Are you happy? he once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).
I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last, as if Willem had been offering him a dish he didn’t want to eat.
A Little Life starts as the story of four friends living in New York City. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm met at college and have remained friends into their late twenties. Jude and Willem are renting an apartment together. Malcolm’s living at home and JB’s living in a ‘massive, filthy loft in Little Italy’.
JB is an artist but is working as a receptionist at an art magazine in Soho trying to convince them to feature him. Early on in the novel he begins to take photographs of their group, photographs that will eventually make him very successful although that success will come at a price. Willem is an actor, waiting tables at the beginning of the novel but, like JB, he will go on to become incredibly successful. Malcolm works for Ratstar Architects, a position he only took to please his parents. He wants to create buildings and makes small, detailed models. He will also go on to be incredibly successful. Jude is an assistant prosecutor in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Guess what? He will also go on to be incredibly successful. However, Jude becomes the focus of the novel as his background and the consequences of it are far more complex than those of the other characters.
They were talking but Jude’s eyes were closed, and Willem knew – from the constant, hummingbird-flutter of his eyelids and the way his hand was curled into a fist so tight that Willem could see the ocean-green threads of his veins jumping under the back of his hand – that he was in pain. He knew from how rigid Jude was holding his legs, which were resting atop a box of books, that the pain was severe, and he knew too that there was nothing he could do for him. If he said, “Jude, let me get you some aspirin,” Jude would say, “I’m fine, Willem, I don’t need anything,” and if he said, “Jude, why don’t you lie down,” Jude would say, “Willem. I’m fine. Stop worrying.” So finally, he did what they had all learned over the years to do when Jude’s legs were hurting him, which was to make some excuse, get up, and leave the room, so Jude could lie perfectly still and wait for the pain to pass without having to make conversation or expend energy pretending that everything was fine and that he was just tired, or had cramp, or whatever feeble explanation he was able to invent.
Jude has problems with his legs that stem from a car incident. The nature of this incident isn’t related until late on in the book but it is revealed early in the novel that Jude was abandoned by some bins as a baby and discovered by monks who took him in and brought him up whilst systematically abusing him. Jude’s friends know little about his upbringing, only Andy, his doctor, knows the details of his childhood. Andy treats Jude for the long-term injuries inflicted by the abuse and for Jude’s self-harming which is frequent and often very severe.
As well as his close friends, Jude develops a strong relationship with his university tutor, Harold Stein. Jude begins working for Harold as a research assistant. Eventually he’s invited for dinner and then, along with Willem, JB and Malcolm, to their house on Cape Cod. Over the years, visits become a ritual and finally, Harold and his wife, Julia, adopt Jude as their adult son.
A Little Life is a harrowing read. The abuse inflicted upon Jude and the abuse he inflicts upon himself is brutal and relentless. The detail Yanagihara writes in gives the novel an overwhelming, claustrophobic feel. As a reader, you are entombed in Jude’s world, watching and feeling his suffering but unable to do anything about it. You are placed in the same position as his friends and it’s a heart-breaking position to be in.
But it’s the portrayal of these friendships that are key to the novel’s success: Yanagihara details the shifts as the men get older and become successful in each of their fields. She shows what happens as romantic relationships form and priorities change. The friendships revolve around Jude, the absence of knowledge about his childhood creating a magnetic effect that draws them to him and keep them orbiting, wondering at the contents of the void and trying to support him through the damage inflicted upon him.
There’s been a lot of discussion about this novel on Twitter recently and it’s interesting to see the range of reactions. A Little Life is clearly not for everyone. It is harrowing, it is intense, it is an experience. It details an unusual life. What I think is particularly impressive is that Yanagihara has taken four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through.
My problem with the novel is that once again, a brilliant female novelist is being lauded for a brilliant book written about men (see also Hilary Mantel and A.M. Homes). I have no doubt that if A Little Life had a cast of four female characters reviews would have made comparisons to Sex and the City and heavyweight prize panels wouldn’t have been anywhere near as keen to shortlist it. It’s been interesting on a similar note to see people criticize Yanagihara for having completed the first draft of this 720 page book in 18 months. Last year when Kashuo Ishiguro revealed that he drafted the 270 page, Booker Prize winning, The Remains of the Day in three weeks, he was a genius and everyone else should quit trying.
Despite my concern, there’s no doubt that A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s rare for me to become so absorbed in a novel that I feel as though I’ve lived it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing it and I couldn’t read anything else for days after either, there was no space left in my brain.
A Little Life moves the idea of what the Great American Novel is on to something a little more representative of actual people. Yes, Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm are all living the American Dream but – at last – we have moved beyond the realm of the white middle class. I look forward to seeing Hanya Yanagihara celebrated on the cover of Time magazine.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.