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A Little Life: [III.] Vanities

‘Jude walked to the edge of the roof, which was bordered on each side by a flat-topped shin-high wall, and peered over it. “I’ll sit on the wall looking out, directly above the fire escape,” he said. “Then you and JB should both sit by it. Each of you hold one of my hands with both of your own, and then you’ll lower me down.’

In talking about ‘Vanities,’ part three of the Hanya Yanagihara’s novel ‘A Little Life,’ we go back to this hysterical but rather foreshadowing scene with Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB being locked out on their apartment rooftop on Lispenard Street, at the end of part one. Here, Jude is figuring a way out to get everyone back inside the apartment and volunteers to be the first one to take the fire escape, so he is giving his friends instructions as to how to get him to reach it.

This rooftop scene takes a new life when it invites us to interrogate the spatio-temporal notion of attaining success, commonly described in phrases such as ‘moving forward,’ ‘moving on,’ or ‘up there.’ By the use of these phrases, the path to success takes a sort of linearity, a trajectory, and success itself becomes an arrival.

What goes up must come down?

This is where we appreciate Yanagihara’s writing, the way in which she configures time and spaces which the characters navigate to offer readers a sort of mise-en-scene, to borrow a device from theatre art, taking form in the scene’s mundane details that not only serve to contextualize but also provide a dramatic emphasis on the some of the important moments in the novel. We have talked a little bit about the significance of space on our previous post. 

Following a trajectory, the idea of success becomes sequential and somehow fixed, one that is deemed to have  already been plotted and determined by what people value as measures of success, i.e. property, ambition, reputation, to name a few. For us readers, as the title suggests, ‘Vanities’ really puts into light the excesses of today’s societies which are overly obsessive with attaining success.

‘Vanities’ takes us fast-forward to the time Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB has already made a name for themselves in their chosen professions—a lawyer, a film actor, architect, and painter. And they are good at what they do, bright, sought-after and are earning good money. They are now in their thirties, done with university and practically living their ‘dream’ career. 

JB, however, paints a bleak picture of what being in his thirties entails: ‘Jobs. Money. Children…The things to forestall death, the things to ensure one’s relevance, the things to comfort and provide context and content. The march forward, one dictated by biology and convention, that not even the most irreverent mind could withstand.’ This is a full one-eighty for JB, who in the beginning of the novel has been full of optimism and ambition. But now that he is ‘up there,’ to use our phrase, there seems to be no point in ‘marching forward.’ He has reached an impasse. 

An impasse does not seem to be the case for Jude. Yes, he is a reputable lawyer, but we argue, he is not ‘there’ yet—his is a struggle of wanting to ‘move forward’ but continuously being bogged down by a traumatic past. In a quite literal sense, he is long burdened by, at this point, an undisclosed affliction on his leg, which has taken its toll on many aspects of his life, yet he rejects Malcolm’s plan to put grab bars in his toilet, saying, ‘I don’t want this to be some cripple’s apartment.’ It is tempting to say here that what is missing with Jude in his quest to move on is his acceptance of his past, to make amends with himself. At this point, with a lot more information about Jude still veiled to us, we really cannot say that.

In conclusion, the scene where the four characters get locked out on the rooftop therefore turns into a symbolic moment as we think of success as an arrival and how that is being questioned in the novel. Is there only one straight path to success?

For now, we take the answer from how the narrative moves in a large part chronologically; yet readers are often brought, through flashbacks or the narrator acting as witness, to important moments in the past that hauntingly plays an important part of the novel. The way in which it oscillates, by far, between the past and the present implies their obvious yet inevitable connectedness but definitely not bound by a certain linearity.

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