A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara

It’s hard writing about this book as it’s very engrossing and entertaining in some ways, but so devastating in others. At the beginning it appears to be a story about a group of four guys leaving college and commencing their adult lives in New York City, a pretty standard coming-of-age scenario. The narrative focuses on each friend in turn, revealing their upbringings, their artistic and scholarly talents, and their adolescent dreams, but when it lands on Jude, the narrative twists. His troubled early life is outlined hazily and suggestions of serious trauma (of all varieties) are clear from the beginning. Yet it takes nearly the whole novel to unlock them all.

Hanya Yanagihara has referred to this book as a dark fairytale, and there is indeed a strong unreality to these characters. The extreme success they find in their professional lives (to the degree that they all end up incredibly rich) is contrasted starkly with the sickening events of Jude’s childhood. It’s interesting to think about the amount of good and bad that lives contain at once — how these forces sit together and can’t begin to cancel each other out. But the terrible things are so severe, or as Yanagihara says in this Mashable interview, “exaggerated,” even reading about them feels unbearable. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much reading a book, but at the same time I felt determined to get through it, though now it would be hard to say I truly enjoyed the experience. A Little Life left behind a deep sadness that hovered for weeks.

I expected that this tome of a novel was honed over many years, but Yanagihara wrote it in eighteen months while working as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler. The pacing is impressively even, covering many years with effortless jumps in time. Though I appreciate the trick of setting up one kind of novel and then delivering another several hundred pages in, I was disappointed that the early themes of race, class, and sexuality got lost in the darkness of Jude’s life. While Garth Greenwell declared this “the great gay novel,” I have a hard time positioning this as a “chronicle of queer life in America.” For one thing the characters represent a very limited scope of queerness since all the characters are (and always have been) male identified. Even he says:

Yanagihara approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped modern gay identity — sickness and discrimination — obliquely, avoiding the conventions of the coming-out narrative or the AIDS novel. Her characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities … and HIV is conspicuously absent from the book’s weirdly ahistorical New York City.

To me it’s more about the difficulty of finding intimacy after individual, not collective, trauma and the struggle to overcome one’s past experiences, even with all the support imaginable. It’s beautiful in its persistent hopelessness, but I don’t see — or perhaps don’t want to see — that as a representation of queer life in general.