“Past Lives” came between us in “A Little Life”


While reading Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I was constantly listening to Børns’ “Past Lives” and found the language of the lyrics manifesting itself into my life and into my reading of Yanagihara’s latest novel. I found a way to inject words like moons, ancient, the sun into conversations and I couldn’t help but see there was a deep similarity between the two besides their titles.

The sound was current but the words were as old and worn as those used by medieval troubadours. Like a string of keywords sewn together into a nonsensical love story, the song called upon “the moon, the stars, the sons, and the daughters,” it evoked “diamond sparrow, my moonlit majesty,” the conscious and the unconscious as it played with time and space recalling past lives, ancient kingdoms, time, waiting and of course destiny. Børns’ song about love started before time and will last until the end of time while existing everywhere, a love found in the mist of the eternal return.

Yanagihara does something similar yet contained. She recycles familiar stories and tropes just like Børns into a rendition of nowness. In her view, life and love are stories repeating themselves (not just evoked by words) but it is also mundane, formed mainly in childhood. Its golden moments are the unseen quiet ones when you’re not looking but hopefully someone else is there to capture it for you (like an artist, like her). She tells a drawn-out adult fairy tale like a Korean drama, making you anticipate and wonder things like: so who is coming to Thanksgiving this year, having already spent ten Thanksgiving dinners with the characters. In a 700 plus page novel, Thanksgiving gets mentioned 43 times. It is this repetition of normal traditions that has you reading till the end of the novel. You’re too invested to bid an early farewell or skip a long-winded experience of an emotion.

There is a house in the forest, the magical promise of turning sweet 16, human monsters, friendship and career dreams. But in this novel, Tinderella is now a Jude St Francis, someone “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” but still an orphan with an abusive, exploited history marred in poverty but given the gift of a brilliant mind. The fairy tale trapping is just the gilded house Jude gets to live in, a safe haven from the big bad hyenas that chase him in his dreams. However, it is his work as a corporate litigator, a really bad-ass one (which allows him to afford the gilded cage), his friends and his newly adopted family which provides the only balm for his wounds.

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