A Little Life

A Little Life is a Big-Ass Book

This mlittlelifeonth, Snotty Literati read Hanya Yanagihara’s mammoth-sized Great American Novel, A Little Life. Heavily-nominated for a million literary awards, this 700+ page book follows the lives of four diverse friends—all men: JB, who’s a gay man and an artist of Haitian descent; Malcolm, who is an Upper Eastside black guy and an architect; Willem, an actor whose family back on the farm is dead; and Jude, a lawyer, who’s racially, sexually, and historically marked by ambiguity. All four meet in college, land together in New York City, and carve out lives that intersect for over thirty years.

Warning: We give away a major plot point, but there are others that are actually more shocking, and will not detract from your reading. Plus, a number of other reviewers have shared this element. If you have read anything about this book, you probably already know what it is. Nonetheless, you may want to proceed with caution. 

Lara: Oh, this book. I can’t even.

Jennifer: I know. But you are going to have to “even” because we committed to reviewing it.

Lara: Okay, okay. Here goes. This may be the most devastating book I have ever read. It’s also amazingly written. I experienced so many complex emotions: awe, endearment, anger, revulsion, angst, frustration, profound sadness, and ultimately peace.

Jennifer: I’m with you, except for the peace part. The book is complex, always interesting, an artistic accomplishment extraordinaire (it took Yanagihara eighteen years to write it!). There are many issues to discuss here, so I’ll begin with the obvious one. The length. How do you feel about reading a book of this length? Is it a turn-off for you?

Lara: Not if it’s good. I was hooked from pretty much the beginning. Yanagihara dives right into their lives and you have to commit to reading a chunk to get your bearings and really understand the difference between the four of them. I actually had to make a little cheat-sheet. And by the time I wrote it out, I knew who was who. What really propelled the story for me was how secretive Jude was about his past, and how Yanagihara slowly enabled his history to eke out across the pages. JB, Malcolm, and Willem were open books, and Jude wasn’t. Yet they not only tolerated it, they enabled this secrecy that presented itself in very dangerous ways—like Jude’s compulsion for self-harming.

Jennifer: Before I follow-up on length, I want to mention this self-harming to which you allude. Jude’s a cutter; he cuts himself with razor blades. I think this was one of my first times reading about cutting in which I felt like I got it. For once, I didn’t stand as an outsider looking in, thinking, Why in the world would anyone do that? Daniel Mendelsohn of The New York Review of Books speaks of the book “with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence.” I didn’t really agree that there were gratuitous violent scenes (though the book is, at times, very hard to read)—but his review is nonetheless great. There is, however, much time spent on the violence people inflict on themselves and others in the novel.

Length. Sometimes, I think this is how it should be done. This is real writing. This kind of length allows for a depth and breadth that the short novel cannot accomplish. But it’s mixed. People often suggest Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I loved) could’ve used some editing. I’m not really one of those people calling for that. I admire the writers and their stories which can engage readers and characters for so long.

That said, I would’ve probably cut that early chapter in A Little Life, in which Harold, Jude’s adoptive father, narrates. I found it unnecessary.

Lara: I loved Harold (and his wife Julia). To adopt Jude as an adult and help him create a sense of family was so remarkable. And, I loved that chapter and his other narrative sections.

As for the violence…There is a lot of it in this book, and I actually didn’t find any of it to be gratuitous. In fact, it’s this violence and abuse that unfolds across several hundred pages that really does explain Jude’s life, his desire to hide it from others, his extreme low sense of self-worth despite notable and enviable successes, and his ultimate inability to really trust anyone. It also explains to me why he ended up taking his own life.

This is an element that angered most of my book club. What are your thoughts?

Jennifer: Well, I think we are going to disagree here! First, a superficial disclosure (there’s way more to it): Jude is sexually, physically, and emotionally abused in horrible ways for a lengthy period of time as a child and teenager. Second, as previously noted, the big plot disclosure: Jude ends up killing himself—this, despite the successes he’s had in life, the close friendships he’s forged out, and the loving parents who adopt him.

