A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
The first time I lived amongst people who loved to read was after I graduated from high school. Through circumstances too long to get into here I managed to get a job in the shipping department of a bookstore in Switzerland. I loved listening to the other booksellers talk about what they were reading. One of the things I learned is that a community of readers only arises from solitude. I remember one of my co-workers telling me about a book she was so absorbed in—it was by that titan of Swiss literature, Ken Follett—she didn’t want to do anything else but read. “We had friends over for dinner,” she told me ruefully, “and the whole time I just wanted them to leave so I could get back to my book.” No one had ever expressed this sentiment to me so baldly and of course I was so young with so few obligations that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted when it came to reading or anything else for that matter, yet even so I recognized with a throb of immediate familiarity that feeling of impatience with the rest of the world, that desire to return to another world, the one of the book in which I was so immersed.
Even then I knew this sort of immersion was rare, most reading experiences, even good ones, being more quotidian, more desultory, more broken into by the exigencies of the day, but I couldn’t guess how rare it would become, as my time became less my own and my attention span seemed to shrivel. (Lately I find myself setting aside whatever I’m reading to check my email, again, or twitter, again, or the hockey score, again.)
How wonderful then—how marvelous a tonic at the end of a difficult semester—to have spent the better part of the last week lost in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I sped through its 700+ pages in satisfying 100-150 page chunks, and when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it, anticipating when I could get back to it, wondering not so much what would happen next as what its characters were doing, as if they were living beings going about their business. It’s not so much that I confused them with real people, but rather they had for me a kind of autonomous life more interesting to me than that of the people in my real life.
I can imagine someone calling A Little Life old-fashioned: with its emphasis on character, shifting third person narration, and clearly observed East Coast locations it could be seen as a literary analogue to the art of one of its characters, JB, a “classicist” figurative painter who feels himself to be fighting a rearguard action against performance and other non-figurative arts. But A Little Life isn’t defensive, and I’m not sure it’s old-fashioned. Admittedly, it doesn’t feel especially of its moment, the way books by, say, Ben Lerner or Teju Cole or Karl Ove Knausgaard do. (This means it is unlikely to date as badly as they surely will.) What struck me in reading A Little Life was how little it reminded me of anything else I’d read, which might be because its artistic touchstones are visual: painting, photography, film, architecture. Every so often I’d think of Proust, both for the book’s anatomizing of the vicissitudes of relationships—their shifts, both sudden and gradual, their reversals, their persistence, the way they loom out from the practicalities of everyday life even when they occupy less of our attention than those mundane matters—and for the uncertainty about when its events happen and even about the age of its characters, although the book becomes much clearer about that as it goes along.
But old-fashioned or of the moment or Proustian or something else entirely, A Little Life certainly is a melodramatic and sentimental book, filled with dramatic events. The words the characters most often say to each other are “I’m sorry” and the thing they do more than anything else is cry, or defiantly not cry, or wish they could cry. I can’t talk about this book without talking about some of these events, so if spoilers bother you as much as they do me (though the book isn’t particularly driven by plot) then you might want to stop here.
A Little Life follows four young men from the time they meet in college into early middle age. Even though one of them thinks only two are really ambitious, filled with what he calls “that grim, trudging determination… that gave them that slightly faraway look in their eyes that always made him think a fraction of them was already living in some imagined future,” in fact each becomes successful in his chosen field. JB, spoiled, petulant, irrepressible, becomes a painter. Malcolm, unsure, self-doubting, refined, rich, becomes an architect. Willem, kind, even-keeled, sensitive, a bit plodding or, at least, keen to think of himself that way, becomes an actor, even, to the surprise of everyone, a very famous one. And finally Jude, the center of the book, brilliant, secretive, haunted, filled with self-loathing, emotionally damaged, becomes a feared litigator.
