Life (Narrative) in the End Times

By Tanya AgathocleousNovember 29, 2016

Life (Narrative) in the End Times

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

FOR A VARIETY of geopolitical and environmental reasons, things are feeling pretty apocalyptic right now (post-election addendum — very apocalyptic). While this has been true at other times in both the recent and distant past, what feels new is how our creeping sense of doom has changed the way we think about history and scale: a phenomenon best captured by the overused but suitably solemn word “Anthropocene,” a new geological-historical term that describes the period when the Earth’s environment was indelibly reshaped by human activity. What has happened, though, to the way we now think about the scale of individual lives? If life-writing once situated individuals in a world with an infinite future, how can it now address our sense of being out of time? Two recent publications present different imaginative takes on these questions by turning reproductive sexuality, the engine of futurity taken for granted in most life-writing, from an assumption into a question: what’s the point?

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, both published in 2015, were immediately buzzy and critically acclaimed works — A Little Life was runner-up for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award and Nelson’s book was blurbed by everyone from Kim Gordon to Fred Moten. They were lauded for many of the same reasons: described as exceptionally moving, innovative, challenging, and subversive, both were also applauded for presenting new stories of queer life. The two books, however, are very different formally. A Little Life is recognizably a novel, while The Argonauts defies genre: it has been described as autotheory, autofiction, metafiction, and memoir, and also contains elements of the academic essay, lyric poetry, the diary, and the letter. But both are biographical in their subject matter and experimental in form, as they adapt the individualistic focus of life narrative to the question of how we might think about “collaborative survival in precarious times,” to use Anna Tsing’s phrase.

Neither were hailed as Anthropocene writing, unlike Tsing’s book. But the welcoming of A Little Life and The Argonauts into the queer canon is significant in this regard. While the queerness of these two works operates very differently, as I will show, it is vital to the way that both engage with the problem of futurity, a problem that has, until recently, been most robustly staged as a problem by queer theorists. Most influentially, Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004) argued that political discourse creates and reinforces “the absolute privilege of heteronormativity” by putting forward a logic of reproductive futurity, so that politics is always depicted as a struggle on behalf of future generations: “we are no more able to conceive of a politics without a fantasy of the future than we are able to conceive of a future without the figure of the Child.” Queerness is thus a resistance to the idea of “history as linear narrative […] in which meaning succeeds in revealing itself — as itself — through time.”

A Little Life and The Argonauts both strikingly create worlds in which reproductive futurity is not the default assumption. In his influential study Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson connects the realist novel’s secular imagination to its representation of “homogeneous empty time”: time, divisible into logical units, that stretches indefinitely into the future, unaffected by the cataclysms of religious temporality. These contemporary works, however, reimagine life narrative so that it feels not so much a movement forward in time as a staying in place. Rather than looking ahead, the main characters toggle disorientingly between past and present, aging — rather than progressing — through their lives.

A Little Life starts in red herring mode, leading the reader to misrecognize it as a New York novel of manners in the style of The Emperor’s Children, since the first part, an extended mise-en-scène, focuses on the privileged lives of four Ivy League graduates who move to New York and become hugely successful in their various professional fields. In this opening section, the novel presents a vaguely utopian version of the early 21st century: there is no mention of 9/11 or AIDS, and the main characters and their friends are cheerily comfortable with hybrid racial and sexual identities, and eminently suited to their chosen professions, which they are able to master quickly. But then the narrative turns from social comedy to nightmare bildungsroman as its focus narrows, in devastating detail, to the story of one particular character, Jude St. Francis, who is haunted by a childhood of relentless abuse at the hands of an improbable sequence of predators. These include priests at the monastery who take him in after he was abandoned as a child; men he is sold to, night after night, by one of the priests, who has ostensibly helped him escape the abuse at the monastery; a particularly vicious sadist who picks him up after he collapses, weak with syphilis from doing sex work, and tries to run him over with a car after torturing him for weeks in a basement; and lastly, his first boyfriend, who, just as Jude summons up the courage to connect with someone sexually as an adult, subjects him to another relentless round of rape and physical abuse. Though his story momentarily brightens when his best friend, Willem, falls in love with him, the physical suffering he endures from his habit of self-harm, the permanent injury inflicted on his legs by the vehicular assault, and the mental suffering inspired by his memories continue to make his life unbearable. After Willem dies in a freak car accident, he decides to end it.

