Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: literary fiction
Rating: 4/5 stars
WARNINGS: ALL THE TRIGGERS. Also, I’m going to try to do this with as few spoilers as possible, but it’s going to be impossible to avoid them entirely.
A Little Life starts off a bit like a 21st century all-male update of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Four twenty-somethings heading to New York after graduate school to pursue their dreams in the big city. We have Willem, aspiring actor; JB, aspiring artist; Malcolm, aspiring architect; and Jude, lawyer (one of these things is not like the others). The book quickly moves pasts the post-graduate, life in the big city tropes (the crummy apartments, artistic/professional challenges, the late night dinners in crappy downtown restaurants, etc.) and the “let’s check in to see what this character is up to” alternating perspectives to focus on the inner life of troubled, damaged Jude. What follows is either, depending on whom you ask, a) overwrought, melodramatic, high-brow torture porn or c) the most heartbreakingly beautiful examination of friendship and love in the wake of trauma.
My experience with this book was a tumultuous. I started out really loving it. Yanagihara is a clearly a talented writer and does a phenomenal job portraying that post-graduate quarter-life phase. She slowly reveals details about Jude’s past and the emotional and physical consequences of it, which casts a bit of a shadow over the really beautiful moments of joy and grace that Jude and his friends find. I had read enough reviews about how this was the Saddest Book Ever, and I was mentally preparing myself for an unhappy ending for Jude. I figured I’m a hardy reader when it comes to sad books. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me cry. I don’t need a happy ending. I LIKE a good wallow from time to time. And for the first half of the book or so, I was managing alright.
And then… [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT]
As an adult, Jude willingly enters into and remains in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship that ends with an extreme beating. The damage from his past leaves Jude believing that abuse is his due and that he should expect this treatment from anyone who is close to him. While I’d already read about scores of terrible things happening to Jude in his past, untold instances of the about the terrible physical and emotional consequences of that past, and dozens of descriptions of Jude engaging in self-harm, it was gut-wrenching to see the adult Jude actively accepting this sort of treatment. I didn’t cry (seriously, NOTHING in a book can make me cry), but I felt devastated.
Deciding that I needed to see just how bad it was going to get, I took to the internet to look for spoilers. Sweet Jesus does it gets bad. I won’t get into the details here, but the plot summary for the second half of the book felt downright sadistic, as if Yanagihara consciously set out to pile as much shit onto Jude as possible, to torture this poor character, and her readers, until we all broke. Pissed off, I DNF’d the book and moved on.
Except my brain wouldn’t let go. Almost a week later and I could not get the damned book and its damned (literally) characters out of my head. I went back to the book armed with the knowledge of how terribly bad it would go and a new perspective on Jude. I realized that, while I had prepared for what I thought of as the worst of endings (i.e. Jude’s suicide), I was still thinking of Jude as a character who could “get better” in some measurable way. Realizing that Jude was doomed from the very beginning relieved some of the tension I was feeling and allowed me to relax into the book and enjoy (as much as one can) what Yanagihara is doing here.
What IS Yanagihara doing here? A lot. More than I am able to wrap my brain around in this review (or, honestly, on a single reading). She’s vividly illustrating some of the deepest, darkest recesses of the human brain, and the ways a sick mind can skew reality. She’s giving us a hero who won’t get better and asking us to hang in there with him through the worst of it. She’s asking us to accept a hero who, in some ways, refuses to get better. She’s showing us the friends who enabled that choice and making us consider whether we can really judge them. She’s giving us a new model for relationships. She’s exploring friendship and the many, many ways you can love a person.
This was a hard book. A flawed book. A book people hate (with good reason). A book people love (with good reason). I’m glad I pushed through and read all 814 pages of it, if for no other reason than tidbits like this:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
I read this book to satisfy the “Read a book over 500 pages” task of the Read Harder Challenge.