JB and Malcolm are more or less wealthy New Yorkers (Malcolm more, JB less). Malcolm feels guilty about the advantages given to him by his very wealthy, very cultured, mixed-race family, while JB is cosseted by the many women in his extended Haitian family. Willem’s parents emigrated from Norway to be ranchers in Wyoming; at college he feels himself to be “a sort of unofficial poor-white-rural-dweller-oddity affirmative-action representative.” And Jude—no one knows where he comes from, how he made it to college in Boston. All he’ll say is that his parents died when he was small and that he was injured in a car accident which is why he limps and struggles to climb stairs and is sometimes laid out with mysterious, debilitating pain. His injuries lead him to Andy, a medical student who becomes his doctor, almost his personal physician, the only person who knows even part of what happened to Jude in his past.
Eventually, we learn Jude’s back-story. Abandoned by his parents when he was only an infant, he grows up in a monastery. This is no idyll. The monks educate the boy, who is an excellent pupil, but they also punish and abuse him, abuse that takes on even more sinister and sexual form when the one person who seems to care for him, the gentle gardener Brother Luke, spirits him away from the monastery and into a fugitive life on the run, through innumerable motel rooms and always in disguise, a life paid for by Luke’s prostituting the boy out to hundreds of men. As if this weren’t terrible enough, he compounds that abuse by also forcing the boy to have sex with him as a sign of what he insists is their love for each other. The physical, mental and sexual abuse continues at the orphanage Jude is sent to after Luke is finally caught. Managing to escape the orphanage, Jude manages to make his way half-way across the country, hitching rides with truckers who, more often than not, rape him as well. Eventually he is found, delirious with fever from a venereal disease, he is found by a psychiatrist, the sinister Dr. Traylor, who locks him in his basement, and waits until a round of antibiotics has run its course before abusing the boy himself. Traylor eventually “frees” Jude but only to hurt him one final horrible time: he runs over him in his car. Jude is found and taken to hospital, where the now fifteen-year-old meets the first good person in his life, his therapist Anna, but in keeping with the book’s punishing attitude, she dies of cancer, though not before helping him apply to college.
Writing this out, I almost want to laugh, it’s so over the top. But the book doesn’t play it for laughs. (A Little Life has many virtues, but humour is not one of them.) There’s a scene where Jude, on the run with Luke, sees some boys playing little league ball, their mothers waiting for the with slices of orange, and knows his life will never be like that, never be normal—it could be a kind of rewriting of Lolita from the child’s perspective, a version of that famous scene in which Humbert Humbert , with grotesque self-satisfaction but also real pathos, hears some children singing and knows Lolita’s voice will never be among their concord. But although A Little Life doles out Jude’s past in extended flashbacks, what it really cares about is the long aftermath of that terrible time. What kind of an adult could a person with no childhood be? In this way, the book always steers just shy of sadism. It punishes Jude, and it punishes us for our investment in Jude—an investment it works hard to create by making him such a complex and fascinating character—but it doesn’t manipulate just for the sake of manipulation. Its manipulation serves a number of ends—for example, by asking us whether knowing everything about someone is to condone or accept them.
The novel enacts this dilemma as part of its investigation of friendship. Arriving at college, Jude is immediately befriended by JB, Malcolm, and Willem, much to his amazement, and joy, and terror (he thinks he doesn’t deserve it, is sure the others have made a mistake about him). The bond between the four—some of which has to do with supporting each other in their desire to make it, and some of which has to do with forming a circle of protection around whatever horrors Jude has experienced: horrors that they know are present even though they don’t know what they are—continues throughout their adult lives.
