Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life spans 60 years of friendship, love, suffering and hardship in the lives of four friends. There is the handsome actor Willem, the creative and sometimes selfish artist JB, the architect Malcom and finally Jude, the successful lawyer with a lot of dark secrets. They have met at University, when they weren’t successful or rich, but rather living in shitty apartments, going to parties and cheap restaurants. But then careers develop, friendships change and sometimes secrets are revealed. The focus of the novel definitely lies on the relationship between Willem and Jude and maybe even more so on Jude’s past. The descriptions of Jude’s ordeals in the past and his current struggle with it are probably the most horrific things I have ever read. I won’t say too much, as a lot of things are only revealed after many pages, but some of the themes of the novel are violent abuse, addiction, extreme self-harm and crippling illness.
Interestingly, even though this 720-page novel spans 60 years, it is stripped entirely of historical or technological landmarks. The story is focused exclusively on the personal histories of the characters and even though there are some slight references to art and politics it is never enough to link the events in the novel to a specific year. Even though it is mainly a New York novel, there is no mentioning of 9/11, or any political or social event of the city.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is Yanagihara’s treatment of friendship: The role that the four men play in each other’s lives, are often times more important then any other connection they have. They are not only friends but partners, confidants and family. Their friendships are the support system of choice, one that evolves and changes over time:
“They were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”
Before starting the novel I was wondering why Yanagihara had chosen to write a book almost exclusively about men. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. I could not have been more wrong. It took the genius of a female writer to give four men an emotional portrait of their love (and friendship) for one another. And she has through her novel created positive role models (not only) for men.
Emotions run high in this novel, everything is enhanced: love, sadness, cruelty. I do wonder if this extreme way of telling a story is a comment that Yanagihara is making in regard to trends in our current society? Why do I crave such a story? What draws me to that much pain and suffering on the one hand and that much success and money on the other? It wasn’t that the characters did not feel three-dimensional; actually I have seldom felt that characters were actually real people and not mere characters in a book. And yet they were also caricatures of both themselves and people in real life. But is there something in this contradiction? I am not sure why the characters in this book can be over the top and believable at the same time. And I am not sure how emotions can be outrageously excessive and still be the only thing that ever made me feel such a connection at all. It was like Yanagihara opened a door to characters that not very many people have dared to even acknowledge.
This doesn’t mean that I was in any way able to distance myself from the story while I was reading it. The intense emotion I have felt, the tears of sadness, rage and compassion I have cried and the urge to physically hurt characters in the novel because of their wrongdoing was overwhelming. The emotionality in this story was so unusually strong that I couldn’t read the novel in public (I once did, cried a lot and got some odd looks), and sometimes I couldn’t even read it at all. At times I literally could not stop sobbing. I have never felt like this with any other book. Have never cried so much. Never felt so many emotions. Yanagihara never holds back; she drags you through the darkest memories, the scariest thoughts and the loneliest hours. The tragedy that is the life of Jude St. Francis probably transcends all tragedy you have encountered in contemporary literature. And just like the characters in the novel, I felt helpless, forced to deal with issues I usually wouldn’t:
“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”
Here are some selected on articles about A Little Life: