A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday, March 2015
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.
A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.
I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.
My biggest criticism of the book is that it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.
Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something.
Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.