Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life garnered copious praise and was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, as well as making it onto many ‘Best of’ lists when it was published. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least two years and I made it my mission this summer to make my way through at least two of my chunkier books: I read Empire of the Vampire in July and finished this one a few days ago.
The novel tells the story of four friends who were college roommates and are now making their way in the world in Manhattan in the nineties. There’s JB, the gay artist; Malcom, the bi-racial trust fund kid; Willem, the handsome wannabe actor and Jude, the mysterious, brilliant glue that bonds these men together over three+ decades.
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. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
At first I was wholly invested in their stories, although it’s really mostly about Jude. It’s clear early on that he’s had some sort of tragedy/trauma in his past (and although there are no trigger warnings: reader beware), but he is not forthcoming about the details of his life and spends most of the novel’s hefty 814 pages alternately berating and abusing himself. He doesn’t deserve happiness, after all, even though almost everyone who meets him admires him and loves him and even, in his early twenties, want to adopt him.
As the narrative starts to close in on Jude and his relationship with Willem (which morphs from besties to something more, although I am not sure there was really a point to having their relationship become romantic), it loses its focus on JB and Malcom. Suddenly they are bit players in their own story and perhaps they should have been treated as such from the beginning because Yanagihara clearly loves Willem and Jude the most. I started to feel a bit as if these two men were trauma-bonded. Jude has clearly had an horrific life and although I am sure there are lots of people who do, it just felt as though Yanagihara went way over the top with Jude (he meets one monster after another over the course of his life, but as smart as he is and despite having so many amazing people in his adult life, he never really gets the help he so desperately needs.) His story wore me out- and not in a good way where I felt as though there was a cathartic payoff; at a certain point, the book just became an exhaustive catalogue of misery.
I think this is a novel that has been quite divisive. People seem to love it or hate it, although I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to it as quite so black or white. The book is not without its charms. In the beginning I enjoyed the writing (it was Donna Tartt-lite), but I found the last 300-ish pages almost unbearable. (It just felt more of the same: misery heaped onto misery.) I also grew weary of the long lists of names — like, really, what are the chances that you’d know two dudes with the same name so you have to call them Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young? — and the balance between the horrible things that happened to Jude and the amazing things that happened seemed, frankly, unrealistic. By the time the men were in their late forties I expected them to at least sound different than they did at twenty, but no. I didn’t believe in them.
Although there are many critics who love this book and have called it a masterpiece, there are others who point out the book’s flaws. I rarely read reviews before I write my own, but I felt like I had to go see if I was the outlier; it seems I am not. Slate took a closer look at the book when it first came out. The New York Times also had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the novel.
Would I recommend this book? Not really. I am not sure there is an emotional payoff big enough to wade through all the trauma for. It is almost relentlessly grim and not even decent writing can save it from its perpetual bleakness.