And, well, I hated the end. Hate is not too strong of a word. I think it was a writerly cop-out! To go all that distance, to travel this far, to see lives unfold: only for Jude to end it all? No! I think it ultimately let’s the bad guys win. The sexual predators and scumbags who hurt Jude win. They’ve gotten away with it. That is the final “message,” if you will, of the book.

But the question, for me, is this: Is it worth reading a book, particularly of this length, if you hate the end? My answer is, yes. Though Jude’s death didn’t work for me, the book is excellent in showing the effect humans have on each other, on revealing the ramifications of abuse.

Lara: I agree with you that it’s worth reading a book like this. There’s so much to be learned about relationships, how depraved some people can be, and the beauty of true friendships. That said, I thought the ending totally worked. And I am not a proponent of suicide as a solution to a rough life or time. However, I thought it was the only action Jude could take to end his unimaginable pain. The cutting no longer worked. He was experiencing tremendous mental anguish and possessed absolutely zero self-worth. I think this book really illuminates that self-worth and self-value are critical to survival. We seem to think if people talk it out, or get counseling, or take meds, or are told they are loved, it will work. The bottom line is that if you don’t love yourself and know your worth, none of the other things matter.

Jennifer: This makes the title un-ironic. And I want it to be ironic. I think that self-worth is intrinsic to survival, but Jude so failed. Is this the failure of humanity—to derive self-worth from the right places? (What makes us valuable? What is the value of being human?) Is it Jude’s failure? Is it no one’s failure? Is the book capable of addressing these questions? Am I asking too much of the book?

Jude had unspeakable things happen to him; these things—which the author deftly portrays—determine Jude’s value, in his own assessment, for the rest of his life. Then, when good things happen, he does—albeit hesitantly—allow for his self-worth to be reassessed. Again, though, his worth is entirely dependent on others. Other people determine Jude’s sense of self.

So, Jude kills himself when his self-worth is emptied. I feel like crying, Foul! This length warranted something—here I go again—more redemptive. Rather, un-ironically, Jude’s life is a little life, indeed. I think I was hoping that the point would be ironic: no life is a little life.

Instead, Jude’s life is little because others determine his value as a human being.

Lara: No life is little. But I think too many people too early on destroyed Jude’s sense of self and value, and he couldn’t overcome it—even after experiencing significant love and support from his friends and family.

“He has been lucky beyond measure; he has an adulthood most dream about: Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in his present? Why must he so honor his past? Why does it become more vivid, not less, the further he moves from it?”

Despite the devastation, there are really tender moments and some splashes of humor. Like Black Henry Young and Asian Henry Young. And when JB had the guys all go to that party to celebrate a friend’s transition. Willem congratulates the transitioning friend only to learn that Edie is not transitioning genders, but careers. AWKWARD!

“… two thoughts, separate but equally resonant, filled his mind: I am going to kill JB. And: I can’t wait to tell Jude about this conversation.”

Yanagihara does a great job capturing the nuances of friendship. It’s really an astounding body of work.

Jennifer: I wanted to mention the cover, sticking to the topic of irony a little bit longer. This is the truth behind the cover of A Little Life, as reported by Kirkus Review: “The photo is actually titled Orgi-astic Man One from Hujar’s Orgiastic Man series; it’s a photo taken in 1969 of a man at the peak of orgasm.” But, ironically, if one were to know nothing about the cover and only read the book, the assumption would be that this is a depiction of supreme suffering. The irony of the cover.

But, yes. This book, up until the end, is amazing. There really are too many great passages.

Lara: So many great ones. Here’s a few I loved:

Jude, on his three college roommates:

“At the home, he had learned there were three types of boys: The first type might cause the fight (this was JB). The second type wouldn’t join in, but wouldn’t run to get help, either (this was Malcolm). And the third type would actually try to help you out (this was the rarest type, and this was obviously Willem.”

