Updated on July 15, 2016
30. ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
Shortlisted for both the 2015 Man Booker and 2016 Baileys fiction prizes, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has been the recipient of much praise and much controversy.
I’d heard many things about the novel before I picked it up – some good, some bad – but I thought it was important that I read it myself in order to make up my own mind. Well, now I have read it, and I have lots of … feelings.
The novel centres around four university friends in New York: aspiring actor Willem, volatile artist JB, vulnerable architect Malcolm and mysterious law student Jude. The story follows the boys as they grow into men and enter into careers and relationships, and we see the shifting sands of their four-way friendship over the years and how their pasts influence them into middle age. The real focus of the book is Jude, who has a hidden and clearly very disturbed past involving physical and sexual abuse, and eventually it is he who overwhelms the story as we learn more about his past and how he copes (or does not cope) with his deep-rooted self-loathing.
I’ll summarise my experience of reading A Little Life. First up, I’ll make it clear that I never never cry at books and, although I know that many people have shed more than a few tears over Jude’s plight, I didn’t cry at this one either. It’s not that I’m cold or unfeeling (at least I think it’s not – I do weep at the most ridiculous movies sometimes!), but I think I find it virtually impossible to turn off the critical side of my brain when I’m reading, so there’s always a certain amount of distance between the story and my emotions. Maybe if you are a reader who gets easily emotionally invested then you’ll get a more visceral experience from A Little Life than I did.
Anyway, to begin with I really enjoyed the novel. I thought that it was very well written – it has an easy, flowing style that makes you forget you’re reading literally hundreds of pages – and I thought the characterisation was deep and complex and very satisfying. I was also on board with the plot; sometimes it focuses on tiny details, sometimes it will skip years at a time, but I found that it kept me engaged and I was happy to go where it was taking me. I had heard, going in, that some people objected to the levels of abuse in Jude’s story and how they stretched believability, but I didn’t feel that at all. It was extreme, for sure, but not ludicrously so.
And then I hit the 75% mark. Almost immediately everything changed; it was like Yanagihara had been tugging me along with a piece of rope, and then suddenly she yanked on it so hard that it snapped. It began with (and I’m going to get spoilerific here) a memory of Jude escaping from an institution in which he was being abused, and hitchhiking across country. The place he had left was the second institution in which he had encountered child abusers and, although the number of abusers in these places seemed way higher than is likely in reality, I was willing to believe that, in Jude’s dark, unfortunate world, institutions filled with vulnerable children might attract people who would exploit them. But suddenly, for the first time, Jude was out in the world … and everyone he came across abused him. Every truck driver who stopped for him expected sexual favours in return – and I was meant to just go with this? To accept that every person he encounters over two weeks of hitchhiking is a paedophile? And then, and then that he is finally picked up by not your regular, run-of-the-mill sex offender, but one with a basement bedroom ready and prepared for locking up stray boys? Come on now.
After she broke the rope, Yanagihara basically lost me and I saw the last quarter of the book (and everything I had read before) in a different light. Yes, it’s well-written and in places very carefully crafted, but it became too long and too repetitive. By the end I felt so battered by relentless misery and suffering that I just wanted it to end. I was left thinking, “Yes, but why.”
So I turned to other people’s reviews to see what they had to say about A Little Life, and here are a few phrases that leapt out at me. In a Reddit thread one reader said, “it’s a shame that the author chose, more often than not, to punish her characters rather than reveal them.” In another thread someone else said, “It’s nothing but a fairytale from which the reader can wander out feeling good about themselves because they’ve felt sorry for Jude for 750 pages,” and another commenter added, “I found the trauma fetishization to be by turns disturbing, icky, and finally boring.”
I think this is a very significant point: eventually the story of Jude’s persistent abuse became boring. Even the editor of A Little Life thought so; Gerald Howard is quoted as having said to Yanagihara that the story was “just too hard for anybody to take … You have made this point quite adequately, and I don’t think you need to do it again.” Stretching believability is one thing, but if you’re going to do it such an extent that the reader can read about the most grotesque and evil betrayals and be left feeling bored then surely you’re not achieving what you set out to do?
But what is it, exactly, that Yanagihara set out to do in A Little Life? Once again I turned to the internet and found some interviews with Yanagihara herself. In one she says that “there are some things that cannot be cured” and “hope can be tyrannical”. Fair enough – it’s a very interesting (and perhaps more true-to-life) idea to create a damaged character and not give them your typical ‘time redeems everything’ story. In the same article she deflects the criticism of her book for containing gratuitous violence by saying “all brutality is gratuitous” and pointing out the the fiction writer’s job is to expose the most awful and brutal truths of human life. Once again I agree with her, but I return to my earlier point: if you’re setting out to unearth the worst atrocities, presumably to draw attention to them and encourage change, then surely your purpose is lost when you dig up so much that the reader ceases to believe you, or even care? Surely the fiction writer’s job is not just about the content but also the method of presentation? After all, there is such a thing as contrast; there is such a thing as nuance.
Here’s the point that really stuck with me. In the same article Yanagihara is quoted as saying, “I don’t think a reader wants to be babied, I don’t think a reader wants to be coddled, I don’t think a reader wants to be patronised.” I can’t get this out of my head because I can’t help but think that A Little Life does patronise us, not by hiding the terrible things from our sight and proclaiming that we cannot handle them, but by throwing them all into full view, patting us on the head and saying, “Well done you! Aren’t you strong and brave for looking at that?” In her video review of the book, writer Jen Campbell says that she can ‘see’ Yanagihara throughout the novel, pulling the strings and manipulating the reader’s emotions. To me, it felt almost like Yanagihara was conducting an experiment to see how much her readers can take. We’re like her guinea pigs, and we’re caught in an impossible situation: if you say you’re completely on board with the book then perhaps you’ve fallen for an intricate system of emotional manipulation; if you say it’s too much then you’re a baby who can’t handle the truth. If that isn’t patronising, I don’t know what is.
So now I can see why this book has divided opinion, and that is probably a good thing: it’s better for a book to be love or hate rather than ‘meh’. For me it’s a novel of irredeemable contrasts: I think it’s well-written but too long; I think it’s intense but unbelievable; I think it’s something you can either go with or push back against; I think it’s making many important points but it’s also deeply problematic. I couldn’t put it down but I can’t say that I liked it. I can’t make any clear recommendations about it. If you want to find out how it’s going to make you feel then you will have to read it yourself.
“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.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.