A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
You know when someone talks to you about a “sad book,” and you immediately think, “well, someone precious is going to die at the end?” A Little Life has been called tragic, depressing, a masterpiece that you cannot get through without a wad of tissues nearby, and so naturally, I assumed someone would die at the end. I went into this book prepared to not get too attached to the characters, but it’s inevitable to not connect with people who are the subjects of an 800-page book with minimal spacing and tiny font. I’d like to think I went into this book prepared, but my preparation got me nowhere.
This novel does not lead up to a sad ending. Let me explain. Calling this novel “sad” is a massive understatement. It is 800 pages of tragedy after tragedy, because the “sad” doesn’t follow the pattern we are used to. It’s not happy and pleasant until the end where something sad happens- no, this book is a depressing hunk of paper with very little happiness in it. A Little Life is a long, winding tunnel spotted with skylights. You walk forward in the darkness with a couple of friends, and you are struck with sadness after sadness. Your friends get lost in the tunnel, you fall and break your arm, and then the tunnel gives you a foot of light where you can look around and take a breather before plunging yourself into the darkness. You don’t know what’s at the end, because the tunnel gives you no hints. You don’t know if you’ll exit into the open. You don’t know if you’ll hit a dead-end, but you keep on walking because by this point, your masochism has kicked in and you’re addicted to the torture.
We follow the stories of four characters, all college-friends who have moved from Boston to New York City in order to fulfill their dreams. Malcolm is an aspiring architect- timid and shy, whose overbearing parents are his pride and shame. JB is a painter- arrogant, optimistic and full of life, JB is the only one among his friends who is certain he will make it in life. Willem is an actor, calm and steady who has no family but his three best friends. But while the three have their own lives, their bond is strengthened by the presence of one Jude St. Francis. Jude is enigmatic. Despite having been friends for years, nobody knows anything about him; not his ethnicity or his sexuality. They don’t know anything about his childhood or his years before attending university. Jude has an injury; an accident severely limited the use of his legs, but nobody even knows how this came to be. But Jude is quiet, and he is kind and generous and dependent. And so the three friends lend their shoulders silently for him to lean on. This book is not set in one time period: years and decades pass, and each character matures, develops and experiences success and the perils of life, sometimes together, other times apart. As the narrative progresses, one thing becomes crystal clear: Jude has gone through an unspeakable childhood trauma. He is fragile and broken, battling so hard with inner demons that never seem to leave him.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed, plot-centered novel, put this book down and walk far, far away. A Little Life reads more like an in-depth character study than anything else. Despite there being a large, diverse, well-fleshed out cast of characters- make no mistake: this novel is about Jude. This novel is about Jude’s life, his depression, his experiences, his feelings of pain and insurmountable shame. It is a story about Jude’s relationships and his impact on the people around him. It is a story about love and loss, of betrayal and friendship, of perseverance and giving in. And because it follows the story of such a broken, intense young man, it is a difficult read.
It is a difficult read in more ways than one. Firstly, it is 800 pages long with very little action, with large chunks of paragraphs detailing the little moments in life, detailing theorems and laws and art and literature. Large chunks that talk about family, sex, career and the meaning of love- things that may not even need to be in the book. These large chunks familiarize you with our characters’ backgrounds, their introspections and streams of consciousness, their experiences with each other and outside of their immediate relationships. The characters in this novel feel real; more than once, I felt like I could reach out and touch them. They feel like friends, comrades you’ve known for a long, long time. Their happiness genuinely excites you, and their sadness genuinely devastates you. You also become so invested in their relationships with each other, almost as if you’re a mediator.
“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.”
Apart from the thematic material, what makes this novel so hard to digest is the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they feel like friends- watching them suffer through unimaginable things hurt me. I have never felt this way before. Halfway through the book, I had already cried at least twice, excluding the point where I sobbed for ten pages straight. And then again after. Yanagihara’s empathetic portrayal of human nature, of human decency and monstrosity is so spot-on. I don’t know what else I can say.
Secondly, it is brutal in its honest, unflinching portrayal of mental illness. There were several moments in this novel where I had to set the book aside and steady my breathing. It is uncomfortable. It depicts self-harm and depression graphically but not gratuitously, with sensitivity without doing it for “the shock factor.” Finally, the constant jumps in time frame makes this book far from a casual read. You need to keep up. Each ‘section’ takes place a few years after the previous one, but sometimes Yanagihara alternates time within paragraphs as well. One time you’re seeing the friends’ lives when they are 35, and you jump back in the middle of a paragraph to when they are 28. It can be quite jarring if you’re not paying attention.
But having said that, Yanagihara’s writing is easy to keep up with. Daunting as it may be with its intelligent discussion of many themes (some of which I mentioned above) and the sheer scale of the book, her writing is welcoming. Complex, full of emotion and genuine feeling, full of ‘quotable’ things without it ever being overbearing or ‘too much.’ Authors writing in the literary fiction genre so often give off the impression that they need to prove something, but Yanagihara writes with effortless grace and poise. She’s not trying to prove anything; this is her in 800 pages- take it or leave it.
“Do you remember the time you told me you were afraid that you were a series of nasty surprises for me?” he asks him, and Jude nods, slightly. “You aren’t,” he tells him. “You aren’t. But being with you is like being in this fantastic landscape,” he continues, slowly. “You think it’s one thing, a forest, and then suddenly it changes, and it’s a meadow, or a jungle, or cliffs of ice. And they’re all beautiful, but they’re strange as well, and you don’t have a map, and you don’t understand how you got from one terrain to the next so abruptly, and you don’t know when the next transition will arrive, and you don’t have any of the equipment you need. And so you keep walking through, and trying to adjust as you go, but you don’t really know what you’re doing, and often you make mistakes, bad mistakes. That’s sometimes what it feels like.”
They’re silent. “So basically,” Jude says at last, “basically, you’re saying I’m New Zealand.”
But despite all my praises, this is not a perfect book. My main complaint is the length. Bear with me. I have no problems with lengthy books, as long as the length is justified. Many will probably disagree with me, but I felt that the novel could have been cut short by at least 50 or 100 pages. For example, towards the beginning, we get such an in-depth look into JB and Malcolm’s characters, much of which doesn’t come back after the first section. Perhaps their backgrounds could have been weaved more seamlessly into the narrative as the book went along. A lot of the objective discussions about science and mathematics were beautifully written, sure, but didn’t feel like they needed to be there. But I’ve got to give Yanagihara this: despite the length, and despite the discussions on objective topics, I was hanging on to her every word. I didn’t skim a single page- I was just that invested.
So, here we are. You and me at the mouth of the tunnel. I made it out, and you’re asking me if you should take the chance. “It’s difficult. It’s long. It’s even terrifying at times, but-” and I prod you into the darkness, “it’s also exhilarating and beautiful and one hell of an experience.”
Trigger Warning: (highlight the text below)
Sexual and physical abuse, self-harm, severe clinical depression, rape, abusive relationships