A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)

3*
a little life cover

Who am I? Who am I?

You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.

Having finished this novel, having somehow ploughed through to its shattering conclusion, I cannot overstate the absolute heartache that re-reading the above passage evokes. The protagonist, Jude St. Francis, does not learn to believe these things about himself. He does not, cannotaccept the countless, distinctive attributes that comprise his personhood. He does not, despite being deeply endeared to those around him, manage to move beyond the profound trauma of his past. He is a character we love desperately, a character we want to see get better desperately, but a character that will not, ultimately, be saved from himself. This is something that we, as readers, know intuitively all along. It is an awareness present throughout A Little Life’s 800-odd pages, and it is possibly the most heartbreaking thing about this book.

I spent around two weeks on my commute to and fro work getting through A Little Life. I noticed a sort of lethargy that would set in after I’d stop reading, one that’d continue well into the latter half of the morning. It’s not only that the subject matter is dark. It’s the way that this darkness envelops Jude entirely, and invariably seeps its way into all the little kernels of happiness he has established for himself: his high-powered job (and his genuine enjoyment of it); his stylish New York apartment; his solid, loving group of friends. I found there to be something almost meritorious about the author’s refusal to let Jude ‘get better’, about her total commitment to ensuring that his trauma remains the epicentre of his existence, always. Perhaps because the generalised atmosphere of anxiety that permeates the book’s pages resonates particularly with a generation of ‘millennials’ raised with the conviction that life will be extraordinary, only to find that it is, in truth, bleak and underwhelming. Or, perhaps Yanagihara’s determination not to rescue Jude is admirable for its apt and honest acknowledgement of the lasting, damaging legacy that childhood rape and sexual abuse can have. Either way, the novel serves as a stark confirmation of something most of us eventually realise about life – that nothing is really guaranteed, ever.

Though it was a compulsive read, I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Little Life. Is it possible to really enjoy the deliberate, graphic chronicling of a person’s deep-seated anguish and suffering? I shared the same sentiment of outrage with many other of the book’s readers: how can so many bad things all happen to one person?! At times, the writing felt a little manipulative – as if I was being forced to feel sad, forced to fixate on the brutalities of Jude’s existence, like the book was sustaining itself on my misery and disgust. It seemed as though all the forces of life had conspired intently against Jude, in the most grotesque way imaginable – though this is precisely what Yanagihara says was intended:

One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take. To me you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. What a reader can always tell is when you are holding back for fear of offending them. I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.

Indeed, this quality of exaggeration is wielded throughout the novel. The writing is certainly unabashed in its sentimentality; there are frequent and recurring declarations of love, guilt, regret. These occur mostly within the context of adult male friendships, the fundamental lens through which the story is told. I did love this aspect of it, and it dawned on me how little the theme of friendship seems to be traversed in literature and culture more generally. It is the romantic relationship that is usually at the centre of all things, the romantic relationship that is presented as the ultimate, most significant relationship, the one to which all other relationships are but subordinate. This is an idea that comes up repeatedly, and is echoed here in one of my favourite passages:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

I loved the first few chapters for the very reason that the friendship between Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem was examined with so much depth and humour.

And yet, in the end, friendship and love are unable to keep Jude from succumbing. There is no ultimate, conclusive fix, and in retrospect we are amazed that he has made it this far.

The book certainly made me think. All those that care about Jude – his friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, doctors, psychiatrists – despite their measures, are unable to save him. Through his multiple suicide attempts, his decades of self-harm, they insist, and keep on insisting, that he must carry on living. He must carry on living no matter what, in spite of himself and in spite of everything he feels. Of course, this is hardly callous. It is the most intuitive, most instinctual reaction that any one of us would have towards someone we care for. It is a wider precept, too – that people should strive to better their lives. Still, it is striking that nobody, not even for a moment, is willing to accept that Jude – to put it simply – may never get better. Yes – that would be defeatist, unduly pessimistic, perhaps. I am optimistic that most of us can recover, over time and with adequate support, from our traumas and anxieties, however severe they might be. And yet the passage below, though from Willem’s perspective, perfectly encapsulates one of the underlying motifs of the book:

But these were the days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

And so, whilst I am still unsure of my feelings towards the book on the whole, there was something undeniably powerful it had to say about modern life, and the attitudes and expectations of the world in which so many of us live.

 

 

 

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