By Jessica Steadman
The People in The Trees
Hanya Yanagihara, Picador, 2013
A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara, Picador, 2015
Hanya Yanagihara, Picador, 2022
A name can be a curse, a roadmap for a life of fear or shame. Generations of thinkers, from novelists to psychologists, even economists, have considered whether our names define us, shaping our future behaviour and identity, or whether they are empty vessels for us to fill.
Yanagihara sees a cruelty to naming. In structure and plot, Yanagihara’s three novels couldn’t be more different. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, is written like a biography. It chronicles the life of the disgraced biologist Norton Perina from rise to fall, reverence to revulsion. In A Little Life, her darkest but also most personal novel, we meet Jude St. Francis, the ‘terrifyingly talented’ litigator haunted by the shadows of a past he cannot escape. A name, for Jude, is a lodestone, a brand marking him out as cursed and unworthy of love. The most structurally ambitious of all the novels is Yanagihara’s most recent, To Paradise, which was released only this year. It presents us with three versions of New York City, centuries and circumstances apart. The only thing linking these three very different urban worlds are the shared names of those inhabiting them: over the course of 200 years, we meet four protagonists, each called David Bingham. Three very different texts, three very different worlds, yet all tied together by the brutality of naming.
In both A Little Life and The People in the Trees, Yanagihara uses the main characters as building blocks, as the basis on which she built the stories. She describes how Jude came to her like a ghost ‘fully formed’ and how Norton Perina was based on a family acquaintance (Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) who once sat at her childhood dinner table. In these early texts, the choice of character names is strikingly deliberate: reflecting, perhaps, her character-first creation process. Often, the names gave clues to how the narrative would progress, the role a character was to play. For example, much of A Little Life is narrated by a man who goes by the name of Harold. An English name with Scandinavian origins (from the Old Norse ‘Haraldr’), Harold roughly translates as ‘protective leader’. It seems the perfect name for the character, as the only stable adult force responsible for continually grounding and bringing direction to the other characters’ chaotic lives. The Scandinavian etymological parallel between the names of Willem – Jude’s best friend, and later, lover - and Harold – his friend and later father - also seems pleasingly deliberate; it connects their roles as Jude’s defenders on a deeper level. Willem, the genuinely Scandinavian character whose name means ‘shield’ in Old Norse, is bound to Harold as the second protective influence in Jude’s life.
Yet, for To Paradise, the creation process was entirely different. This novel, in many ways, was a new beginning for Yanagihara. After all, she had given up writing fiction, ‘then along came Trump’. She did not begin with a character, she began with a country, and an unstable one at that. When asked about her inspiration, she cites the ‘sense of unknowingness’ that permeated America post Trump Administration. The characters, then, seem to have more importance as narrative devices that allow Yanagihara to begin to make sense of this ‘unknowingness’. She divides the novel into three books, each set a century apart (1896, 1996 and 2096), and each drawing us into a very different vision of New York city. The first book is a pastiche to the works of Henry James (winning no points for subtlety in choosing ‘Washington Square’ as her setting) and navigates the dramas of arranged marriages and illicit affairs. In the second book, we watch a young man help his older lover throw a farewell party for his dying friend and are reminded of the profound bonds forged in the years of the AIDS epidemic. And the third book, the darkest, presents us with a New York that has been ravaged to no return by a torrent of plagues and pandemics. It’s the world we pray will never come to be.
The David Binghams of the novel are also radically different across each book. The first is the ‘David who craves escape’. He is the ‘scion’ of the richest family in 1890s New York, who abandons his fortune – and his name – to flee to California with his lover. The next two Davids we meet a century later in the second book: father and son. ‘David who would be king’, the father, was once heir to the Hawaiian throne but dishonoured his family — and abandoned his name — when he left his infant son to follow the pipedreams of a radical nationalist. His son, ‘David who seeks to hide’, is scarred by the psychological trauma of his childhood, and escapes into the shadow of a much older, much wealthier lover. For the fourth and final David Bingham-Griffiths, the ‘David who just cannot be David’, disgrace is guaranteed and inescapable. As a child, he bears his father’s name and so is associated with a government official who sanctioned concentration camps as a mechanism to gain control over an emerging pandemic. Later, having disassociated from his father, his name’s connotations morph. David Bingham-Griffiths is a name representing the ideology of a violent insurrectionist group; it is a name which is finally, totally, and irreparably degraded when he orchestrates a terrorist attack in a supermarket that kills 72 people – including his own father.
It is easy, even natural, to try and chart connections between these four figures. Especially given Yanagihara chose a name as deliberate and loaded as David. Biblically, David is the starting point, the king from which all action and ancestry stems. Yanagihara’s Davids are all heirs to influential families, their anxieties all stemming from a desire to fit into their family name. As ‘David who craves escape’ says, ‘to be a Bingham was to be respected, even revered’; ‘David who would be king’ tells his child that their burden is ‘not of citizenry but of legacy’. Yangihara stresses the importance of legacy from the beginning of the novel: legacy both implied by and contained within a character’s name. In the second book, we are given a reimagining of Hawaii’s history. A Christian by the name of David Bingham came to the island and set in place the reforms that would create a new ‘Kingdom of Hawaii’. We learn that all this happened 71 years previously, and it was 71 years ago that the ‘David who craves escape’ left New York to start a new life in the West. Is this the same David Bingham? Did he get side-tracked and somehow end up in Hawaii? In Book 3, ‘the David who cannot be David’, when still a child, asks his fathers to call him ‘King David’. Is he referencing the disgraced ‘David who would be king’ we saw in Book 2? Or is this just a child playing make believe? The point is, it’s confusing. The characters seem connected, but not in ways that make sense.