Willem was a rare breed. I think he was my favorite character.

Willem, at the start of his acting career:

“To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words!—it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would have never dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself everyday. But the feeling would dissipate, and would be left alone to study the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.”

I mean, c’mon, “where the porch light washed the night with honey.” That’s just gorgeous writing.

Jennifer: It is gorgeous.

Lara: Harold, Jude’s father, imparting wisdom to Jude:

“You see, Jude, in life, sometimes, nice things happen to good people. You don’t need to worry—they don’t happen as often as they should. But when they do, it’s up to the good people to just say ‘thank you,’ and move on, and maybe consider that the person who’s doing nice things get’s a bang out of it as well, and really isn’t in the mood to hear all the reasons that the person for whom he’s done the nice thing doesn’t think he deserves it or isn’t worthy of it.”

PREACH, Harold! I love that man.

Jennifer: Okay, a couple other criticisms here, and then some praise. I loved Willem too (who wouldn’t?), but I think he was a little too good to be true. Like this great big stud monster. There’s been a lot of talk already on Yanagihara’s (she’s American, by the way) depiction and focus on male characters. She speaks of having wanted to write about the emotional lives of men. Really, I think she did a great job; my experience of the emotional lives of men is limited, though. Then, a criticism. I thought that sexual orientation was a little too fluid here. I won’t go into details, but it just seemed like everyone was way too accepting of each other and there were a lot of unrealistically unstable orientations. I don’t know. I know you think I’m this old married, naïve prude, but really?

Lara: While the book doesn’t state a time period, I think it’s safe to say that when the friends hit their professional strides it’s pretty close to current day. They are also living in New York, which is much more open than many other parts of the country. That said, I could totally see a group of males operate and interact the way they did, within the tight-knit group and their peripheral group of friends.

Jennifer: Praise! Well, there’s a ton. These are very well-developed characters. I was never bored, not once. There’s actually a lot of suspense here! I found myself dying to know what would happen next. Right? Yanagihara wrote super well about professions she apparently doesn’t have any direct experience in. This impressed me quite a bit.

Lara: Totally agree. It was like she, herself, was an artist, an actor, an architect, law professor, and chef. Super impressive.

Jennifer: And Jude. She writes about this character who draws in people but gives his friends very little in return. One would think, then, that Jude must be this magnetic human being who is somehow irresistible. But: he isn’t. If I were to ask myself why people like him so much, I couldn’t say. The amazing thing is, however, I’m drawn to him too!

Lara: Well, that’s not entirely accurate. He’s noted as being very tall and very handsome, although slight. I always pictured him as being short … I am not sure why. His ethnicity, though, and other features that might help the reader create a picture of Jude were missing from the narrative.

Jennifer: Still more praise. I think something else that pulls the reader along is the wisdom throughout. There’s quite a bit of insight within these pages.

Speaking of their post-collegiate youth:

“But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of life seemed weak-willed and ignoble.”

When Jude considers his own narrative, she writes:

“But what in life wasn’t connected to some greater, sadder story?”

And this is a line about good relationships in a play in which Willem performs:

“You take all the things you want from a person—sexual chemistry, let’s say, or good conversation, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness, or loyalty—and you get to pick three of those things. Three—that’s it. Maybe four, if you’re very lucky.”

The prose is sharp, as well. Consider this description of Jude and his creeping, all-encompassing fears:

“… the hyenas return… Now, however, they don’t chase him, because they know they don’t need to: his life is a vast savanna, and he is surrounded by them. They lie splayed in the yellow grass, drape themselves lazily over the baobab trees’ low branches that spread from their trunks like tentacles, and stare at him with their keen yellow eyes.”

The strengths are greater than the weaknesses in this book.

