I’m conflicted when it comes to A Little Life. On the negative side it’s too long, it’s depiction of sexual abuse is over the top and there are moments when the characters feel more like punching bags then real people. However, it’s a novel that I won’t forget in a hurry. Yanagihara’s exploration of suffering, mental anguish, coupled with the possibility of love, hope and enduring friendship is astonishing.
So, while I can’t recommend the novel, I can see why it’s garnered so much praise and I’d be surprised if it didn’t take home this years Man Booker.
The room became quiet, and for a few seconds, he and Willem had looked at each other across the table, and the rest of the people, the apartment itself, fell away: they were two people on two chairs, and around them was nothingness.
“To Willem,” [Jude] finally said, and raised his glass, and so did everyone else.
“To Willem!” they all echoed, and Willem smiled back at him.
Later that evening, when everyone had left and they were in bed, he had told Willem that he was right. “I’m glad you know your life has meaning,” he told him. “I’m glad it’s not something I have to convince you of. I’m glad you know how wonderful you are.”
“But your life has just as much meaning as mine,” Willem had said. “You’re wonderful, too. Don’t you know that, Jude?”
At the time, he had muttered something, something that Willem might interpret as an agreement, but as Willem slept, he lay awake. It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not. He didn’t think his was. But this didn’t bother him so much. And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible—he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer?
While I was reading Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker nominated novel, A Little Life, I was reminded of two different and distinct works. The first of these was Donna Tart’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Goldfinch. Like A Little Life, The Goldfinch is set in New York, involves art and artists (or creators) and has a troubled protagonist at its centre. But more importantly, the New York of The Goldfinch and A Little Life feels hermetically sealed, a place stuck in time where the year is never mentioned and world events and history happen to other people. A Little Life goes one step further by inventing its own pop culture references, including famous actors and films that never existed in our world.
The second distinct work that kept insinuating itself into my reading experience was Gaspar Noe’s harrowing 2002 film, Irreversible, a movie I recently watched. This is partly linked to the fact that both A Little Life and Irreversible deal with sexual violence and rape, but mostly it was how both works create a totally submersive experience that you wish you could drag yourself away from and yet stays with you long after you’ve finished.
The paradox of both these influences is that while A Little Life presents us with a world that never feels entirely real, the emotional turmoil – both positive and negative – experienced by the characters in this world gut punch you with their immediacy. In fact, I would argue that it’s the very length of A Little Life – over 700 pages, and more than 300,000 words – that allows this paradox to exist. Yes, the book is far too long and yet any significant edits to the book would have undermined the novel’s submersive effect.
As noted A Little Life is set in New York and tells the story of Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm who meet at college and form a lifelong friendship. For the first 100 pages or so you get the impression that Yanagihara is going to alternate between the four friends as their lives and relationships go through peaks and troughs. Except that’s not what Yanagihara does. As the novel progresses, and we move beyond college with each of the friends becoming successful at their chosen professions, Yanagihara focuses more and more on Jude St Francis. By the time you’re halfway through the book you realise that A Little Life is Jude’s story, specifically what he suffered as a boy, his struggle to find peace and his friendship and ultimate romance with Willem. Malcolm and JB still feature, but they increasingly become peripheral figures.
Jude’s struggle to deal with his past slowly but surely dominates the book’s narrative. It’s clear early on in A Little Life that something terrible happened to Jude when he was young. He’s often in terrible pain due to an injury to his legs and he refuses to speak about his past, even to those close to him. Yanagihara almost teases us in how she reveals what happened to Jude. Through the course of the novel we are taken back to Jude’s youth and the years of abuse he experienced.
Jude’s horrifying childhood is both a pivotal and core aspect of A Little Life and one of the key weaknesses of the novel. A Little Life – as has been described by other reviews – is very much an exploration of sexual abuse, of suffering and of the difficulties in recovering from such a nightmare experience. And there’s no doubt that what Jude goes through is unimaginably awful. But there is a point in the novel where the abuse Jude experiences tips over from a gut wrenching account of sexual violence directed at a child to a parody of that abuse. After surviving Brother Luke, who Jude runs off with, attracted to an idyllic life in the forest with a man who seems to care for him only to be pimped out and raped by that very same person, and after being sent back to the monastery where the sexual violation continues, and after escaping the monastery and going on the run, only to be captured by a creepy psychiatrist who locks Jude up in the basement and has his way with him, you can’t help but roll your eyes. It’s not that you’ve become desensitised to all the rape, it’s that whatever message or theme Yanagihara is trying to communicate becomes lost in the tragedy porn. There’s also no clear bridge between the boy and teenager that was sexually abused and the shy, curious young man who befriends three other guys at college.
However, where the abuse of Jude is almost laughable in it’s over the top depiction, Jude’s daily battle against the demons of his past never feels anything but real. The need to self harm, the unwillingness to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the inability to believe that people actually like and love him – these intense fears and anxieties plague Jude no matter how outwardly “good” and “happy” his life seems to be. There were points where I wanted to take Jude by the proverbial scruff and force him to tell those who love him deeply about what he experienced as a boy. It’s this frustration with Jude that had me realise that not only did I care for him as a character but I cared for those around him, directly affected by Jude’s state of mind. In that light, the relationship between Willem and Jude – especially the section that deals with their “good years” – is powerful, confronting stuff that teaches us that love and hope and happiness is always possible, even if it’s temporary.
However, like Job, or Jude the Obscure, Yanagihara never stops punishing and hurting Jude. It’s not just the physical pain he faces everyday, but also the terror that comes from an abusive relationship he has an adult and the heart shredding sadness of losing people he loves. Yanagihara’s constant flogging of Jude may be deliberate, but there’s a point where it’s hard to believe in Jude as a real person. This is a terrible shame because as I’ve already mentioned there are moments, written with brilliance and care and sensitivity, where Jude and his pain feel genuine and real and true.
From beginning to end A Little Life is a paradox. It’s a book that I won’t forget in hurry with its astonishing and intricate exploration of suffering and mental anguish. And yet it’s also a book that I never really liked or particularly enjoyed reading – and not simply because of the subject matter. The novel is too long, it’s treatment of sexual abuse is over the top and there are times where the characters, and Jude in particular, become nothing more than punching bags. So, while I’m not sure I can recommend A Little Life, I’m convinced, even without having read all six nominees, that this is the novel that will win the Man Booker prize for 2015.