by TAYLOR HINE
A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday, 720 pp.
I read the first few pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on Sunday afternoon. I remember the day being overcast, but that may be just an after-effect of reading the novel. The cover beckoned me over to the “staff picks” table – was the man about to cry from pain or from having an orgasm? Will this book really be as wonderful as everyone says it is?
This is what A Little Life is about: four friends, but mostly just one of those friends – the one, we’re supposed to think, whose experiences matter most in the group. Jude St. Francis is an orphan of unknown ethnic origin who was found either in or next to a trash can in an alleyway as a baby and raised by a coterie of monks who all happen to be terrible people. The other three have their own problems: drug addiction, struggling for art, working jobs that don’t pay enough, finding a halfway decent roommate. The novel opens with two of the friends, Willem and the aforementioned Jude, being chastised by an apartment agent for not being able to afford the place she’s showing them. A Little Life, then, is a novel like many others: it’s about going home. In Jude’s case, it’s about finding a home: the first sentence reads, “The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking.”
A Little Life is probably supposed to appeal to me – after all, it’s about a group of twenty-somethings precariously navigating the post-college adult world. It’s a very New York novel, which suits, naturally, most of its reviewers and friends of mine who live there. There are no references, however, to 9/11 or any current events or political movements that might set the novel in a given time period. One reviewer argued that this is to make the novel timeless, but I’m more inclined to think that the characters in the novel just don’t have much time to think about it.
The first third of the novel is spent explaining the stories of how each of the four friends – JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude – ended up in New York City. There are arguments about race and homosexuality and other categories and labels. As it turns out, Jude can’t be categorized. His friends call him “The Postman” because he’s uncomfortable with divulging his life story, which is what really sets him apart from his three friends: “We never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him…[He’s] post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.” They find him fascinating. The more anyone finds out about him throughout the novel, though, he becomes someone to feel sorry for rather than an intriguing, mysterious person: someone they try desperately to help in whatever ways they can.
The rest of the novel is deeply troubling. Jude’s story is nothing more and nothing less of abuse. He defines his life by it; his suffering is the beginning and end of his character. A new maxim is presented: things only get worse; they don’t get better. It’s like the film version of The Shining: “All [Jack Torrance] does is get crazier,” King said in a recent interview. “In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.” Peppered with flashbacks to Jude’s sexual and physical abuse in childhood and adolescence are depictions of the various ways he tries to cope: he maims himself, avoids the questions and concerns of his friends, and balks at the idea of anyone being able to love a man in a wheelchair.
Jude gives up on his life by the end of the novel. After one suicide attempt earlier on, Willem moves in with Jude – after a short while, they begin a romantic relationship. It’s a troublesome relationship for Jude, despite finally being with someone who treats him well. The one aspect of it he can’t handle is sexual intimacy. Instead of telling Willem as much and to avoid hurting his feelings (in other words, to avoid confrontation of any sort, even though Willem would be just as understanding and as sympathetic as he’s always been), he maims himself more than ever.
Before picking up A Little Life, I thought the saddest story ever told was that of Job’s inexplicable suffering. Job’s story, however, has a message that can be taken away from it: Sometimes we suffer, and we don’t know why. Nobody earns whatever suffering befalls them – justice isn’t that simple. The punishment doesn’t always fit the crime; there doesn’t even have to be a crime. Despite this meager ultimatum, or because of it – whichever you prefer – what matters, I think, is how we carry ourselves during those times of suffering. We can choose to give up, or we can try not to. A Little Life is a depiction of what the limits of that suffering can look like, a treatise on just how much one person can take. At one point, Jude “prays to a god he doesn’t believe in,” indicating that the blame in fact could lie outside of himself, even though he never says so outright. In fact, he spends most of the novel believing he brought all of his suffering upon himself, with increased paranoia and regression over time as a result.
A Little Life left me with little more than frustration when I finished it. It’s an utterly hopeless novel, unlike any other I’ve ever read. They were right in saying that you shouldn’t pick up A Little Life if you’re feeling sad, that it would only make you feel sadder. Now to that, I agree.
Taylor Hine is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Asheville.
“I Want You” – Anthony Hamilton (mp3)