Lara: By far, they do. And I found fewer weaknesses than you did. It’s a remarkable achievement. I want to read it again. In a few years. I need some time to recover from the first time.

Next Up!

Elizabeth Egan’s debut, A Window Opens, is our next read. What are you cracking open next?_______________________________________________________________________

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  1. Alex Ozers May 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Hey there! I just finished the book and had some comments to add.

    Somewhere near the end, when Jude visits with Malcolm’s parents, the narrator says, “What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.”
    It’s presented as an explanation about Jude’s understanding of families, but I think it doubles as a private nod from Yanigahara to the reader, that through the craft of writing she’s adding a richness to the story that truly doesn’t belong.

    I think it would be false for it to end in anything other suicide. Maybe without Willem’s accidental death he could have maintained personal redemption, but his circumstances were so awful that even giving him the second chance at his life that he got with Willem was generous.
    Jude is so much like a rescued shelter dog in that no matter how much labor you put into bringing him back from the brink, the best you’re going to get is someone who can manage the upkeep it takes to exist from day to day. Surviving, rather than thriving, becomes the baseline hope.

    And on the subject of thriving vs surviving, I think that’s what gives the book such a relevant contemporary voice. We live in a world that tells us that we can have and accomplish whatever we want if we work hard yada yada yada. I think the result of that shared concept is that a lot of people’s main source of despair is their own inability to thrive. I personally sometimes feel wistful or almost jealous of people who are satisfied to just make it through the day, who aren’t burdened to achieve their potential or whatever. This story is an excellent reminder that just surviving can be very hard work. Though, obviously, Jude could be said to thrive professionally.

    I also realized that it’s not totally clear why we like Jude, if that’s even the way to describe it. We know that he volunteers and is kind in various ways because we’re told, but we never really see any redeeming behavior in scene. Our affection for him comes from our trust of the other characters, who have affection for him, and who we know are good people because they’re invested in protecting Jude. There’s like an ouroboros thing going on there.

    I was expecting a lot more horror. I had read mentions of a few ghastly scenes and I was waiting for them up until the end. Obviously, there were terrible scenes, but they didn’t feel unearned. Any lines those scenes crossed needed to be crossed. I think the biggest smack-in-the-face scene was when Jude was talking to a counselor after he was rescued from Brother Luke but before he was sent to the orphan home. The counselor asks him how many times he had sex, and Jude asks for clarification if he means with Brother Luke or the others. The counselor turns away and puts his face in his hands before continuing. That scene had so much punch because, most of the time, the reader knows their experiencing Jude’s story as a reader, but that scene really brings us into a place where we experience it from point of view of someone actually within that world. The counselor is just a throwaway character without an identity, so he can act as our avatar in a way that the other fully developed characters can’t.

    I think the description of JB’s painting process and color mixing in the first half were overly romantic. You don’t spend hours on the pallete trying to get the right color before applying it to the canvas. With most figurative work, and especially photo-realism, you have opaque base layers and then you build up with many semi-transparent layers. But that’s a minor technical complaint.

    The male perspective/experience that was shown seems rare, but not unrealistic. The only thing that really stood out as a little off was one party scene, where all of them seemed to delight and have genuine interest in their acquaintances. I think they were in their late thirties by that point and deep into their careers. I don’t see four successful men enjoying that as an end unto itself. Like, they have core friends and the rest would be networking.

    Great discussion!

  2. One Lit Chick May 30, 2016 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    Thanks for chiming in Alex! I think you nailed it with this comment.

    “Jude is so much like a rescued shelter dog in that no matter how much labor you put into bringing him back from the brink, the best you’re going to get is someone who can manage the upkeep it takes to exist from day to day. Surviving, rather than thriving, becomes the baseline hope.”

    I have found a number of readers who can’t get past Jude’s decision. And, yet, I think for him, there was no getting past his past. Personal success, a new family, and a lover were not enough to kill off the personal demons–and of course they weren’t. That had to come from within.

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