For all its fascination with success and fame as particular forms of accomplishment, A Little Life is ultimately more interested in something less tangible, something that success and fame tend to work against—long lasting emotional connections between individuals. This is a novel of male friendship. Women barely factor into it: there are hardly any in the book and their perspective is never shared by the narration. Is it because Yanagihara is a woman that this decision never feels demeaning or exclusionary? Of the various implausible or fantastical elements to the novel, the one that feels most energizing to me is its ability to present its intense focus on the intimate and emotional lives of four men without any of the “bromance” anxiety about homosexuality that seems to govern so many representations of male friendship today (all that Hangover stuff). And that’s not just because some of the characters are gay. Rather it’s because the book is so queer, in the sense Eve Sedgwick gave us when she reminded us to remember that people are different and have different desires and that the straight/gay binary, which only normalized heterosexuality, couldn’t account for these seemingly simple yet enormously consequential facts. Of the central characters, JB is openly, we might almost say straightforwardly, gay. Malcolm, after some youthful hand-wringing, comes out as straight. But Jude has had sexual desire beaten out of him by the horrors of his childhood, although on the rare occasions in his adult life when he, unwillingly, has sex it is with men. And Willem prefers to sleep with women except that the person he really loves, and really desires, is Jude. The life Willem and Jude try to make together becomes the center of the book: this queer relationship, which cannot be contained by our habitual use of the term friendship, which is sexual but not, which is a gift to both men yet fraught with risk, given Jude’s past, is something that the book shows us at great length because it can’t name it and anyway naming it would reduce it. In this light, the opening page, in which Jude and Willem, fresh out of college and newly arrived in New York, try to rent an apartment that has only one closet, a closet that they realize they don’t even need, since they don’t have anything, in retrospect seems like a joke about limiting ideas of sexuality and identity.
I said earlier that I had a hard time deciding whether the book was conventional or unconventional in its structure. Now I see that this uncertainty comes from its challenge to conventional modes of intimacy that it nonetheless maintains (It is at once correct and false to say that Jude and Willem are friends. The novel wants to keep friendship as its central concept, but it also wants to expand and revise that concept. The closest analogue to what I mean in rhetoric is catachresis, a semantic “misuse” that bends or deforms a term from its habitual use.) Yanagihara mimics this catachresis in the structure of her novel. We begin by shuttling back and forth between the perspectives of the four main characters, as it develops a portrait of the group. But by and by JB and Malcolm fall by the wayside; they’re still in the book, but events aren’t narrated from their perspective any longer. Instead, Willem and, especially, Jude, and then Willem & Jude are at the center of things. I noted earlier that the book is in third person, but there are a couple of sections narrated in first person. I’m pretty sure these are limited to the perspective of Harold, a professor of Jude’s in law school who becomes so close to Jude that he and his wife eventually formally adopt Jude. (This allows Yanagihara to do for the child-parent relationship what she does at greater length with friendship: i.e. to renovate and expand it: Harold is Jude’s father, but he isn’t his father in any conventional sort—what, she asks, is the emotional tie between these two men?) Harder to figure out are shifts to present tense: I think these are used at times of particular emotional intensity, but I’m not sure—maybe someone can help me figure that out. Yanagihara’s style is neither showy nor unvarnished, nothing particularly daunting or knotted about the syntax yet with a perspicuity of word choice that befits these educated, accomplished, thoughtful characters. Every once in a while, the prose becomes more poetic, more metaphoric, but always anchored in something more plainspoken. Here, for example, is Willem thinking about his parents’ response to the death of his handicapped brother, Henning:
He wanted to scream at his parents, to hit them, to elicit from them something—some melting into grief, some loss of composure, some recognition that something large had happened, that in Henning’s death they had lost something vital and necessary to their lives. He didn’t care if they really felt this way or not: he just needed them to say it, he needed to feel that something lay beneath their impenetrable calm, that somewhere within them ran a thin stream of quick, cool water, teeming with delicate lives, minnows and grasses and tiny white flowers, all tender and easily wounded and so vulnerable you couldn’t see them without aching for them.
However unusual the images in this little aria—images we can just about believe are Willem’s: it’s only in the last clauses about the subterranean stream of water that we sense any distance between character and narrator—their subject matter, of emotion, is typical. We see here that same sense of difficulty in naming—that italicized something, those anaphoric phrases gesturing towards some evanescent thing that is tied to the more easily named forms of life in the extended metaphor by the concept of delicacy and value: things that are fragile and hurt are things we must open ourselves up to.
