I’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.
This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:
To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.
Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.
The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:
In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.
That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.
The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).
I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).
The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563] It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688] That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.
That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.
But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.