By connecting her characters nominally, Yanagihara makes us consider how the worlds we first dismissed as centuries and circumstances apart are fundamentally the same. We see how names might be used like road maps; necessary mythologies that help us begin to decipher her more complicated characters. Reading through cycle after cycle of Davids, all coincidentally sharing the same name might be a striking conceit, but it leaves us expecting some kind of payoff, a grand web linking them all together. Perhaps our disappointment that this payoff never comes is deliberate, but we are left feeling disappointed, nonetheless.
Not all characters in Yanyagihara’s novels conform to the idea that naming is significant. In The People in the Trees Norton Perina’s contrasting view means we are never allowed to settle into one fixed interpretation of the meaning of a name. When discussing his adopted children’s desire to know where their names came from, he says dismissively,
they always wanted to know, my children, why they had been given this name or that. They were fond of self-mythologising, and I think they all hoped there might be some heroic story behind their naming…the truth was I had usually named them after people…the children were arriving so quickly that contriving imaginative names for them hardly seemed an essential concern.
Perina suggests that names are unessential, irrelevant, ordinary. He shuns the very human desire to mythologise your identity through your name. Yet, while he believes he names his children ‘thoughtlessly’, the very act of doing so controls and redirects their lives. His adopted children are taken from the remote island of U’ivu; yet, while their blood is not American, their names are. When discussing them in his private monologues, he speaks like he is cataloguing farm animals, ‘another one to name, and feed, and clothe, and raise’. Naming is an ordinary task for him, on the same level as feeding and dressing. Just as he blanches the dirt from their clothes, or procures prescriptions to cure their diseases, so he scratches away – bit by bit – their past, their families, and their culture, squashing them into tiny little American boxes marked by their new American names. As the ten-year-old Victor astutely says, ‘I won’t have some white man’s name’, ‘you’re trying to whitewash us, make us forget who we are’. It is apt that Victor’s first act of rebellion against Perina’s abuse and control is to rename himself as ‘Vi’ because it sounds ‘more U’ivuan’.
In response, Perina tells Vi that all you can ever do is learn to live with the name you have been given and your love or hate of it is irrelevant: you cannot escape your name. Perina’s worldview is carried over into A Little Life. Jude St. Francis is named after St Jude, the ‘patron saint of lost causes’. He tells himself that his name is ‘a mockery’, ‘a diagnosis’ singling him out as a ‘lost cause’, a ‘prediction’ of future failings. He conceives it through an algebraic metaphor: ‘X=X’, who he was is who he will always be. Of course, his name contains another part: St. Francis, his surname. Unlike the Binghams in To Paradise – whose surnames mark long lines of ancestry – St. Francis ties Jude not to a family tree but to a place, the monastery where he grew up. The monastery made Jude, and that’s a truth he feels he cannot escape; his name is proof that ‘everything’ he is, ‘everything’ he likes, feels, believes, comes from Brother Luke and the monastery. Yet the monastery also broke Jude by remoulding an infant child into a fractured object who believes he doesn’t ‘deserve’ love or family, through abuse, self-loathing, and mutilation. X=X; so long as Jude St. Francis remains Jude St. Francis, he will never escape his past.
In To Paradise, a young Kawika Bingham (the ‘David who seeks to hide’) flees the shadow of his father’s disgrace in Hawaii and buries himself in the love of Charles Griffiths. In New York, he calls himself David, his Hawaiian name translated into English, ‘my name’s not Kawika anymore, it’s David… you don’t deserve to be called Kawika. You don’t deserve that name’. He begins to read the name David as his curse. In becoming David Bingham, Kawika abandons his past and his heritage. But David provides him with opportunity as well as a loss: David is a blank canvas, a new beginning, a way of abandoning the shame and disgrace of his childhood. However, it’s also not a decisive desertion of his family. Because his new name is just an Εnglish translation of his old one, he is still, in a way, Kawika.
In A Little Life, a 13-year-old Jude St. Francis is taken to a potential foster family. His name is too ‘unusual’; they ask if he can be called Cody, ‘it’s a little more us, really’. Jude plays off the moment, ‘Jude, Cody, it didn’t matter to him what he was called’. A lie. The adoption falls through and Jude never becomes Cody Leary. He never becomes anyone other than Jude St. Francis. Despite, by his own concession, having ‘moments where he could have, even should have changed [his name]’, he doesn’t. To this little boy, the gulf between Jude St. Francis and Cody Leary is cavernous. Cody Leary is someone ‘with parents’, has a ‘room of his own’, someone who can ‘make himself into whomever he chose’. Jude St. Francis is a lost cause, branded and broken down by the ‘shame and fear and filth’ of his past.
The changing of a name often feels like a victory for Yanagihara’s characters because it brings escape from the trauma encoded in their nominal identity. Victor Perina, for example, sees his name, with all its colonial implications, as so impossible to ‘live with’; he feels he must change it. But does this act really succeed in wiping away his past? David is the Americanised Kawika, and Vi is just Victor without four letters, Victor with an ‘U’ivuan flair’. Like Jude, neither David nor Victor can escape their pasts, because the circumstances of their childhood – however cruel – made them who they are. Their names, therefore, are not only proof of abuse, but testament to the fact that they survived and continue to do so.
JESSICA STEADMAN reads English at University College. She promises there’s absolutely 100% more to her personality than rowing.
Art by Alex Knighton