June 25, 2015

The Purpose of Literature

Crushed. Assaulted. Broken. Pulverized.

I am not sure the purpose of literature. What do we expect from books? Where do we hope they can take us? Who do they reveal us to be upon completion? Do they make us think? Feel? See things we never knew existed? Are they meant to tear our hearts out, burn them to ash and force us to choke on the ash? Are they supposed to reconfigure every molecule of our being and leave us exhausted and unable to piece ourselves back together? Is obliteration the purpose of good art?

If so, then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will not disappoint. I started this 700 page plus tome last Sunday and quickly buried myself in its world. I fell in love with its characters, while also loathing them for their inability to give me any answers.

This post is not meant to be a critical review. I will not tell you about who these four men are or how their lifetime of joy and suffering is a testament to our human ability to endure unimaginable pain. There is no need to look at the plot, that spans decades and covers a nation, but rests in New York City. All you need to know is that this book will haunt you.

I was going to write that I have not read a book of this magnitude in years, but I can honestly say, excuse my hyperbole, that I have never read a book that made me feel this uncomfortable. I am at a loss for words.

I often ask my students to tell me what a book is about without mentioning plot or character to see if they have a basic understanding of the themes. A Little Life is about:

Pain and redemption. Forgiveness and self-acceptance in the face of abuse and trauma and self-hatred. It is about victim-hood and friendship. It is about rape and sex and sexuality. It is about a more imaginative look at masculinity. It is about what we demand from each other and what we offer and call love. It is about the fragility of childhood and how we can never escape our past. It is about self-harm, suicide and fear. It is about how easily we are broken and how long it takes to heal.

I am not sure the purpose of literature, but I suspect that at the very least it should shatter a small part of our universe and force us to diligently put it back together. And what we recreate, will never look like the original. The broken shards will leave scars and we should be prepared to hurt.

But it is fiction after all. The stories of men and women who have never existed.  We see glimpses of them in the mirrors we look into everyday, but through literature the hurt and the pain and the scars are self-inflicted. We can put a book down. Walk away. Contemplate. We can learn.

To be more loving to ourselves and the ones who we love and who love us. We can be more kind to strangers, seeing that we are all suffering in our own small ways. We can be more grateful and patient and understanding. 

This book is a dark scary alley. Not one I recommend exploring light heartedly. But sometimes your entire being needs to face its fears. You need to grope around in the darkness and feel the terror of  real pain. If for no other reason than to remind you of the beauty and warmth of life. We can allow literature to remind us that the world is more complicated and just as simple as we need it to be. We can allow it to change us. Crack us open and shift the light. Letting some in and some out.

No comments:

Post a Comment