“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”
Weighing in at over 800 pages full of phenomenal, excruciating detail, Hanya Yanagihara’s epic “A Little Life” is agonizingly beautiful and a land-mine for an empathic reader.
Through an omniscient narrator, Yanagihara tells a story of four friends: Willem, a gentle soul from a Wyoming farm raised by parents who were “emotionless and blunt”; Jude, an enigma whose mysteries are slowly unveiled to a select few; JB, an ambitious artist who is often bigger than life and diva-esque; and Malcolm, a reserved, conscientious, budding architect with upper class pressures and first-world problems. Though this story faithfully involves all four friends and their decades-long friendships, as the story develops Yanagihara makes it clear that Jude is the central figure; his is the titular life.
This novel is partly a coming-of-age story, beginning with the four friends as young professionals in New York City and following them into their fifties. In that vein, the characters approach the expected, landmark conflicts. In addition to family dynamics and romantic entanglements, the book explores questions of identity. For instance, the reader watches as JB and Malcolm argue about race:
“Race had always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he had hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black; he was post-black. …Unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcolm had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into.”
We also get to see Willem observing the ambition which flows through his friends and all around him (and despite the lack of which Willem ultimately becomes a star):
“[Willem] knew he wasn’t lazy, but the truth was that he lacked the sort of ambition that JB and Jude had, that grim, trudging determination that kept them at the studio or office longer than anyone else, that gave them that slightly faraway look in their eyes that always made him think a fraction of them was already living in some imagined future, the contours of which were crystallized only to them. JB’s ambition was fueled by a lust for that future, for his speedy arrival to it; Jude’s, he thought, was motivated more by a fear that if he didn’t move forward, he would somehow slip back to his past, the life he had left and about which he would tell none of them. And it wasn’t only Jude and JB who possessed this quality: New York was populated by the ambitious. It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common.”
“A Little Life” is more deeply a story about trauma and trust, partnerships and independence. The reader is gradually made privy to the series of Job-like, catastrophic traumas which Jude has miraculously endured through his life. In this way, the omniscience of the narrator gives the reader an advantage over his closest friends, to whom Jude remains opaque; in fit of pique, JB declares Jude “‘Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.'”
“But this was part of the deal when you were friends with Jude…You let things slide that your instincts told you not to, you scooted around the edges of your suspicions. You understood that proof of your friendship lay in keeping your distance, in accepting what was told you, in turning and walking away when the door was shut in your face instead of trying to force it open again.”
Jude himself sees his hidden history full of cyclical abuse as somehow logical, right, and justified, his pairing with psychopaths as symmetrical: “they are the damaged and the damager, the sliding heap of garbage and the jackal sniffing through it.” His extreme trauma and the indelible internalization of its brutal messages haunt him through every moment of his life and torment the vulnerable reader with a visceral, anguish-filled, anxiety-provoking experience. Jude “had a vision in which he carved away at himself – first arms, then legs, then chest and neck and face – until he was only bones, a skeleton who moved and sighed and breathed and tottered through life on its porous, brittle stalks.” In some sense I, too, was left with a sense of having been pared down and stumbling once I emerged from under this book.
I have to say that there were several cracks in the foundation of this story that gave me pause. The likelihood of four men being randomly matched as college roommates who ultimately share sexual ambiguity, are fiercely loyal and physically affectionate with one another, and who all emerge to be world-class successes in each of their fields (art, law, architecture, and acting) – well, it is a tall order and a bit tough to belief. I also couldn’t help but mourn the lack of female characters, especially in a book written by a woman. The roles for women in this epic saga are few and far between, with women appearing only in minor measure as helpmeets and supporters of their male partners.
In the end, though, these criticisms, which would certainly besmirch a lesser work, do nothing to diminish the brilliance of this one. I couldn’t help but suspend disbelief as I surrendered to this book, loving and anguishing over every page. As a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, “A Little Life” is anything but a little book in any sense. It is truly, dauntingly magnificent.