I provide this massive spoiler because the plot details, both their horror and their unlikelihood, are crucial to the meaning of the novel. Is its purpose really to be the Great American Gay Novel, as a reviewer in The Atlantic suggested, calling it “an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America”? This seems a bizarre mischaracterization, given that the vast majority of the “queer” characters in it are pedophiles, rapists, and abusers, and that the central character, Jude, is depicted as being gay as a default reaction to his treatment at their hands. To what service is this grim, voyeuristic, mawkishly homophobic vision put, then, and what was its appeal to reviewers, prize judges, and lay readers alike when it makes for such a stomach-churning and disheartening read?

One way to answer this is to consider A Little Life’s nihilistic yet doggedly aesthetic relationship to novelistic form. Yanagihara claims that part of her inspiration for the novel was a Vogue fashion show dominated by an ombré color scheme, in which color is presented as a gradual, almost imperceptible movement from light to dark. The ongoing torture of her main character in the service of this vision seems ruthless indeed, but does bestow a highly structured form on her long and unwieldy text.

Yet her novel eschews even the glimpse of meaning that Georg Lukács identifies as a key characteristic of the novel in a “world without God.” The reader labors through its 800-plus pages in anticipation of some justification for Jude’s suffering and their own as they bear witness to it, for much of it is described in graphic, visceral detail: an unrelenting realism that sits uneasily next to the fantastical machinations of the novel’s darkening plot. But the novel offers no escape from the past, which intrudes on Jude at regular intervals to create his suffering in the present. He is let down as a child by the state and as an adult by capitalism, for the revenge he wreaks on the world through his ruthless efficiency as a corporate attorney provides him with only passing satisfaction, and the lush material comforts he accrues cannot cushion him from the abuse of his boyfriend or the betrayals of his body, as age leaves his tortured frame increasingly vulnerable. This is a world, in other words, with no redemptive horizon, where we confront meaningless suffering not in the form of war or natural disaster but on the micro-scale of the life-story — and are offered no narrative compensation for it.

Part of the novel’s effectiveness in making the reader feel the devastation of this derives from the slow burn of its ombré effect and part from the bait-and-switch of its form, which — in its move from comedy to tragedy — dispenses with myths of futurity. At first, we are presented with four promising youths, who, in their multiculturalism, Ivy League pedigrees, and ability to rise to the top of their professions despite the structural disadvantages they might face because of their disparate race and class backgrounds, perfectly epitomize the American Dream. But then we learn through Jude’s flashbacks that the child who underwrites this dream, according to Edelman’s theories, has been repeatedly violated, his body fully capitalized. There are no structures in place to save him, and there is no space of redemption: not the monastery, not the workplace, not the vibrant city, not even the countryside, where Jude tells his adoptive father of his longing for death. What is revealed by the mesmerizing unfolding time of the novel’s torture porn is not insight or reckoning but simply … nothing. Like Edelman, though presumably for different reasons, Yangihara chooses no future over reproductive futurism, but also suggests that we all have. The future is now, and we must gaze upon its ruins, Jude’s wrecked body taking on planetary dimensions as we are made to look at it more and more closely.

The novel is powerful in this way, in finding a scale adequate to the representation of ruin, but it also cynically and irresponsibly exploits the homophobic logic of the political discourse of futurity that Edelman critiques. As Edelman puts it, “our enjoyment of liberty is eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of a Child whose freedom to develop undisturbed by encounters, or even by the threat of potential encounters, with an ‘otherness’ of which its parents, its church, or the state do not approve.” A Little Life achieves its power not so much through its genre play as by creating exactly the kind of world that politicians try to evoke when they protest, say, gender-neutral bathrooms: one filled with depraved gay predators who will rob us of our childhoods and our futures.

The Argonauts requires less plot summary because there is little plot. The text is narrated by an unnamed writer, a version of its author Maggie Nelson, who reflects on her life as she falls in love with Harry, a genderqueer artist; watches her own body change as she undergoes IVF treatment, then becomes pregnant; watches her lover’s body change during and after top surgery; and describes the sensations and emotions that accompany new parenthood. These events happen out of sequence, however, and are loosely connected by threads of association and the themes that permeate the book: writing and artistry, sexuality and intimacy, and the limits and potentialities of embodiment.

