A Little Life by: Hanya Yanagihara
AGE: 16+ // GENRE: Contemporary Fiction // PAGE COUNT: 816
*The summary is from Goodreads.*
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
Hello! Welcome to another review. Let’s hope I’ll have another one written before another six months inexplicably pass by.
Amid a climate of sensitivity and shelter, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life announces her as a bold, outspoken voice on the literary scene. An independent thinker and writer, Yanagihara offers a novel of tremendous breadth and power, one that seeks to disrupt our fixation with redemption and recovery. A Little Life follows the lives of four college friends as they navigate adulthood in New York City, each consumed by their own ambition and need. At the heart of the novel rests Jude St. Francis, a fearless litigator but a fragile and withdrawn person. Tormented by childhood trauma, Jude has carefully shielded his mind and body from the outer world. In establishing Jude’s character, Yanagihara constructs the conventions of the novel: timelessness, the fluidity of the past and the present, and the spacial confines of the novel’s framework. The fabric of the novel lends itself to Yanagihara’s exploration of the hero, traumatic memory, and Jude’s identity.
Following the novel’s publication, Yanagihara has discussed how the conventions of fairy tales have largely informed A Little Life, referring to the excess and melodrama, the lack of parental (specifically maternal) figures, and the timelessness. In many ways, Yanagihara perceives A Little Life as a fairy tale, a fantasy. It is, however, difficult to understand this perspective after having endured the emotional demands of the novel and the far-from-happy ending. Not only is the very idea of the “happily ever after” corrupt and tainted by a darker undercurrent in the original stories, it is the idea of the hero—or lack thereof—that is echoed most profoundly in Yanagihara’s A Little Life. As a character, Jude is childish, self-destructive, and self-loathing. She approaches his character with candour and intimacy, but most fiercely with an unwavering commitment to portray Jude as neither a hero nor a victorious figure. She explores how childhood trauma has stunted his emotional growth, thereby confining Jude to a static and linear psyche. Thus, Yanagihara infantilizes him, confining him to the constraints of a child’s mind. But maybe Jude is in fact a hero, one that exceeds the bounds of convention. Perhaps the fact that he was able to live with his trauma for so many years makes him the hero, after all.
Yanagihara’s confrontation with trauma is nearly unprecedented in its direct and unrelenting nature. It is not so much the execution that is shocking, but rather the inescapable recurrence of the brutality itself. By gradually unfolding the events of the past and the present, Yanagihara appoints the reader as witness. This act allows the characters—and the novel itself—to assume the role of the intruded upon and the reader as the intruder. It is, moreover, the refusal to redeem Jude that announces Yanagihara as a writer who understands the irreparability of particular kinds of trauma. Despite achieving exceptional professional success, Jude remains emotionally and physically tormented by his past. Thus, Yanagihara suggests that regardless of economic mobility, it is psychological mobility—a change in the way of thinking—that is ultimately unattainable.
Memory renders trauma irreparable. It is, in essence, knowledge stored in the faculties of our mind. Traumatic memory, however, cannot be confined to the conventions of memory, for the trauma itself does not recede into the past; it remains alive, ever-present, watchful. A Little Life is rooted in the persistent and ever-present phantom of memory. By allowing the past and present to remain fluid, Yanagihara evokes not only the intrusiveness of traumatic memory, but also its ever-present being. At its root, trauma is incommunicable, dictated by shame, guilt, and power. By focusing on a male protagonist, Yanagihara is able to explore how male socialization has divested men of emotional expression. Male victims in particular suffer from the inability to communicate their trauma, left alone in the isolation of their memory. It is, in part, the loneliness of Jude’s mind that renders him unable to impart his childhood experiences. Thus, traumatic memory, intrusive and fragmented, establishes the ultimately fatal relationship between Jude’s mind and body.
The absence of temporal landmarks, moreover, work to further alienate Jude in his psychological suffering. Yanagihara creates a bubble-like atmosphere in order to evoke the fervour of submersion—the suffocation of Jude’s memory. Although readers and writers alike have dubbed A Little Life a New York City novel, it lacks the captivation with its environment to satisfy such a classification; it is more of a character study than anything. Without time-driven landmarks, the novel becomes consumed by a timelessness that is reminiscent of a fairy tale. The isolation and suffocation that this allows for are essential to Jude’s character. The atmosphere of isolation and loneliness are further created through Yanagihara’s use of an artistic technique most familiar to Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall). Throughout the novel, Yanagihara often describes Jude by simply using the pronoun “he.” In this regard, she confines him to invisibility by stripping away his identity and his idea of self; this slight, linguistic variation in identity dissolves Jude’s humanity. Yanagihara uses this technique to reflect the particular kind of self-hatred that consumes and contaminates his character. The entirety of the novel therefore acts as the embodiment of the inner workings of Jude’s mind.
“Once we start calling people monsters, we start sacrificing our sense of curiosity….” Yanagihara grounds A Little Life in this ideology. One of the most fascinating components of her novel is her dismissal of the conventions of good and evil. The traditional antagonists each possess qualities that allude to a life lived beyond their corruption. By lending the “antagonists” undertones of humanity and the “protagonists” shades of immorality, Yanagihara reveals the complexities of the human condition. She approaches antagonism as not only an external force that establishes a divide between the perpetrator and the victim, but also as an internal force; she examines antagonism as a force through which the perpetrator and victim are one. Thus, Jude’s character could be considered an antagonist on the premise of his antagonism toward himself. This returns to the vague and undefined realm of the hero. Traditionally, the hero is the protagonist; but if we consider Jude to be hovering between the two, what does that make him? Was his ability to survive for so many years an act of heroism in and of itself? Or does his ultimate defeat cast doubt on such a designation?
These are the questions that Yanagihara poses in her stubborn and unconventional portrayal of Jude. Our perception of the hero and that of redemption and survival are inextricable: heroism is defined by victory and, similarly, survival. Yanagihara, however, approaches this idea from the lens of irreparable trauma. Because Jude’s ability to survive is fundamentally hindered by the trauma he carries, he is ultimately not a victorious figure. However, by using the force of trauma to question the tie between the heroic figure and the promise of redemption, Yanagihara redefines what it means to be a hero.
As always, thank you for reading!