Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE and the Perpetual Present-Day

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, is a wonderfully written, heart-wrenching novel about four friends—J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude—who form a life-long friendship while being roommates in college. More than 700 pages long, I finished the novel in less than five days, on more than one occasion staying up reading until three in the morning. While reading A Little Life, I found myself wondering during what time period the story is supposed to take place. The story has the feeling of a tale of the twenty-first century, but it follows the lives of J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude for approximately forty years. It is as if the story is suspended in some kind of perpetual present-day.

One of the reasons why I wanted to find out during what time period the novel takes place is because there are certain aspects of Willem’s Scandinavian heritage that puzzle me. To be able to understand what Yanagihara might have been thinking when creating his backstory I needed to know what year Willem was born. In trying to figure out his year of birth, I discovered that Yanagihara is a sophisticated manipulator of time, who has written a novel of speculative fiction in the guise of literary fiction.

Yanagihara creates the feeling of a perpetual present-day by not mentioning any years or dates. Moreover, she makes no mention of any political or cultural events that can help anchor the story in time. However, she does mention the birthdays of the four friends and what age they have reached at that particular time.

At first I assumed that the novel, like most novels of literary fiction that span several decades, ends at the point in time when Yanagihara stopped writing, presumably in 2013 or 2014. Towards the end of the book, we are told that J.B. is sixty-one years old. If the story ends in 2014, that would mean that J.B., Malcolm, and Willem were born in 1953 and Jude, who is two years younger, was born in 1955.

But that doesn’t make sense when reading the novel. The friendships formed and the relationships entered into could only happen in the twenty-first century. Moreover, throughout the story, there are references to e-mails, cell phones, text messages, and digital photos.

What is going on?

The clue can be found in a brief mention of an art exhibit at the very beginning of the novel. The art exhibit consists of dioramas depicting Asians in America during each decade from the 1890s until the present-day. Through J.B., Yanagihara tells us that the artist has already completed the diorama for the two-thousands, i.e. the decade that lasted between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009. From this brief mention, we can conclude that A Little Life does not end in 2014; it is more likely that it begins in 2014.

Through Malcolm, Yanagihara lets us know that at the time of the art exhibit, he is twenty-seven years old. Consequently, J.B. and Willem are also twenty-seven years old while Jude is twenty-five. If the novel indeed begins in 2014, this would mean that our friends were born in 1987 and 1989, respectively.

Therefore, if the four men were born in 1987 and 1989, and J.B. at the end of the novel is sixty-one years old, the story told in A Little Life in actual fact ends in the year 2048. The story of the friendship between J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude takes place entirely in the future.

Stories about the future is considered to belong to the realm of science fiction, where technological advances has transformed the world into something very different from the one in which we live today.

Personally, I believe that Yanagihara’s vision of our future is a more accurate prediction of what is to come. Our little lives take place in a perpetual present-day which does not change much over the decades. Yes, forty years ago we didn’t have the internet and today, one single smart phone is a more powerful machine than all the computers that brought us to the moon combined. But forty years into the future we will still live in houses, drive cars, and speak on the phone. We will still find love and make friends. And we will still read fantastic novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)


Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.

Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.