A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, published by Doubleday Books, 2015
Very little about A Little Life is little. At 720 pages, it is a gigantic book that dares readers to pick it up. It is a book that is impossible to read at one go—the harrowing descriptions of pain and despair demand immense degrees of resilience and tenacity—but compelling to the finish. It will lure you with innocuous beginnings and strand you half-way through, leading you around all relief and beat you black and blue. In the end, A Little Life becomes one of those rare books which you curse for the profundity that changes you indelibly.
The book begins on a relatable note, with the story of four friends who meet at an unnamed northeastern college: Malcolm Irvine, the bi-racial son of a wealthy family residing in the Upper East Side, Jean Baptiste Marion (simply called JB), the child of well-off immigrants from Haiti, Willem Ragnarrson, the son of ranch-hands in Wyoming and Jude St. Francis, an orphan. Their friendship, progresses through the entirety of their adult lives, even as they keep drifting out of and into each other’s lives. Each of them, the narrative tells us, acquires spectacular worldly success. Malcolm becomes a starchitect with a flourishing architecture firm of his own; JB achieves acclaim as an artist; Willem slowly ascends the ladder of stardom and Jude evolves into a lawyer of formidable repute. So far, the novel is a convenient bildungsroman, telling the tale of four men, presenting intersections for them to meet to smooth creases out of their lives.
A few revelations later, the familiar comfort zone is dislodged and you find yourself nosediving into a nightmare of paedophilia, sadism and self-destruction. The brooding, enigmatic Jude—the archetypal golden child progressing towards an euphoric, romantic resolution—destabilizes the surfeit of materialism and destroys all semblance of normalcy. Yanagihara’s narrative relentlessly chases Jude’s violence into a merciless world of betrayal and torture, beginning with the scene when Jude wakes Willem up at the middle of the night, telling him, ‘There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry’. There is Jude’s towel-wrapped, profusely bleeding arm and his physician Andy’s frightening disclosure, ‘He cuts himself regularly. You know that, don’t you?’
The graphic descriptions of recurrent self-mutilation, inculcated as a ritual of self-cleansing, is disturbing to say the least:
‘He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.’
It is difficult to come to terms with the directness of such violence, even if you have the scene of Ramsay torturing Theon in the Game of Thrones series in mind. Most works of fiction leave the violence undescribed, allowing the reprieve of ignorance. Yanagihara allows no such room. She incisively presents episodes and flashbacks to reveal how Jude was systematically pimped by a priest, Brother Luke, who helped him escape from the rehabilitation center where he was repeatedly assaulted, then raped by truck drivers and a sadistic doctor, who deliberately ran him over with his car to prevent his escape.
As Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker notes in his review, Yanagihara seems to revel in inflicting damage on Jude, to create a providential Job out of him. This seems especially true in the parts when the flashbacks are coupled with a series of humiliations in the present: Jude becomes a wheel-chair bound cripple, then strikes up a relationship with an abusive gay partner who abhors his physical deformity and beats him up before throwing him down the stairs, ends up with an amputation and continuously dodges the company of his adopted parents who try to help him out of his trauma. In a shocking development later on, JB mocks Jude’s infirmity prompting Jude (and Willem) to sever all contact with JB.
Yanagihara’s book however had not begun this way. There were descriptions of camaraderie, drunk confessions and lewd jokes, promises of lasting friendship, simmering tensions and minute jealousies. There was laughter at Malcolm’s guilt for his parents’ wealth and JB’s attempt to conceal his family’s financial solvency and his own complete emotional and economic dependence on his mother and aunt. It is easy to empathise with the group’s envy of Willem’s unprepossessing charm and internalize Willem’s own humility and sensitive empathy given his experience of poverty at his parents’ ranch and the death of his brother. That Jude would emerge as the problem child of the group is hinted at, but there are warm friendly jokes even about his unknown racial identity, given that he was abandoned at birth.
The narrative becomes wholly invested in Jude’s life so soon that the lives of the other three seem like ciphers in comparison. Yanagihara refers to, but does not waste words on Malcolm’s negotiation of professional and personal identities and JB’s alcohol and substance abuse. If Willem’s gradual success is explored at some length, it comes across as one resulting from his proximity to Jude. Even so, Willem’s experiences of stardom seem more realistic than Jude’s status as a semi-prodigy, partially because Jude’s accomplishments as an expert lawyer, gifted pianist, excellent mathematician and a talented chef do not seem to have as much grounding as Willem’s perception of his transition from failure to success. There is something oddly reassuring about Yanagihara’s insistence that ‘[t]here had been a day, about a month after he turned thirty-eight, when Willem realized he was famous’ despite his awareness that New York mostly comprised an extension of the circles of ambitious people they had all known since college.
Yet Jude’s numerous gifts provide odd solace for the slew of catastrophes that befall him. For the most part, despite his renown as a ferocious litigator and his insistence upon independence, Jude remains a victim all his life. Scarred, quite literally, he is unable to rise beyond his damned self-worth and his acceptance of love is always tinged by a fear of losing it. He never blames his tormentors, nor blasts them to eternal hell-fire and suffering; merely accepts the humiliation and remains stuck at that point of irresolution for the rest of time. Howard and Julia, Andy, Willem, Malcolm and even JB are unable to convince him of their love as he maintains a kind of starry-eyed fascination of their concern for him as undeserved, outstanding kindness. Even in his relationship with Willem, he finds himself unequal, blaming himself for his sexual failings, assailed by self-doubts, till Willem convinces him otherwise. He provides a counterpoint to degrading experiences of love and sexuality, ‘inventing their own kind of relationship … which felt truer and less constraining’. United at last, they visit parties, take trips abroad in a semblance of lasting domestic bliss.
Yanagihara’s meandering prose would definitely have benefitted from seasoned editing. Her intention to test the reader’s resilience to the limit however is a spectacular success. When Howard or Asian Henry Young or Andy seem to be too fairy-talesque for such a tale of despair, Yanagihara first kills Malcolm and then Willem in arbitrary car-crashes. Predictably, Jude finally commits suicide.
A Little Life is an odyssey of suffering; it is also a parable of life. It is completely ahistoric, allowing you the luxury of distancing Jude’s timeline from your own. Yanagihara’s persistent pessimism is right in Hardy’s neighbourhood, but there remains the sunshine of brief moments to contend with. She is undeniably the mistress of the little things she fondly remembers to describe- the friendships and loves, souvenirs and stains, the quarrels and jealousies, the jobs and accidents – assorted blocks that make up life.
The book transgresses every fundamental explanation of fictive happiness and thrusts everyone into a chasm of unresolved anguish and hopelessness. Yanagihara will disgust you, make you howl in pain. In the end however, she will have moved you enough to forgive her again.
– Pritha Mukherjee