Jude the obscure

Unknown I finished this novel more than a month ago, but I have been struggling to think what to say about it ever since. In one sense, the many insightful, thoughtful, brilliant interviews I’ve read with its author have spelt out my thoughts for me (in contrast to the majority of  interviews with writers of fiction, which often disappoint – it’s interesting how some excellent writers seem to find it very difficult to reflect on their own work). When I first heard of the novel, I felt, to be honest, rather puzzled by comments from clearly frazzled readers about its emotional brutality, because the synopsis made it sound like yet another novel about four college friends trying to forge artistic careers in New York (think Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Joanna Rakoff’s A Fortunate Life, most recently, or Mary McCarthy’s The Group, most famously). This, it turns out, was entirely deliberate:  

I… wanted the narrative to have a slight sleight-of-hand quality: The reader would begin thinking it a fairly standard post-college New York City book (a literary subgenre I happen to love), and then, as the story progressed, would sense it was becoming something else, something unexpected. (Hanya Yanagihara on Vulture.com)

This type of manipulation of reader expectations is something that I love in novels, but of course there is more to A Little Life than that. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because one of the reasons I was so engrossed in this 700+ page monster (I finished it in a feverish few days, helped by having to spend seven hours on buses) was because of the very quality that Yanagihara highlights in her interview; the feeling that you never quite know what’s coming, despite the straightforward simplicity of the plot, which ultimately is not much of a plot at all. The feeling that you don’t want to know what’s coming; the feeling that you have to know.

It’s early in A Little Life that we realise that Jude, one of the four main characters, has had a hard and secret past. Jude only gradually comes into focus for the reader – the early pages of the novel linger on artist JB’s indulgent childhood with his Haitian American mother and Malcolm’s irritation at still having to live in his parents’ house where their obvious preference for his ‘fabulous’ sister Flora is continually demonstrated. However, once he takes centre stage, he does not leave it, and as we work our way through his past and present suffering, we realise that this is a novel that is really about pain, and the impossibility of truly moving on from such mutilating experiences. ‘I wanted A Little Life… to begin healthy (or appear so), and end sick — both the main character, Jude, and the plot itself,’ says Yanagihara. In a Guardian interview, she expands: ‘I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste.’ lullabies-for-little-criminals-oneill-heather-paperback-cover-art

This is an important point. There does seem, in fiction, at times, to be a dichotomy between the idea of a novel that is literary and by extension, praiseworthy, and stories that deal explicitly with the consequences of abuse. The shadows of popular misery-lit memoirs such as A Child Called It hang over even excellent novels such as Heather O’Neill’s Orange Prize shortlisted Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was initially jacketed in a way that seemed designed to appeal to that market (left). This point is made very well by Jon Michaud, writing about A Little Life in The New Yorker: ‘The graphic depictions of abuse and physical suffering that one finds in “A Little Life” are rare in mainstream literary fiction. Novels that deal with these matters often fade out when the violence begins.’ A detailed treatment of such matters is, he argues, more common in genre fiction, citing the abuse of Theon Greyjoy in both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, among other examples. Yet it is precisely because Yanagihara dares to tread this line, and to risk being called crude or sensationalist, that this novel is so exceptional.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the depiction of rape in fiction, with some writers and commentators, such as Nicola Griffith, going so far as to argue that writers should not write about rape. I disagree strongly with Griffith (although I admire her guts in saying straightforwardly what many articles merely imply) and I think A Little Life is one of the best ripostes that one could make to such a point of view. I agree that many incidences of rape in fiction, such as Sansa Stark’s rape in Game of Thrones, are gratuitous and unnecessary. However, the idea that we all know that rape and abuse are wrong, and so it is pointless to depict such awful acts, completely misses the point; actually, the amount that people don’t understand about rape and abuse is staggering, as demonstrated by some of the recent commentary about rape in Game of Thrones. (Here is an example of some bad arguments about why the scene was necessary, which also mixes up show commentary with book commentary; here are some counter-arguments to these claims.) Surely the right response to this ignorance is to write more thoughtful, more nuanced, more serious portrayals of abuse, rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet by refusing to write about it all? Furthermore, A Little Life is also a salutary reminder that women are not the only victims.

If this all makes this novel sound worthy but depressing, I can assure you that it is not. A Little Life is an emotionally difficult read, but it has an incredible narrative drive, an achievement that is all the more spectacular given that it is an entirely character-driven novel. To be clear: this is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years. I haven’t been so immersed in a story for a very long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. And perhaps this is the point where words can say nothing more than: please, read it.

I received a proof copy of this novel directly from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK now.

Somewhere over the rainbow: the academic job market

I originally wrote this post on 16th July. Shortly afterwards, I had some better news… but I’m publishing the post as it stands. Really, I ought to have posted this at the time I wrote it, but I wasn’t brave enough!

Yesterday, I turned down the offer of an interview for a three-year lectureship at a well-known, well-respected university. It would have been my fourteenth job interview this year.

Sadly, I didn’t turn down this interview because I have the offer of a job for next year already in hand. I don’t. I turned it down, first and foremost, because the modules the university wanted me to teach were not a great fit with my research, and having had the time to reflect since applying for the post, it seemed to me that it was not worth the time, effort, stress and sacrifice it would take to adequately prepare for the interview for a job that would almost certainly go to somebody else. So I took myself out of the running.

