I wrote “qualified” above because if you heed trigger warnings, A Little Life* is not the book for you. It is not a happy book, and in all likelihood you will feel gutted when you read it; I’m aware that not all readers are looking for that kind of experience. If you read Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliant and stomach-turning debut, The People in the Trees, you have an inkling of what you’re in for here.
The People in the Trees took more than a decade to write, and the result was a tightly-controlled novel in which every word worked, the pages so tightly wound with lush language they seemed ready to explode. A Little Life was composed in about 18 months, and it’s a sprawling book, its paragraphs sometimes the length of a page, its repetitions numerous and emotionally exhausting (though necessary in the world of the novel). It’s brilliant, ambitious, and flawed, and difficult though it was, I’m glad I read it.
Though A Little Life is billed as a novel about four friends, the eponymous life belongs to Jude, who meets Willem, Malcolm, and JB in college. The book opens when the foursome has re-formed in New York in their mid- to late-20s, mostly broke, all trying to make it in their chosen professions: JB in art, Malcolm in architecture, Willem in acting, and Jude in law.
The novel follows the friends and their careers for over three decades, while simultaneously slowly revealing Jude’s harrowing history. Though he has as much artistic potential as his friends—he’s a gifted singer, cook, and mathematician, among other things—Jude chose law as one of the building blocks of his adult life because he hopes it will keep him safe. Jude’s childhood is an acreage of horrific, though sadly not unbelievable abuse, from which he has never recovered, either physically or emotionally. If Dickens were alive and unfettered by nineteenth-century mores, Jude’s is the kind of childhood he might have created.
As the novel marches toward its inevitable end, two of the four friends recede into the background of the story, which is a problem, I think. True, their position reflects their lessening influence in Jude’s life, but when they’re so carefully drawn initially, the exclusion feels wrong. In a novel that comes in at over 700 pages; why not add another hundred-odd to flesh out these men?
I suspect the answer has something to do with the novel’s tendency to regard its characters as good or evil; the good are very good, the bad despicably evil. Malcolm and JB are good, but they are more complicated men than Willem, for instance. Willem’s defining characteristic is his devotion to Jude; the same is true for Andy, Jude’s friend and doctor, and Harold, Jude’s law school professor and father figure. These characters have personalities, of course, but whether or not they will make the right choice in how they behave toward Jude or how they conduct their own lives is never in question. Malcolm, however, tends to vacillate, and JB can be selfish and callous; they are more interesting, in the end, than Willem and Harold and Andy.
As I was reading it, A Little Life reminded me of a fairy tale, not only in the clear delineation between good and evil characters, but also in its extremes. The magnitude of the horror of Jude’s childhood is matched only by the magnitude of his fortune once he escapes from it. He enters a world where people go out of their way, repeatedly, to care for him, like fairy godmothers. His brilliant mind and steadfast effort (he works punishing hours, even for an attorney) put him on track to become a litigator at a top New York law firm, earning enough to buy almost any material thing he could want. His friends are artists and intellectuals who draw him into their orbit. He travels to faraway lands. He is loved.
In a Disney fairytale, that would be the end of it, all neatly wrapped up in a bow: the hero suffers but is compensated for his suffering, and all live happily ever after. But of course that is not how it goes, no matter how much we want to believe in hope and redemption. Jude, despite his talents, his money, his resources, his unrelenting devotion to work and to his friends, and the persistent evidence of their love and care for him, cannot overcome his own self-abhorrence. His mind and his body are badly scarred, and Ms. Yanagihara’s great triumph in this novel is making us see how it is possible for a person to have what looks like everything, and still feel like nothing, like worse than nothing. It is an extraordinary act of eliciting empathy.
The novel’s other great strength lies in its searing observations about friendship, and parenthood, and love, which often left me in tears. Reading A Little Life is an experience; when you’re not reading it, you’ll be thinking about it, and seeing echoes of the writing in little things around you (check out the Instagram account for the book, curated by Ms. Yanagihara and Leonor Mamanna, for examples). A Little Life made me watch Friends: I was so distraught after reading certain sections (multiple sections) of the novel that the only help for it was a massive dose of cheerful 90s vapidity.
For all its emotional power, the novel is not without flaws. One I’ve already mentioned (the sloughing off of Malcolm and JB). Another is the persistent feeling that for all its moments of specificity, the book doesn’t take place in time; there’s no sense of the larger world’s events and upheavals. And everyone in Jude’s post-college life becomes successful, wealthy by almost any standard, happy (with one notable detour by a major character). Named minor characters filter in and out of the action, but we don’t see enough of their relationships with Jude to justify these comings and goings. Now, the argument could be made that the form of the novel is following its function: we see other characters in proportion to how much they matter to Jude. Still, I would have suggested expanding their roles slightly (what’s another 80 pages?) or winnowing down by at least a hundred pages (but I wouldn’t want that red pen in my hand).
Because of these issues, the world of the novel sometimes felt like a fantasy-land (apparently, I later learned from an interview, this “untethered” effect was intentional), and when that crashed into the specificity of the manifestations of Jude’s anguish, the effect was jarring for me, in a way that detracted from the experience.
Still, the novel is incredibly affecting, raw and bold and fearless. If you are prepared for the challenges, the reward is in the reading.
Ms. Yanagihara said in the same interview I mentioned above that she’s not sure she’ll write another novel, and I do hope that’s not the case. By now you’ve probably noticed that the characters I mentioned are all men, and that’s because almost all the major and supporting characters in the book are men (the same is true for The People in the Trees). I’d love to see what she’d make of a female protagonist.
* I received a copy of this book from the publisher in a giveaway, which did not affect the content of my review.