Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is an epic, overblown heavy metal song in a world of subtle songwriters

a little life

When it was announced that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life had made the Man Booker Prize shortlist nobody who had followed the hype on this novel could have been surprised with its inclusion. Since its release in the US last year it has been hailed by many as an emotionally unsettling, affecting and important work.

A Little Life begins as the story of four friends – Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude – all living in New York and all equally talented in their respective fields of architecture, painting, acting and law. Before they make it they eat noodles in cheap restaurants, share cramped apartments and take odd jobs in restaurants and on reception. Yanigara draws the dynamics of these male friendships with care, and just as the reader is settling into this witty, enjoyable account of ambitious young men, the character of Jude St. Francis emerges as a deeply troubled young man and the central object of her attention. Jude was sexually abused as a child and as the narrative shifts to focus on both his present and past it becomes a study in memory, shame and trauma.

Reaction to Yanagihara’s second novel has been extreme. The Financial Time’s reviewer reported that ‘more than once I held A Little Life with shaking hands.’ However, they detected something deeper beyond the shock value, reporting that ‘emerging from horror, persistent and enduring, is a touching, eternal, unconventional love story.’ Others were less impressed with the unrelenting misery. The Telegraph complained that; ‘There’s something almost heretically pessimistic about this book, as though it were an experiment calibrated purely to demonstrate that neither love nor money can heal past hurt.’ The Atlantic review honed in on a different and more positive aspect of the book, describing it as The Great Gay Novel (JB is a gay man and Jude and Willem’s friendship turns into a loving relationship as the novel progresses) and praising an “ambitious chronicle of queer life in America.”

Interestingly, almost every favourable review takes the time to point out the various reasons this book shouldn’t work; it’s overblown, relentlessly tragic and written in a writing style generally agreed to vary vastly in quality across 700 odd pages. However it is those things which makes it stand out so much in the current literary scene. It is a deeply unfashionable book, a work by a writer with a singular vision brilliantly out of step with her peers. The Guardian detected something peculiarly nineties about its themes, citing the misery memoir A Child Called It, the film Girl, Interrupted, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and the Manic’s Richey Edwards as cultural reference points. There is some truth in this, but while there was a certain type of showoff-y glamour to that Generation X brand of misery, A Little Life is the story of a man who hides his pain, self-harms in secret and keeps the pain of his childhood buried. He refuses to see a councillor and hides his scarred body. Richey Edwards may have written of the “beautiful dignity of self-abuse” but there is no hiding from the rotting of human flesh and the risk of infection in Yanagihara’s florid descriptions of Jude’s cutting sprees. Take, for example:

“He cut himself more and more; he began cutting around the scars themselves, so that he could actually remove wedges of flesh, each piece topped with a silvery sheen of scar tissue, but it didn’t help, not enough.”

While Jude’s story is so extreme it has been described as allegorical or fairytale-like, Yanagihara’s voice is at the same time revelatory on basic human experiences and emotions associated with sexual abuse and self-harm. Even the reader who considers themselves sensitive to and knowledgeable on the issue may find themselves recoiling at the reality. The passage above may be gory but it forces the reader to confront the practicality of years and years of bodily mutilation – you run out of flesh to cut. She really goes there, as gruesome as it may be, and it works. A large part of the book concerns the struggle of trying to convince someone of the worth of staying alive when they are in constant pain. Jude simply doesn’t want to exist anymore:

“He had visions of taking an ice pick and jamming it through his ear, into his brain, to stop the memories. He dreamed of slamming his head against the wall until it split and cracked and the grey meat tumbled out with a wet, bloody thunk. He had fantasies of emptying a container of gasoline over himself and then stricking a match, of his mind being gobbled by fire. He bought a set of X-ACTO blades and held three of them in his palm and made a fist around them and watched the blood drip down from his hand into the sink as he screamed into the quiet apartment.”

In its earnest and emotional portrayal of love, friendship and the aftershocks of abuse and trauma, this novel is about as far away from postmodernism as you can get. In fact, it is set in a perpetual and unplaceable modernity, something which has divided critics. Although the characters have email and mobile phones, 9/11 never happens in their New York and there is no pronounced difference in the historical and cultural landscape as Jude and his friend’s progress from childhood into their fifties. There are few real life pop culture references, but Yanagihara skilfully manages to evoke an unspecific urban 90s/00s through her writing on JB’s art pieces or Malcolm’s architecture projects. There is a mild satire in her enjoyable and instantly recognisable descriptions of the fictional productions Willem stars in such as The Poisoned Apple, a study of the last years of Alan Turning’s life. While there is a wit and sass in her depictions of her characters, A Little Life is fundamentally concerned with the heart and soul rather than making clever observations about society.

The New York Times, while praising her ‘subversive brilliance’ griped that “Yanagihara’s success in creating a deeply afflicted protagonist is offset by placing him in a world so unrealized it almost sees allegorical, with characters so flatly drawn they seem more representative of people than the actual thing.” There is some truth in this, though it is Jude himself who seems to have little personality beyond being immensely troubled and stubborn (likes: cutting, dislikes: himself.) There is also a sense of unreality in the main character’s success and wealth. However, this means she is free to do with her characters as she wishes, without the concern for a trivial thing such as a lack of cash. She takes the kitchen sink right out of the drama. In this aspect the work is reminiscent of the A M Holmes novels This Book Will Save Your Life and May We Be Forgiven, where the characters are similarly minted and in crisis, the plot free from the constraints of a budget. Social realism this is not. There is however a side plot of one character’s decent into drug addiction which is a wonderfully observed piece of writing, depicting with feeling the cycle of boredom and shame associated with addiction. The book could have done with more of this, and more of the lives of JB, Malcolm and Willem more generally.

Her description of the damage of abuse is masterly and is why this book should be read. However, an unexpected plot twist towards the end complicates the central question of whether Jude can learn to live with his demons, taking the story somewhere else entirely. These little quibbles with character and plot add up to beg the question; does Yanagihara entirely know what she is trying to do here? It lacks the clarity of purpose required for a truly great novel and for that reason probably shouldn’t win the Man Booker when the winner is announced later this month. However, it should definitely be read by as many people as possible. A Little Life is rather like an epic, overblown heavy metal song in a world of subtle songwriters. It initially flabbergasts but wins out through sheer conviction of feeling. It’s not necessarily tasteful or pretty, but there is great beauty in her graphic depiction of one man’s little life.