JB, an artist, produces throughout the novel a series of portraits based on candid photographs he takes of the group of four friends. His project has a clear analogue in Nan Goldin’s autobiographical New York series from the 1980’s, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which she describes as ‘the diary I let people read’, one ‘without glamorisation’ and ‘glorification’, and a portrait not of ‘a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain’. One particular photo (above) showing Goldin herself after being beaten by her partner attends to the dual damage attending the very process of looking; on the one hand we are, by looking at Nan, witness to a unsettling forensic document of violence, whilst the predominance of her own bloodshot eye in the image suggests the sense that her own visual relation to the world is now bloodied, inflected. Peter Hujar (once partner of Wojnarowicz) also looms over this novel; his Orgasmic Man I (also above) is the cover image for the US edition, a 1969 portrait which uncomfortably prefigures the effect of AIDS upon sexual behaviours in its model’s facial conflation of sexual pleasure with profound pain. The stark aesthetic stances of these photographers are altogether different from JB’s project, which offers prettified and colourful portraits of his life and friends. Christian Lorentzen comments in his LRB review upon how ‘dated’ JB’s ‘photorealistic portraits’ feel to read about in ‘the era of mobile phones’, and this is an infelicity that I believe is important.
An interface like Instagram aims to build into the fabric of popular image production a sense of candour and memorialisation – experiencing the ‘present as an anticipated memory’ in the words of psychologist Daniel Kahneman – and it is thus also a symptom and cause of a widespread beautification in popular visual culture, where tasteful vintage hues serve to improve upon the drab external world before the lens. Much has been made of the fact that Yanagihara’s novel seems strangely ahistorical; a more accurate description would be that it integrates highly historicised vocabularies of pleasure and pain, inherited from these unflinching queer artists, into its aestheticised and at times fairy-tale like iconography, a novel that is only as ahistorical as Instagram itself is, a mode of seeing that I think it’s acutely aware of. And it is consequently because of the deep sadness of Jude’s story, along with the stories told and embodied by Wojnarowicz, Goldin and Hujar, that I find myself wondering if the tendency to prettify, democratised by apps and phone cameras, is quite as benign as it seems. Compared with the oppressiveness of violence and disease for queers across generations, which has made usefully negative aesthetic tools for seeing the world anew available, the changing status of photography as practicable and shareable by all catalyses a colonisation of the visual field, a homogenisation along the lines of quotidian pleasure such that the political efficacies of ugliness and violence are fading to the background. Wojnarowicz wrote that ‘A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history’; Yanagihara’s novel has left me with the sense that the deeply but usefully painful histories embodied by someone like Jude, and this is as much a question as a statement, are rapidly becoming merely little lives, obscured by filters.