I know that, given the job market, many early career researchers struggle to get interviews at all, and I know that I have been fortunate in having so many opportunities to showcase my research and teaching, despite the eleven rejections I’ve had so far. I have already been able to make use of informal connections I made at some of those interviews, and some of the questions I’ve been asked about my research and future career plans have been incredibly helpful and illuminating. It’s also been invaluable to have so much interview practice, and I know that my performance in interviews has improved as a result. Furthermore, (given aforementioned job market) I know that some of you may be asking; why on earth would you turn down an interview, when you still don’t have a job?

I’m going to illustrate my answer by means of a classy analogy.

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(You might want to quickly catch up on this 2010 cultural phenomenon here if you have no idea what I’m talking about.)

On this brilliantly bizarre TV talent show, two of the group of girls competing to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz came bottom in the public vote every week, and then had to participate in a ‘sing-off’ where one of them would be ‘saved by the Lord’ (Andrew Lloyd Webber, complete with huge golden throne) and the other would be eliminated from the show. The candidate who had been ‘rejected’ by the public but was nevertheless still in the running had to pull themselves back together to perform next week, only to inevitably end up back in the bottom two again because it turns out the public’s tastes are pretty consistent.

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“My research proposal is revolutionary!”

Pulling yourself together to sell what you do best again after continuous rejection is not a nice experience, whether you want to be Dorothy or the next rising star of academia. Like some of the losing Dorothys, I tended to get very positive feedback on my ‘performances’, which made the rejections even more frustrating. Also, when rejected after an academic interview, I have to break it to you; you don’t even get to ride off on a giant silver moon while the more successful candidates wave goodbye to you. Total lack of recognition.

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“Sorry you didn’t get that JRF!”

However, although rejection is really unpleasant, it actually wasn’t the constant rejection that led to me turning down my fourteenth job interview. If rejection was the only problem, I’d have got to this point much earlier last academic year, when I applied for far more jobs that I didn’t even get shortlisted for, although I did get a one-year lectureship in the end (hooray!) It’s too easy to tell yourself that if you were psychologically more resilient, tougher, like your presumably superhuman competitors, you’d be able to keep on going. For me, it wasn’t so much the succession of failures; it was the time.

I had a couple of interviews early this year, but the pace really picked up in April. For five weeks, I had an interview every week. (This was when the Andrew Lloyd Webber talent show comparison occurred to me)

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Putting on the interview outfit YET AGAIN.

Since then, I don’t think I’ve gone for a fortnight without having at least one interview. (This last fortnight is no exception; I’ve had three).

At first it feels fab to be in demand. But then you realise what you cannot do. Since April, I haven’t been able to work on anything non interview-related for more than a couple of days at a time, leading to some pretty patchy progress with my research. In practical terms, what this means is that I’ve

– cancelled most weekends, outings and trips with friends, because I need to do interview prep and cannot face any more travel after travelling to so many interviews

– designed at least half a dozen courses, tailor-made to the requirements of particular universities, that have swallowed my life for a week and then immediately gone in the bin

– done endless and frantic extra reading to be able to present on topics not central to my research, from the Liberal Party to the Habsburg Empire, then similarly binned the results

– not been able to leave the UK, because of the fear that I won’t be able to return at short notice and won’t have internet access. (When I had the audacity to go on the only holiday I’ve had this academic year, a two-day mini-break to York, and not check my emails, a university managed to email me to ask for a last-minute presentation for a last-minute interview, and I barely had time to get it done).

– stopped, for long periods of time, doing exercise; reading novels; even leaving the house, because none of these things can be indulged in when you have to cram more information (and this is even with the recognition that you interview better when you take breaks to relax during your prep, but that’s a luxury when time is short)

I’m writing this not to ask for pity, but to emphasise the toll that interviews can take on candidates even when you put the pain of rejection aside. In a nutshell, this is why I cancelled my fourteenth interview; not because I was afraid of being turned down, but because I was afraid of wasting another week.

However, turning down this interview doesn’t mean that I am quitting. I’m still waiting for the results of the two interviews I had this week, and several posts have come up that are a much better fit for me which I will apply for. Most importantly, I am going to write a follow-up to this rather ranty post which will be much more rational and explicit about what I’ve learnt. (Hopefully this will be of some help to fellow interviewees!) I haven’t quite lost hope that one day, I might once again be the girl on the right rather than the girl on the left.

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“I got the job!”

A few days after I wrote this post, I heard the results of the two interviews I had pending. The first, for a Medical Humanities Fellowship funded by the Wellcome Trust, was a rejection, but an oddly positive one; I was asked to resubmit a new proposal for the next round, as they liked me and my area of research, but not the specific proposal I’d pitched. The second was the long-awaited acceptance. I’ve been offered a permanent stipendiary lectureship at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford from October 2015. You can imagine my relief… although I’m still waiting for the rainbow hot air balloon to descend and whisk me up to the land of employment. Disappointing.

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This is the way to celebrate.

You can find more interview advice on JRFs and other academic posts here.