Nelson’s book operates at the opposite scale of A Little Life. Yanagihara’s novel is huge, yet uses the diminutive to suggest the circumscription of Jude’s life and his inability to escape his childhood, his own vulnerable littleness. The Argonauts, on the other hand, is brief and divided into short fragments, some only a sentence long, yet evokes the epic through its title and the Argo trope that punctuates the text. Nelson and her partner are the titular Argonauts on a voyage together, but the title also alludes to the book’s interest in the relationship between language and identity and the radical contingency of both; early on in the book, Nelson cites Roland Barthes on love, the declaration of which, he argues, is like the boat Argo, which was changed and renovated repeatedly while its name stayed the same. In Barthes’s words “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

Like Yanagihara’s novel, Nelson’s has been described as a queer text, but queerness means something different here. Skeptical of categorical thinking and stable meaning, Nelson cites — and seems largely to adhere to — Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of queer as “relational, and strange […] a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip.” She is open to the word being capacious — used, for example, by people in heterosexual relationships, as it was by Sedgwick — as well as potentially detached from sexual edginess. Now that sex is less often linked to reproduction, and so-called deviant practices proliferate in the heterosexual world, queerness might have to change too: “If queerness is about disturbing normative sexual assumptions and practices,” she asks, “isn’t one of these that sex is the be-all and end-all?”

This text deals explicitly with “no future,” both in the sense that humanness has come to mean, in Nelson’s words, “trashing and torching the whole motley, precious planet, along with its, our, future,” and with Edelman’s work itself. While Nelson agrees with Edelman that “[r]eproductive futurism needs no more disciples,” she also argues that “basking in the punk allure of ‘no future’ won’t suffice either, as if all that’s left for us to do is sit back and watch while the gratuitously wealthy and greedy shred our economy and our climate and our planet.” No future, she suggests, is what they want you to think.

But because Nelson takes the prospect of no future seriously, her book, like Yanagihara’s, refuses a specific vision of futurity. Despite the importance of her child, Iggy, to her changing vision of herself over the course of the book; despite the nonlinearity of its structure; and despite the way the narrative constantly toggles between death and birth, her parents, Harry’s parents, Harry’s child and her own child, that child never represents futurity. Iggy too becomes a voyager on the Argo, which, over the course of the book, becomes increasingly over-determined as symbol: it stands for improvised family, the arbitrary nature of language, the constant refabrication of the self in relation to the other, and the boat that we’re all in together as “human animals” (in Nelson’s words). The Argo is thus a heterotopia rather than a vehicle oriented toward a destination. A term coined by Michel Foucault, “heterotopia” describes a space that functions as a “counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites […] that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” For Foucault, “the ship is the heterotopia par excellence,” for it is “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea […] the boat has […] been for our civilization […] the greatest reserve of the imagination.”

As well as the nonlinear structure of her narrative, it’s this space that serves as a symbol of escape from the logic of futurity, for it also serves as a symbol of a time removed from the relentless destructive pace of modernity: of epic time, what Lukács calls “the blissful time-removed quality of the world of gods.” The Argo, then, is at once time as forward momentum: iteration and change — the constant forward movement of “I love you” remaking the relationship it describes each time it is repeated — and time as space: a temporary symbol of the utopian moment where we are held together, or given form, by utterance before we break apart again.

Though very different in spirit and style, The Argonauts and A Little Life might be seen as two sides of the same coin. In juxtaposition, their experiments unravel the dialectic of the novel by testing the limits of its ability to make form and life commensurate: the little life of Jude with its preponderance of ghastly details and the epic journey of The Argonauts; fixed form and fragmentary form; gathering darkness and open-ended journey. Operating at opposite ends of the spectrum of life-writing, these texts, taken together, are responses not only to Lukács’s world abandoned by God, but also the prospect of no world at all.

On the question of “no future,” Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurity and the anticapitalist politics of Anthropocene environmentalists are not identical. Those in the Anthropocene camp, by and large, hope to salvage some form of future by shifting our perspective on it. Edelman refuses futurism altogether, calling on us to embrace the death drive rather than the family. But there is considerable overlap between these stances: both ask us to confront mortality head-on, and to use that confrontation as the occasion for a radical reconsideration of our social structures and their reproductive logic. The Argonauts inhabits this overlap comfortably, emphasizing the precarity of life while celebrating the mutuality that makes it bearable. A Little Life rips the two positions apart by denuding them of their emancipatory politics. Leveraging the homophobia that Edelman opposes but taking up his nihilism, the novel refuses the hope that drives those contemplating a nonhuman future, opting instead to give shape to the death drive as long-form narrative. The works share an interest, however, in turning the problem of the future into an effect (or affect) of form, making our radical vulnerability as “human animals” (to use Nelson’s term) visceral, and emphasizing the humility that must accompany it. The Anthropocene, in the immensity of planetary history, is but a little life.


Tanya Agathocleous teaches literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011). 

LARB Contributor

Tanya Agathocleous teaches literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Disaffected: Emotion, Sedition, and Colonial Law (Cornell UP, forthcoming April 2021).


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