read A Gentleman in Moscow on my iPad, but because I'd loved it so, I bought a hardback. There were parts that were so brilliantly written that I wanted to mark them, go back and reread them. This is what I loaned to my mother (hoping one day to get it back). Because I'd also read it on iPad, I returned to the Oracle of Amazon and asked what I was to read next. That's when it introduced me to A Little Life. Sometime in January, after I turned in my latest novel Burning Sky to Solaris Books fulfilling my contract, I sat down and began reading A Little Life on my iPad. 

At over 700 pages, this is a serious book. I hadn't known how long it was and had I known, the length might have scared me away. The first fifty pages or so was a bildungroman of four characters, fresh out of college. This was the getting to know them phase of the book and then things changed drastically.
"The clearest sign that A Little Life will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, A Little Life becomes a surprisingly subversive novel—one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery. And having upset our expectations once, Yanagihara does it again, by refusing us the consolations we have come to expect from stories that take such a dark turn." (The New Yorker)

It is in the author's unflinching delivery, her reluctance to let us lick our own tattered wounds, that
sends the emotional narrative sizzling. There were moments reading this book that I wondered if I wasn't going to need a support group once I was finished.
If A Little Life's heart is the push-pull of individual annihilation, then its heart is friendship.  Notice in the quote below that it mentions friendship as solace, because everything else that happens is so terrible.

"Friendship is the solace in A Little Life, as it is in any life riven with anxiety, and it is rendered so exquisitely lifelike here – replete with beauty and dark currents – that it almost approximates the real thing. The characters’ friendships represent the type of love known as agape, described by CS Lewis in The Four Loves as the highest level of love known to humanity: “A selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the well being of the other.” Most books are still caught up in a world where romance and sex takes precedence, but we’re now in a cultural moment in which relationships – romantic, sexual, platonic, polygamous, online, all this together and more – are accepted as much more fluid and complex than they used to be. A Little Life succeeds and connects because it is willing to explore those nuances. We mightn’t be able to recognize ourselves in the darker material – the cutting, the urge for annihilation – but something rings true and real about the love between friends in an anxious world." (The Guardian)

Not for nothing, A Little Life had some recognition:

    2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlist
    2015 National Book Award for Fiction, finalist
    2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist
    2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction, winner
    2017 International Dublin Literary Award, shortlist

Recently, I reached out to a book dealer in New York and bought a signed first edition for a sum I wouldn't normally pay. The most I'd paid for a first edition previously was for my third favorite book, China Mieville's The Scar (This is a middle book of a trilogy, as is my second favorite book, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. Funny that I like middle books.). The signed first edition of A Little History cost even more than The Scar, but then, what is one to do if one might want to sit in a chair, hold a book, and reminisce about one's journey through it. 

My experience with A Little Life might be different than your own. But unless you read it, you will never understand the frustration and joy one can simultaneously experience. Just know this. Do not do so gently. Be wary. There was once a belief that on the edges of old paper maps where the cartographer didn't know what was there would be written the words Here Be Dragons. Unless you have traveled through a black soul and seen the other side, you have no idea what you are about to experience. So I'll leave you with this. In A Little Life, Here Be Dragons.