Book Review 15: “A Little Life”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

 

Some books you read and some books you endure, less a literary experience and instead something more physical and all consuming. I’ve lost myself in a lot of books, but it was reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara that taught me this.

It begins with four men: JB, an artist, Malcolm, an architect, Willem, an actor, and Jude, a lawyer, former college roommates now trying to make their way in NYC. After dipping into the minds of the first three, the narrative quickly turns to Jude and we realize the true scope of the story: it is about trauma, how we survive it, how it affects us and all those we come in contact with.

His friends call him “a magician whose sole trick is concealment,” yet bit by bit over the course of this 720 page book, we as readers gradually learn more about Jude’s past. Without giving away spoilers, suffice it to say that Jude has been the victim of sexual and physical abuse that has scarred him not only metaphorically but literally: the first glimpses we get are his unexplained “episodes” of pain and his limping gait. The novel continues to follow him through each decade of his life, taking in his three main friends as well as others such as Harold, his mentor, and Andy, his unconventional doctor.

A Little Life was shortlisted for major prizes and acclaimed when it came out in 2015, but it also drew a lot of criticism and I can see why. If any book deserves a trigger warning, this is it: not only is Jude’s past depicted in extremely graphic detail, but his present, which is full of self-injury including severe cutting, is presented so viscerally that I often had to put the book down and walk away. And yet it was at this point that I felt truly drawn in, when I started to feel the book come alive. After that I couldn’t stop reading. Early on there’s a scene of Jude in school learning about contractual law, and I felt like I’d entered a contract with Jude (or Yanagihara): one in which I was obligated to see him through, and undergo whatever places the narrative would take us.

One of the other critiques of this novel is lack of female characters, but Yanagihara did this deliberately, saying that the “emotional territory” of women was something that had already been explored in literature and thus wasn’t interesting to her. I grew to love her characters and while I can’t say I agree with her, her depictions of men are so necessary: men as victims, vulnerable, feeling pain and needing help. And, most importantly, as friends, “two people who remained together day after day, bound only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.” Men in these pages (with a notable exception) are each gentle in some way, frequently described as “kind,” “soft-spoken” or “patient.” They cry, hold each other and say sorry (sometimes a bit too often). Now, as we talk about our culture of toxic masculinity, this felt both powerful and cathartic.

And finally, yes, the novel is privileged, as all four characters grow up to become rich, live in lavish NYC apartments and take international vacations. But this, too, is intentional. Yanagihara has also scrubbed her prose of any historical markers so that  Jude’s life becomes a kind of dark fairytale, where the luxuries he gains are in direct counterpoint to the horrors he’s suffered:

Sometimes it would seem like life had not just compensated for itself but had done so extravagantly, as if his very life was begging him to forgive it, as if it were piling riches upon him, smothering him in all things beautiful and wonderful and hoped-for so he wouldn’t resent it, so he would allow it to keep moving him forward.

One of the most stunning passages is a chapter in which, after recounting the final and perhaps worst atrocity Jude suffered in his youth, we close with a scene from the present. Jude is throwing a fancy dinner party for his friends and JB is ribbing him about his good fortune. “I don’t know, JB,’ he said. “But you know, I’ve been lucky all my life.”

Yanagihara’s prose is plain and obvious, and she’s not given to lush language. But she’s drawn to the philosophical, and I found her opinions to be unique and provoking. The skill of her craft is how she slips these into conversation, dropping little hints of the larger themes she’s playing with. “In this class you will learn the difference between what is fair and what is just, and, as important, between what is fair and what is necessary,” intones the instructor in Jude’s class. “You will of course learn the mechanics of contracts—how one is created, how one is broken, how binding one is and how to unbind yourself from one.” Re-read this later, and it will give you chills.

One aspect I thought she captured particularly well was the arc of Jude’s anguish. His recovery is never clearly upward but neither is it all downhill. Rather it rises and falls, full of revelations that are then forgotten or contradicted. What struck me most is how his trust and love for his friends exists alongside his loneliness and misery, neither one mutually exclusive. And the ways in which each character struggles with Jude feels real. “He loved him…he would never hurt him—he trusted himself with that much. And so what was there to fear?” Willem wonders. But the answer is everything, because love, Yanagihara seems to think, is both the only grace but yet will never be enough to save you. It’s one of the most honest and painful reflections of the book.

When asked in an interview why she called her massive novel “A Little Life,” Yanagihara remarked, “All lives are small.” I started tracking the phrase “life” throughout the story and was amazed at the different ways she’s found to explore this. “A little life” could refer to Jude who feels his life has little meaning, to Malcolm who feels like his life is too sheltered, to JB who feels like his life is too small for his creative ambitions. It is the sense of unreality that Willem feels being an actor: “To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! — it was an absurd life, a not-life.” It means how you can diminish your own life when you choose, as Jude does many times, to isolate yourself from those who want to know you. And it can refer to what a little thing a life is, and how easily it could be taken, or given up.

I can’t recommend this book without a strong warning: if you are not ready to read graphic and upsetting material, do not pick it up. But if you are, then give this a try. It will be worth the heartbreak. Some books are enjoyable when you’re in them, some teach you something after they are done, and some step out and linger with you beyond the page, in the world outside. “In life,” as one character puts it. This is one that will stay with me in mine.

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