We have all experienced joys and hardships, but through the lens of Jude's tortured existence, we truly are transported to an emotional landscape that is not our own.
A Little LifePublisher: Doubleday
Length: 736 pages
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publication date: 2015-03
"Although I always describe the book as largely concerning itself with male friendship, I also intended it as a portrait of loneliness -- specifically, the kind of loneliness that only city dwellers know."
--Hanya Yanaghhara, "How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life"
A Little Life is a heavy read, both in terms of its subject matter and its actual weight. It clocks in at a meaty 700 pages, but perhaps the most astounding aspect of this, the second novel from Hanya Yanagihara following 2013's quietly heralded The People in the Trees, is that every single page feels justified. It's not as globe-spanning as it may appear in summary, but A Little Life, at its very essence, chronicles the intersecting lives of four male best friends from their post-undergrad days and well into their 50s.
Some have gone ahead and declared this "The Great Gay Novel", claiming that it accurately depicts the life of the modern LGBT citizen due to its emphasis on character, not sexuality. To its credit, A Little Life is obsessively fascinated with its central quartet of protagonists and them alone, avoiding common tropes like emotional coming-out scenes in favor of something much deeper, much richer.
Yanagihara's writing thrives in the details, painting the walls of each character's internal life with an abundance of care, as each new conversation point, whether it be about pure math or the frustrations of being a hungry actor waiting tables, is told from a vantage point that seems to have been born out of years of experience (with just a light seasoning of bitterness). Take this passage from page 321 in which the traumatized young lawyer Jude, the tragic driving force behind every major event in the story, unveils the specifics of his overall derision towards sex:
And then there is the sex, which is worse than he had imagined: he had forgotten just how painful it was, how debasing, how repulsive, how much he disliked it. He hates the postures, the positions it demands, each of them degrading because they leave him so helpless and weak; he hates the tastes of it and the smells of it. But mostly, he hates the sounds of it: the meaty smack of flesh hitting flesh, the wounded-animal moans and grunts, the things said to him that were perhaps meant to be arousing but he can only interpret as diminishing. Part of him, he realizes, had always thought it would be better as an adult, as if somehow the mere fact of age would transform the experience into something glorious and enjoyable.
A Little Life is an epic of the intimate, tracing nearly every thought of Jude to its often-dour conclusion. Jude has lived a life of immense hardship, derides pity, and holds his past to his chest so tightly that he can barely imagine anyone else even getting a glimpse of it. While his trauma, which is casually unspooled to the reader in a drawn-out yet conversational fashion, ends up effecting the lives of many around him, it most clearly has an effect on his best friends: there's JB, the self-appointed alpha of the group who aspires to be an artist while proving unafraid to speak his mind in close company; there's Willem, Jude's handsome companion who carries the most compassion out of anyone and yearns to become a well-known actor; and then there's Malcolm, the quiet follower who lives most of his life per what he expects his parents want him to do (i.e., be an architect), which it turns out is not what he necessarily wants to do.
Jude doesn't want to disclose his past to his dear friends but as the years stretch on and their memories become increasingly filled with shared experiences, Jude allows glimpses into his life either through accident or circumstance, as he truly has a hard time trusting anyone in his life, mastering the art form of turning a conversation back onto the person he is talking to with ease. The men are all of different racial backgrounds, but much like their sexual orientations, this is not the book's emphasis nor where it draws its driving plot points from. These are merely aspects of the characters involved and not the book's overarching aim. In fact, during one particular college flashback, Jude remembers when JB tried to foist the nickname of "The Postman" onto him, itself indicating much of A Little Life's endgame:
"You can't just decide you're post-black, Malcolm," JB had said. "And also: you have to have actually been black to begin with in order to move beyond blackness."
"You're such a dick, JB," Malcolm had said.
"Or," JB had continued, "you have to be so genuinely uncategorizable that the normal terms of identity don't even apply to you." JB had turned toward him, then, and he had felt himself freeze with a momentary terror. "Like Judy here: we never see him with anyone, we don't know what race he is, we don't know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past." He smiled at him, presumably to show he was at least partly joking. "The post-man. Jude the Postman."
"The Postman," Malcolm had repeated: he was never above grabbing on to someone else's discomfort as a way of deflecting attention from his own. And although the name didn't stick -- when Willem had returned to the room and heard it, he had only rolled his eyes in response, which seemed to remove some of its thrill for JB -- he was reminded that as much as he head convinced himself he was fitting in, as much as he worked to conceal the spiky odd parts of himself, he was fooling no one." [p. 94]
At its very core, A Little Life is about this exact kind of interaction, testing the tensile strength of the modern male friendship but only in example: this is not a book that carries a ready-made thesis within its margins. This is about a life simply lived and shaped by those around it, which is just like everyone's life. There is tragedy, there is movement, there is love, and there is disappointment. We have all experienced those things, but through the lens of Jude's tortured existence, we truly are transported to an emotional landscape that is not our own, and one that has been immaculately constructed by Yanagihara's dexterous prose and thorough research.
Yet what is perhaps A Little Life's most realistic element has proven to be its most controversial. Even after probing the depths of Jude's childhood filled with monks, not least the time he was adopted at age 30, he is a man who, emotionally, almost refuses to change, while his trio of best buds all go on to achieve success that borders on the excessive: Willem turns into a world-famous movie star, JB a renowned artist, etc.
Near the story's end, some of the scenarios, while still instilled with Yanagihara's elaborate emotional detail, have been criticized as being unrealistic. While they do at times test credulity, one must bear in mind that Jude takes on more and more prominence as the story continues, leaving the lives of his friends as a sharp contrast to what he experiences, those shiny friendships dimming for him as his haunted past continues to define his future, at one point even noting that "[Jude] feels his past is a cancer, one that he should have treated long ago but instead ignored."
It's fitting then, that Yanagihara has titled her book A Little Life, seemingly diminishing its own scope to that of the minute, but revealing, through its 700 pages, that it is all those small details that constitute the grandest epic of all: that of any life truly lived. We sometimes see ourselves clearly through Jude's struggles and endless self-doubt, and when we walk away from A Little Life, we are left stunned that a work of fiction can feel so rich and so deeply, beautifully lived-in.