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Reading Like a Writer: A Little Life and Anchoring a Reader in Time

Posted on Tue, Jun 21 2016 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life follows a group of college friends throughout their lives, examining the powerful and painful love that can exist in deep friendship. The book covers a long period of time and takes on multiple perspectives.

What’s interesting to me about the way Yanagihara handles time is that she allows a very free-form drift through the past as characters reflect on their lives. The story itself marches forward, sometimes leaping ahead months or years, but the gaps are always filled in through a character’s reflection on the past. The sequence of these scenes is more associative than chronological—just like real memory tends to be. Yet when we’re in the past, the scenes are every bit as vivid as when we’re in the real time of the story. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget we’re in a memory. Maybe that’s okay. These memories are vivid to the characters and so should be vivid for the reader.

But when it really matters that we’re in the real-time, forward-moving part of the story, Yanagihara makes sure we know it.

One way she does this is by planting a memorable detail. My favorite occurs about 600 pages into the 700-page book. It’s limes.

“I’m going,” [Willem] tells Jude, but then he doesn’t move. A dragonfly, as shiny as a scarab, hums above them. “I’m going,” he repeats, but he still doesn’t move, and it is only the third time he says it that he’s finally able to stand up from the lounge chair, drunk on hot air, and shove his feet back into his loafers.

“Limes,” says Jude, looking up at him and shielding his eyes against the sun.

Nearly twenty pages later, the limes appear again.

At the grocery store [Willem] fills a paper bag with limes, and then a second one with lemons, buys some extra seltzer water, and drives to the train station, where he waits, leaning his head on the seat and closing his eyes until he hears Malcolm calling his name and sits up.

Between the two mentions of limes—perhaps the only limes that appear in the whole book—are nineteen pages of other memories. That’s a long time to leave a scene before returning to it.

Willem filters through these memories associatively. They are mostly about catching up the reader on what has been skipped to get to this day in his life, though there are also glimpses of the far past. Willem remembers recent vacations and the college-day conversations in which they were first dreamed up. He remembers Jude’s surgeries and details of their current lives.

I like the feeling of being adrift in memories when I read a book. But I also need to know when I’m no longer there, when my feet are on firm ground, and the action is happening in the present of the story.

The limes do a marvelous job of grounding the reader. It’s important that they’re the kind of thing that can be mentioned casually. The people in the book are often cooking and drinking and having parties. Food is frequently named. So it’s not strange for one person to ask another to pick them up; there’s not a spotlight on them or a “ding-ding-ding, gentle reader, pay attention to this!”

But even though there’s no light shone on them, limes are memorable. They have a bright color and a distinct shape and texture. They even have a flavor. When the word “limes” appears in any story, the reader immediately sees and feels and tastes them. They pop.

The glory, then, of these limes is that they don’t make me stop and take notice when I first read them. But when they’re pinged a second time, I do. The second mention reminds me of the first—even though that mention was a whole nineteen pages ago—and tells me immediately that we’ve returned to that day, to that trip to the store.

Yanagihara also uses tense to indicate when we’re inside and outside of memory. The first scene with the limes is in present tense (“‘Limes,’ says Jude”) as is the second mention (“he fills a paper bag with limes”). The memories, as makes sense, are related in past tense (“Now they drifted through the lake,” “He had dinner,” “It was the middle of June”). So getting the sudden present tense also tells me I’m back in the real time of the story.

But reading that “fills” doesn’t take my brain instantly to the specific time that I was last in present tense, because there are many instances of present tense throughout the book. It tells me I’m in the real time of the story, but it doesn’t remind me of the exact day.

One paragraph before the limes, Yanagihara pulls us into real time more specifically. “That had been almost two months ago, and since then, he has spent most of his time at Lantern House.” So we know we’re getting back to the forward moving portion of the story. We even have a place. But it’s not a precise reference to the day in question. Willem has spent other days at Lantern House. It doesn’t remind of what he’s doing on this particular day.

The limes, with their vividness, pull us to a specific day in the story.

The limes are named one more time, when Willem makes a phone call to Jude. “‘I got the limes,’ he tells him.” One mention might have been enough, but since it’s natural enough for Willem to say this, I think it’s wise of Yanagihara to make sure the reader doesn’t miss them.

The limes aren’t crucial to the plot. I don’t need to remember them because one falls out of the bag and leads to something else. Everything that happens in the book could happen without mention of these limes. But they’re the kind of detail that gives life to the quotidian. Shopping, planning a party—it’s boring, but can be vivid when we get tastes and textures and colors. More important, these tastes and textures and colors can help the reader navigate through time and memory.

This is a very small thing, especially in a 700-page book. But the length and complexity of the book make small things like this, vivid navigational markers, all the more important.

Allison Wyss is teaching these upcoming classes at the Loft: How’d They Do That: A Craft Based Book Club for Writers; and Beyond Point of View: The Art of Perspective. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.