I stared at the words in front of me, elegant while they concluded a chapter with devastating news. “No!” I said aloud, though I was in public. The coffee shop buzzed with life but I sat alone, with only a cooling latte to comfort me.
The sad news from the novel hit me all over again. My eyes stung and I let the tears fall. So what if I was surrounded by people—no one was really looking at me, right?
And then I felt a hand on my back. Two women—strangers—approached me and said they recognized the cover of the book and couldn’t help but peek at the chapter I was on. When they saw where I was in the story, they stayed close, knowing I was about to get my heart broken.
I could hardly speak. I tried to laugh but I was still crying: Why am I reading this book at all? What a silly way to spend a vacation!
The strangers comforted me: We read it because it was good. We kept going because it took over our minds and we didn’t want to do anything else. They both recounted stories of crying in restaurants or in plane seats because of this book. They told me I should take a walk, that getting air would help.
I’d never read a novel that created an extemporaneous support group before (though Push by Sapphire comes close). What the heck was happening to me?
I blame A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara for completely eroding my self-control for the five days I was in its grip. I just wanted to eat sweets, grip the book in my hands, and weep openly until it was over.
It’s a New York novel to the core, following four ambitious and talented (and attractive and expensively educated) men from their university days over the following 30 years. These characters strive and “make it” or don’t, all while asking the questions: What is adulthood? What is success? Why dream and seek reward? Why us, why here? (And in the background: beautiful apartments, shabby apartments, cabs to apartments, house parties in apartments, beautiful sexy 20- and 30-somethings in their desirable Manhattan apartments!)
One character from this quartet, Jude, has a dark past full of trauma, abuse and pain. The facts of his early life are revealed to the reader slowly, which is exactly the formula to override my willpower and send me into a gluttonous descent. I fell for this creeping, painful series of reveals and read the 800 pages of the novel in less than a week.
I found myself staying in the house to discover and be devastated by the disclosures of this character’s life. I look back now on my time addicted to this work and can only remember the impulse to finish, to end the suffering of being so hooked on something. It occurs to me now that the state of being entranced by an unfolding story is, instead, elation. It’s just that I never realize I am enjoying the ride till it’s over, when I am unsettled and missing the pull of the narrative.
Someone more clever than I invented the term, “book hangover,” and A Little Life gave me the worst one of my life. I didn’t care to pick up the next book on my shelf. I still find myself worrying over or missing the characters from this novel, who never existed in the first place.
Some creativity experts link this state of fixation on a novel to trance states, meditation or higher being. I may just be less evolved, because being addicted to a novel turns me lumpen and indulgent. Sneaking in pages and chapters before work, homework, workouts, or OTHER LEISURE ACTIVITIES means begging for one more hit of emotional engagement, one more tear. It spills into the rest of my life and makes me hungry for all kinds of rewards.
I want to sit in a café and dip pastries in espresso for hours out of the day, nursing a book. I want to stay in bed past noon turning pages. While I read A Little Life I felt such a hunger and no compulsions sating it.
At the peak of my Little Life fever, I left a party where I had control of the playlist early to sit in my room alone and listen to “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode once more. Yeah, I’d played for the room but one delivery of the song was not enough. I needed to savor it again and in private. I felt Biblical levels of greed for that song. I became an emotional hoarder.
The book ended. Books always do. I awoke from that half-dreaming state and did responsible things like bill payment, printing out boarding passes and grocery shopping. The quotidian can be a relief after over-stimulation. But it’s also nice to know that I can always be transported and transformed by the magic of a good book.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.