The artist David Wojnarowicz recalls, in a 1989 essay he wrote after his HIV diagnosis, a time he spent ‘standing in the mountains of a small city in New Mexico’, experiencing ‘a sudden and intense feeling of rage looking at those postcard-perfect slopes and clouds’, suspicious of the ‘bullshit’ of that ‘mountain’s serenity’, unable to ‘buy the con of nature’s beauty; all I could see was death.’ His words strip bare the surrounding postcard scene, as though this is a disease that implicates not only health and social visibility but one’s experiential relation to the world itself. In The Body in Pain Elaine Scarry describes physical pain as ‘objectless’, lacking ‘referential content’ unlike other ‘interior states’ like hunger or desire which can find articulation in ‘companion objects in the outside world’, thus allowing one to locate oneself in that world. If pain – of the kind caused by AIDS – lacks an external object, it thus also alters the objective content of the external world, signalling death. Far from being even a palliative site of spectacle or pleasure, nature emerges here as the morbid canvas for a certain blankness.
This relation between a physical suffering coded as queer and a correspondent perceptual impoverishment informs much of Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel A Little Life. It pays almost gluttonous attention to surfaces in the lives of its four main characters, Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, its prose fixated upon the colours, lights, tastes and textures contained within its New England and New York settings. Tableaux are rendered as either delectable – a field in the sun is ‘bathed in honey’ – or somehow luxurious and expensive, as when a character riding the subway observes a ‘kind light’ which ‘suffuses[s] the car like syrup… smudge[s] furrows from foreheads, slick[s] gray hairs into gold, gentle[s] the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine.’ Moments like these, within the largely free indirect narrative, aren’t comfortably attributable to any one character, and yet we know they’re not being felt by Jude, the novel’s main focus. A successful lawyer with access to all the sensory pleasures connoted by his lifestyle – prime Manhattan real estate, holidays in Europe, upscale food – he is nevertheless separated from them by recollections of the unspeakable abuse he endured as a child. Psychological pain takes literal, visceral form in his being physically crippled, and in his frequent self-harm: he inflicts wounds upon his own body with razors, as if giving his pain some objective form. He reminds himself that ‘he has an adulthood that people dream about’, so ‘why, then, does he insisted on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in his present?’
The possible pleasures of the present always coincide with the painful and abject associations of his past, infected by the vocabulary of injury, his ‘wounds… burbling viscous unidentifiable fluids’. His memories feel ‘oddly gauzy’, the boundary that separates his past from present as porous as the gauze dressings he applies to his suppurating wounds. His life is a ‘scrap of muddied, bloodied cloth’, his biography written ‘in his flesh and on his bones’, living on him like a ‘thin scum of mold.’ This preoccupation with the sullied and the violent is no less effusive than the aforementioned surface porn, the hostile side of the same coin, and a worldview whose efficacy and importance can be illuminated by the novel’s sense of its own forebears.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Garth Greenwell makes the bold claim for it as a contender for the Great Gay Novel, a yet-to-be-realised queer sibling of the mythic Great American one. Whilst all four of its main characters do pursue intimacies with other men at one point or another, its most significant awareness of queer issues is more oblique. Greenwell writes that ‘queer suffering’ is at the heart of the novel, and in focussing upon Jude’s ‘sickness’ Yanigahara implicitly gestures to AIDS, one of the ‘collective traumas’ that has ‘so deeply shaped modern gay identity’, and thus reminding ‘readers of the long filiation between gay art and the freakish, the abnormal, the extreme – those aspects of queer culture we’ve been encouraged to forget in an era that’s increasingly embracing gay marriage and homonormativity.’ (It may also shortly become the second Booker Prize winner in recent years to thematise the link between opulence and ugly physicality in relation to AIDS, after Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in 2004.)
Jude’s body is contested and seemingly contagious, his wounds ‘burbling’, emitting a ‘sick, fishy scent’, compromised by the horrific physical and sexual abuse he endured as a child prostitute. Just as the suffering body of a person with AIDS becomes interpellated as that of a queer ‘pariah’, a ‘spoiled identity’, as Susan Sontag writes in AIDS and its Metaphors, Jude similarly understands the abuse and diminishment of his body and mind as a painful inevitability, the sense that he has merely been ‘used as he’, an orphan, ‘had intended to be used.’ Gillian Rose implicitly concurs with the sentiment of Sontag’s title when she asks her reader, in Love’s Work, to ‘Suppose that I were now to reveal that I have AIDS’, the result being that ‘I would lose you… to metaphor.’ If sickness marks a person’s vanishing into the interiority of pain, it then follows that the more positive metaphorical textures rife in the perceptual world begin to feel antagonistic. The alternative to beauty in Yanagihara’s prose is a graphic and unapologetic embrace of bodily abjection and linguistic violence, a way of seeing counterpoised to the act of taking pleasure in the surrounding world, an innocuous act crucially incapable of accounting for the negative experiences both bodily and affective that are brought on by queer suffering. Rose recalls this kind of antagonism in the same book when she describes her friend Jim, frail and visually diminished by AIDS-related illnesses, stood against the backdrop of Manhattan, which ‘loomed in archetypal and mocking splendour ahead of us.’ This visual contrast between archetypal largesse and a personal, obscured pain brings to mind the importance of photography to Yanagihara’s novel, and a particularly contemporary resonance.
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.