A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Review by Megan Tilley
At the center of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is love. The kind of love that binds four men together over the decades, as their lives expand past their shared college experiences. The kind of love that spurs a professor to adopt his former student to give him the parents that he never had. The kind of love that drives a friend to paint revealing portraits of his friends, and the kind of love that allows them to forgive him. Love so infests the hearts of A Little Life, that without it, this carefully constructed novel would unravel at every plot point.
However, at the same time, a deep, almost unending capacity for suffering keeps pace, and it’s this suffering that makes A Little Life a difficult book to pin down. The highs on one page are made even more so because, ten pages later, readers are dropped back into the self-mutilation, sexual abuse, and trauma that defines its characters’ interactions. Yanagihara pulls no punches throughout the book: on reflection, it reads in parts like the kind of news stories we flinch to read, hoping for some kind of redemption at the end. Something good has to come out of all that horror.
This Janus-faced tension runs throughout the novel. In parts, in most parts, A Little Life is an original take on the trope of friends trying to make it in New York City. The central character, Jude St. Francis, begins as a mysterious, almost amorphous character: he is identified as having some sort of unspecified disability, he is ethnically borderline, and has a past so damaged everyone knows not to ask him about it. His foil, Willem, is a struggling actor coping with an emotionally void childhood that he responds to by loving deeply and wholly each of his friends. Malcolm is a sexually confused architect struggling to prove himself to his father. JB is a self-absorbed artists certain he is destined for greatness, if only the right people would appreciate him. A Little Life, which is a not so little book at over 700 pages, charts the life of Jude and his three friends as they struggle, then blossom, in New York in an unspecified time period. Yanagihara is purposefully vague about when the novel is set: she has created a separate New York that exists in its own temporality bubble. We are occasionally moved to other locales, but defining trends and world events are given no gravity or significant mention, leading to a sort of timeless New York that only serves as a stage for these characters to act themselves out in.
While the novel begins typically enough: cheap restaurants, cheaper apartments, A Little Life quickly takes a dive into the darkness its readers will begin to notice as a hallmark of the novel. Jude awakens Willem to take him to the hospital—he has cut himself so deeply the bleeding won’t stop. This begins a spiral into the complicated, and horrific, past of the central characters’ past, and how his friends circle around that darkness like satellites, unable to get close enough to see the true depth.
It’s important to note that this novel is not for those with issues reading about topics like childhood sexual abuse, graphically detailed self-mutilation, or abusive relationships. While Yanagihara’s book is beautiful in parts, her repeated infliction of terrible circumstances on her characters gets to be almost excessive. It’s worth questioning how necessary this repeated piling on of terrors is for the central point of the novel, and her irreverent approach to topic matters that, on their own, are difficult to write and read about, makes them all the more difficult. When the novel finally gets to something close to happiness towards the end, Yanagihara only gives a small portion of this book to this relatively normalcy, before turning once again to tragedy, and then to the repeated pattern of abuse and mental illness that stays pervasive throughout the novel.
That isn’t to cheapen Yanagihara’s beautiful, and often poignant, prose, which makes getting through the 700+ pages utterly worth it, but rather to take issue with the sadism shown her characters. I have never had to put down a book and take a few moments to stop feeling physically ill before, but there are parts in A Little Life that made me so intensely uncomfortable I had to take a break before I could pick it up again. I found myself skipping over incredibly graphic descriptions of not only self-mutilation, but also sexual abuse akin to torture. In the final twist of the novel, an unexpected death, the scene was described so graphically, the death so horrific, that it left me questioning the point of it: did this further the plot? Did this really do much of anything but throw another gut punch at the characters? Was the graphic nature of the death vital, or was it impossible for Yanagihara to create an instance like this without the violence that became so predictably awful throughout the novel.
All in all, A Little Life is a surprising, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrifically violent, novel that takes the trope of living in New York City and turning it on its head through fully realized, beautifully articulated characters. Yanagihara’s decision to turn extreme violence towards her characters becomes problematic past the halfway point in the novel, where it being used as a character development point becomes tired: we expect the violence, therefore it changes nothing about the character. Any one of the instances described would have been enough, piling them on top of each other seems, in parts, a melodramatic decision made by the author. However, forgiving its penchant for gratuitous horror, A Little Life is a fully immersive experience of a novel, and certainly worth exploration for those willing to tackle its substantive unhappiness.
Megan Tilley is a MA student in English Literature studying 20th century literature, particularly works written during or after World War II. Her areas of interest include literature as exploring war time trauma and disconnect, particularly in America and Eastern Europe, as well as work from the Appalachias.