A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Anchor Books. 816 pp. $17.00.
I began this book with great enthusiasm and sped through the first two hundred pages. Hanya Yanagihara is a wonderfully skilled novelist and pulled me right into the story. But by the last two hundred I was seriously tired of the book, almost dreaded reading. I finished because I finish everything and genuinely wanted to know what happened. But the ending was a real downer: I went through all of that for this? Not that the ending is the most important part of the story, but still. The book said by its title that it was about the arc of a life, and I wanted to see how it ended. Not well, alas.
This review will be loaded with spoilers, but there’s no other way to discuss the problems.
As everyone must know by now—even I knew before I started—A Little Life is the story of four guys who met in college, were suite mates, in fact, and continued an enduring friendship for the rest of their lives. One had been severely damaged by his past, and the way they helped him, and took him into the larger group, is enormously touching, and moved me from the start. Instead of becoming a marginalized nerd, this single character, named Jude, is held in love and protected.
Yanagihara jumps around in chronology and pulls us into the narrative before we know a lot about the situation. We’re way in before we realize that, not only do all four of these people do well, they become all stars. Jude himself is a killer lawyer. Willem is a famous Hollywood actor, a critical and commercial success. J.B. is a painter of great renown, collected in the finest museums. And Malcolm is a world famous architect. Not since Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Burroughs roomed together at Columbia have I heard of roommates doing this well. There’s something schlocky about the whole idea, and frankly—has anyone pointed this out?—it’s mildly unbelievable. Yangihara’s generation seems obsessed with success, and this book is, among other things, a mammoth success fantasy.
The thing that pulls us through the early narrative is that we want to know what happened to Jude, what made him a person whose body is severely handicapped and whose mind is as well, who shows up at this fancy New York college with only enough possessions to fit in a backpack, while his wealthy roommate is hauling in all kinds of stuff.
I find that part of the story unbelievable as well. He was abandoned as an infant, has no idea who his parents were, and was raised in a monastery by a group of monks. My first question was: why would the monks keep him? Wouldn’t there be some social service better equipped to handle an infant than an all-male monastery? Nevertheless, they kept and raised him, and physically abused him in a dreadful way. I’ve heard stories in the past about stern and sadistic Catholic clergy, but this one is over the top. Jude is beaten with boards, and at one point—when he steals a lighter so he can have something for himself—his hand is doused with Olive Oil and set afire. It’s weird enough that he’s wound up in a monastery full of men. It’s even weirder that it’s a kind of chamber of horrors.
One of the brothers is nice to him, and he turns out—of course!—to be a sexual abuser. Not only does he run away with Jude, with the idea that they’ll live together in some kind of loving paradise (though Jude doesn’t like sex with the man at all), eventually the man begins to sell Jude’s body to make money. That is Jude’s life for a number of years, until the authorities finally catch up with the man, who locks himself in a bathroom and kills himself.
Jude is put into another institution where he’s both physically and sexually abused, finally escapes that place—in a harrowing episode—only to be picked up on the road by a man who says he is a psychiatrist but is—what else?—a dreadful sexual abuser himself. Jude goes through various kinds of torture with this man, and it is eventually he who purposely runs Jude over with a car, leaving his body permanently maimed.
Does this sound a tad unlikely as I write it all down? I suppose it’s possible that a person who has been abused attracts abuse, or maybe Jude just had horrible bad luck, but I for one don’t believe it. Yanagihara has confused the chronology, jumped around from character to character, so we’re way into the book before we know the full extent of the horror. And then we feel—or at least I did—that we have to finish. Even though we’re into a story where two major aspects—the extent of past abuse, everyone’s present success—seem unlikely.
Willem—the movie star—had been Jude’s closest friend and most ardent defender throughout the book, and two-thirds of the way through decides that he wants to be his lover as well, despite the fact that, up to that point, he’d been largely heterosexual. By that time Jude had had a mostly celibate adulthood—sex wasn’t something he wanted, after all that abuse—except for one dreadfully abusive affair with an older man. Willem could be the lover of almost anyone in the world, and he chooses the one person who doesn’t want to have sex with anyone. They work through that, and over what seems an excruciatingly long period of time Jude tells Willem what had happened in his past, which he hadn’t really told anyone. They settle into a kind of white marriage.
Then in the last hundred pages Willem (and Malcolm) are killed in an auto accident; Jude’s friends rally around him in his time of need, bend over backwards to give him all the help they can, and he finally kills himself anyway. End of “a little life” (whatever that means). On p. 814.
This is one of those books where you begin to wonder if the writer likes to write about abuse, is attracted to violence. Jude, among other things, is a person who cuts himself, often multiple times in each session and several times a week, so that by that end of the book we’re wondering where he can find a fresh patch of skin, or why we have to read about that again. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but this was a book by which I really felt cheated, because it was so unremittingly bleak—evening after evening was a downer—but also because, after all that, three out of four characters die tragically anyway.
Yanagihara is a skillful writer, and she certainly began well, but I honestly don’t know why she continued, or how she got to the story she told. Somebody needs to mention to her that not every person in the world is a stunning success. And not every man is abusive.
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