So many questions attend the reading and reception of Hanya Yanagihara’s searing contemporary novel, A Little Life, that it is best to answer them head-on:
Is it a big novel? Oh, hell, yes, in every way, although one of those ways is more important than the others, and I shall have something to say about its bigness in that way by the end of this post. But be assured (and forewarned): it’s a big read (721 pages in the Kindle edition), and not a one of those pages is easy going.
A Little Life is the story of four friends: Malcolm Irvine, Jean-Baptiste Marion, Willem Ragnarsson, and Jude St. Francis, and their friends and families, as the four of them share living space with each other and set out to make their way as young professionals in the arts, architecture, and the law. The central figure around whom the others revolve, even as they carry on their own lives, is Jude, a reserved, inward young man who nevertheless is a brilliant litigator at the firm where he works. It’s immediately clear to his friends that Jude has been damaged in some way by life, but he steadfastly refuses to discuss his background or his origins. Despite his quiet, introspective nature, however, Jude is easily likeable, and has a sweet vulnerability that his friends will always endeavor to protect.
Is it a violent novel? Yes, it is, beyond anything that most of us will have ever read before. It is unequivocally a novel about extraordinary emotional and sexual abuse–the events of his life that Jude refuses to talk about–and about how Jude deals with that abuse. The sexual abuse is so severe and sustained, and Jude’s self-loathing is so intense, as he cuts himself repeatedly to strip away what he perceives to be the vile parts of himself, that more than one reviewer has thrown up his hands and asked–quite seriously–“Is the depiction of all of this abuse necessary?” Yanagihara herself explicitly aimed to ratchet up the violence in the book as high as she could, to push both herself and her readers farther than they thought they could go.
My own view–hard won, after wanting to dismiss the abuse after the first two hundred pages or so–is that the violence is not out of place; it is there for a purpose: to show us how hard it is to make for ourselves, and hang on to, the little lives we have. I would remind anyone who is shocked or offended by the sexual abuse to which Jude is subjected that real life can and does have many examples of the same that are far worse: the experimentation done by the Germans on prisoners and concentration camp members in World War II; the Fritzl case in Austria, discovered in 2008, easily the most wanton, horrifying extended example of sexual abuse I’ve ever heard of. As Yanagihara reveals to us, inch-by-inch, Jude’s suffering at the hands of the brothers of the monastery where he was raised and the almost-unbelievable exploitation he endures at the hand of Brother Luke as the two of them are on the run, her purpose is not to trivialize actual abuse, but to make it real to us, especially its emotional context.
Is the novel self-indulgent? With great reluctance, I would answer yes, it is. Yanagihara’s narrative voice carries on for so long, page after page in many places, that we long for a bit of dialogue to break up the prose. A Little Life falls into the trap that Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain falls into. Proulx desperately wanted Brokeback to be a about a social situation (cowboys discovering their homosexuality); what readers wanted, however, was a novel, a story. A Little Life is, for about half the book, Yanagihara explaining sexual abuse to us. Many, many readers will be put off by that approach, even if they enjoy the book as a whole. Fortunately, Yanagihara recovers, and the last half of the book is a fictional marvel.
The book is self-indulgent, I think, in another way: these men live well-to-do professional lives in New York City; they vacation in Massachusetts, Florida, Italy. They have lots of money (and have thereby, one presumes, the time to introspect about their lives), but we don’t see them earning any of that money, or sweating for it. In that respect, the book is about as real as an episode of Friends was. Only in the last half of the book do we see Jude as a middle-aged litigator, or see the fruits of Malcolm’s career (and his secret kindness) as an architect. Jude’s career as a lawyer, however, was problematic for me. I did not buy for one moment the idea that a man so abused and so self-abusing could function well enough on a daily basis to become a high-powered attorney. In defense of this rather shocking admission, I point back to the Fritzl case. As I remarked in my post about Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, there are some traumas from which we do not recover. And, in truth, Jude never recovers from his. At best, he is granted only a blessed, temporary reprieve in the form of his relationship with the actor, Willem Ragnarsson.
A Little Life‘s chapter structure is wholly confusing. Forget about trying to figure it out and think of the novel this way: Before Willem, With Willem, After Willem. Ragnarsson’s first name will inevitably make readers think of Willem Dafoe, and that’s perfectly all right, for I remind you that Dafoe has played the good sergeant in Platoon and the most compelling Jesus ever put on film in The Last Temptation of Christ. Willem’s love for and devotion to Jude is the most extraordinary of all the relationships one can find in the story, and it is entirely believable. Willem fights the good fight and keeps his faith that Jude can stop cutting himself and realize that the horrible things that happened to him were not his fault. He is supportive of Jude in every way. He is, as essayist Roger Rosenblatt once said of a real person, “the best we can do.”
Close behind Willem, however, are the wonderfully patient and loving Harold and Julia, who adopt the adult Jude into their family. There’s not a reader on the planet who couldn’t find something to admire about the way Yanagihara characterizes these two. Especially rending is the scene wherein the seventy-two year old Harold takes the recovering Jude on a walk, only to have the two of them discover that Jude does not have the strength to make it back to their starting point. It’s a harrowing moment, but particularly for Harold. There’s also Andy, Jude’s doctor, who treats Jude’s injuries for years, begs him to seek psychiatric help, but keeps his secrets nonetheless as long as he can.
On the point of medical treatment, I have one last quarrel. In the real world, the friends of Jude would have intervened long before Jude’s friends in the book actually do. I have no knowledge of the prevalence of men cutting themselves (I know women have done it), but I do know from reading George Gilder’s book Sexual Suicide years ago that, as far as killing themselves is concerned, men are far more efficient at the task than women are.
There’s a reason for that, and I will borrow from Gilder once more to express it. He dedicates Sexual Suicide to his wife, a woman who has given to him “a way, and a reason to live.” Without the way and the reason, the human male is without hope. Women may go on; men cannot. Willem gave Jude that way, supplied him that reason, and for a few years they were happy. The accident that takes Willem away from Jude could happen to any of us, yet it is as wrenching a moment as the death of Matthew Crawley was at the end of season three of Downton Abbey. I’ve never gotten past that moment.
May I ask a question, then, that few of us will dare to ask? When your way and reason for living is gone, what else is there? Perhaps Jude’s final choice is related to his abuse, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I believe that Jude, too, has grown in the novel, just as his friends have and his family has. He does his best to set his world to rights but, the truth is, his way is gone. He’s done his work, and there is nothing more he can do for anyone, even himself.
Friends are not enough to help him carry on. Yanagihara focuses on them in the first part of the novel, and then brings all of them fully back into the story some four hundred pages later to remind us what a rich support system Jude actually has.
The reason to live, however, whatever it is, must come from us individually; it cannot come from our friends or even those we call father or mother. They can provide clues, perhaps, about what a sufficient reason might be, but the reason to go on must be our own. Harold knows this; so does Willem; hence, their linkage at the end of the book as the two persons who love Jude the most.
I stand with those who find A Little Life deeply compelling, but flawed. It is not believable in all respects, but it has a depth of introspection about every detail of life reminiscent of Proust at his finest in Remembrance of Things Past. That is no small compliment and no small accomplishment. I cannot say, as I could of All The Light We Cannot See, that it will win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, but it will be nominated, and it just might win. If it does, it will win because it shows us, not as Doerr’s novel does, how all living things past and present are connected, but how closely individual human lives and thoughts are tethered to the lives and thoughts of those we love the most. The recognition of that truth may or may not be enough to help us go on with our own lives, but its discovery here is enough to fully justify the length of Yanagihara’s novel, and the investment of a reader’s time with it.