Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Believe the hype from America, where Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel was released in March: this is sure to be one of the books of the year, if not the decade. In brief, it’s about four university roommates who settle in New York City. Two are black and two are white; two are straight and two are gay – or is that all four gay? Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion is a Haitian artist from a stifling matriarchal clan; Malcolm Irvine is a biracial architect from a wealthy family; Willem Ragnarsson is a kind, attractive Scandinavian from the Midwest who becomes a movie star; and Jude St. Francis is a brilliant lawyer with a mysterious, traumatic past.
Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the novel traces the ambitions and missteps of a tightknit group of college friends. They have a small outer tier of relationships – fellow artists and lawyers – but over the decades, their lives remain remarkably insular. Despite the passage of nearly 40 years, the novel feels contemporary throughout; there are few references to technology or pop culture and no discussions of world events. A Little Life is its own microcosm, an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living. Among the potential answers are: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Loyalties shift over the years and the four friends vary in importance, but Jude is without a doubt the protagonist; indeed, he is one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. A Dickensian orphan, he was found behind a drugstore as an infant and raised in a South Dakota monastery and a Montana boys’ home. At every turn potential male role models betrayed him. His body is riddled with disease and cross-hatched with scars from years of physical and sexual abuse as well as subsequent self-harm. Chronic pain is his daily reality.
That broken body is in striking contrast to a beautiful mind: while in law school Jude also completed a postgraduate degree in pure mathematics. He is the epitome of the tortured genius. Throughout, he’s looking for the language with which to reveal his past, and the right person to receive it all. Three people never fail him: Willem; Andy, his longsuffering physician; and Harold Stein, a law professor who adopts thirty-year-old Jude as his son. Sometimes, though, Jude’s attempts to open himself to love cruelly backfire.
The American and British cover images emphasise different aspects of the novel. The UK cover, which shows the fire escape at the first apartment Jude and Willem rent together after college, puts the city and the friendships front and centre. The American cover, on the other hand, makes it all about Jude’s agony. It shows a handsome, sculpted face crumpled in anguish; though initially unpleasant to look at, it is much more evocative of the contents: Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, the Christlike Man of Sorrows.
Yanagihara asks whether there is a level of bodily and psychological damage from which one simply cannot recover, and how to love someone who seems bent on self-destruction. One can imagine this book being assigned for psychology or social work courses. It raises so many huge questions: given the cyclical nature of Jude’s experience, is there something about him that attracts abuse? Do these four friends – none of whom have children – suffer from a Peter Pan complex? Will Jude ever be able to accept others’ admiration and affirmation? Is happiness a reward you earn, or an art you master?
Given its psychological profundity, there is nothing ‘little’ about this book or the life portrayed. Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People in the Trees (2013) – based on the true story of a disgraced scientific researcher – though impressive, had nothing like the power of A Little Life; it was more of a detached literary experiment, widely called ‘Nabokovian’, but lacking in warmth. One might, however, see her second novel as an extension of the paedophilia theme of its predecessor. Both of her books have been very masculine, focussing, like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, on homosocial and homoerotic bonds. My main (though small) complaint, in fact, would be that female characters occupy only minor roles.
The story certainly might have been told in fewer pages – 500, or even 300, rather than over 700 – but the sheer length gives readers time to go deep with the characters and feel they’re getting the whole spread of a life. Yanagihara’s attention to detail is incredible, especially when documenting JB’s exhibitions or Willem’s films. In an article for Vulture, she reveals that A Little Life was written in an eighteen-month ‘fever dream’. I recommend reading it in that same state – as quickly as you can so that you are totally invested in Jude’s past and future, fretting over his choices and over others’ seeming helplessness to save him from his demons. Every moment you’re not actually reading the book, you’ll be thinking about it.
The reading experience could have been unbearable due to Jude’s suffering, but Yanagihara’s skilful tactics keep you reading: the narration is matter-of-fact, without melodramatic or emotive language, and the revelation of Jude’s past is incremental, so that distressing flashbacks are punctuated with more innocuous events. Yanagihara also makes good use of understatement (‘the injury’ or ‘later, when things got bad…’), and mimics Jude’s own coping strategies: stepping outside of his body, reciting mathematical axioms, and using animal metaphors to describe his pain and fear.
With A Little Life Yanagihara has instantly shot to literary greatness; this is Pulitzer and Man Booker prize-winning material. It’s an emotional gut punch, but it’s also glorious. The Atlantic declared this the ‘Great Gay Novel’ we’ve been awaiting in the age of same-sex marriage, free of stereotypes and full of new relationship possibilities. Ultimately, it’s a hymn to friendship: ‘Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?’
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador: London, 2015). 978-1447294818, 720 pp., hardback, out in August. e-book available now.
Pre-Order A Little Life from the Book Depository.