The book’s stylistic and formal choices, then, have everything to do with its interest in revising without fully destroying conventional forms of emotional connection or relationship. That same dynamic is at work in a philosophical and psychological register in the book’s interest in the relation between form and formlessness. It makes sense that so many of the book’s characters are creators—even Jude responds to the structure of the law, which he comes to as a way to become materially secure in a way he never was in his childhood after leaving behind his first love, mathematics. In the courtroom he is commanding and decisive, even cruel. Harold despairs of Jude’s decision to abandon his work with the public prosecutor in favour of corporate law, but the callousness or self-interested qualities he sees in Jude’s defenses of corporate malfeasance extends far beyond the law. Creation is always destructive, we see, not least of trust and human relationship, most famously in JB’s choice to paint only his friends, especially Jude, especially in moments of what to Jude is intolerable vulnerability. I think of JB’s paintings like Alex Katz’s, only without any women:
In Katz’s “Round Hill” we see solitude, even vacancy in the middle of intimacy or closeness. There’s always something that threatens to destroy whatever connections we make with others. Even more paradoxically, sometimes the destructive element is the only thing that gives our lives shape, a painful contradiction we see most clearly in Jude’s self-harm, his need to cut. Perhaps this tension between form and formlessness explains why A Little Life is so long. The passing of time is essential to the making of a life. Friendships, emotional connections more generally, need repetitions and rituals in order to cohere, yet even then they are subject to so many changes, reversals, vicissitudes. Maybe that’s why there are so many parties in this book, so many birthdays, so many premieres, so many holidays—sometimes I think this book is about Thanksgiving—in its pages: the coursing of affect and sympathy between individuals is so fluid, so quicksilver, that we need these artificial touchstones if we want to have any hope of holding on to it, to turning these friable, fragile, evanescent emotions into a life, even a little one.
In this regard, the title of A Little Life can be taken as a modest claim about its accomplishments, an ironic contrast to its epic scope. A little life might be all any of us have, all any of us can aspire towards. Yet the term isn’t only (however modestly) aspirational. It also refers to falsity, artificiality, the worst aspects of performance. As far as I can tell, the only time that the titular phrase is actually used in the text is when Brother Luke instructs Jude how to act with the johns: he needs to act as though he likes it, he needs to “show a little life.” This life that we live in our vulnerable human bodies is previous because finite. But what the double meaning of the title suggests is that if life is a value it’s not because it’s synonymous with authenticity. Life is a force that manifests itself in pre-established forms: in this sense we are all actors filling a role (thus the characters’ insistence on “making it” takes the form of successfully inhabiting recognizable forms of being, not least certain careers or vocations). Acting can be enabling, as Willem’s career demonstrates. But it can also be punitive, a source of deprivation, as Jude’s enforced life as a rent boy suggests. Yet although established roles are powerful and hard to dislodge they aren’t definitively fixed. They’re open to being changed, and they are at their most powerful when they can’t yet be named, or when they deform or revise an established name (like “friendship”).
But what about those aspects of our experience that seem to force us into certain beliefs, actions, or identities? A Little Life is at its most interesting when it pits its theory of self or societal invention against the debilitating and stultifying effects of abuse and trauma. Can a damaged person change his sense of himself in relation to other people? I’ve been arguing that the novel believes that people can change each other, largely by changing the way they live and act together. But that claim has to be qualified by its investigation of people who cannot or will not change because their traumatic experiences make it almost impossible for them to do so. What, the novel asks, is the relation between physical and mental health? What does it mean to be psychologically deviant or abnormal? How can we respect the value of a person’s symptoms—the meaning, we might even say the sustenance, they give him—while still acknowledging how harmful they can be? If we love someone who is hurt or damaged, are we responsible for curing him, or making sure someone else cures him (and what would curing even mean in this context)? Or does our responsibility consist in letting him be who he is? But what if he’s someone who damages himself? How can we express love for people who hurt us? What kind of a relationship can we have with them? Does sex need to enter into every loving relationship? How can we renovate or expand our impoverished ideas about relationships? In what way is friendship a model for those new ways of being? Are there some experiences so powerful that they preclude the possibility of changing who we are?
Many of these questions were already posed a century ago by psychoanalysis, and this is yet another way in which the novel is importantly modern. Yet psychotherapy in general is given pretty short shrift in the book: Jude is terrified of it (which could be taken as an implicit acknowledgement of its power), and Willem comes to tire of it, even as he and Harold and Andy and everybody in Jude’s life urges Jude to unburden himself to a professional. Jude refuses, and it’s hard not to connect this to the fact that of the many men who harm Jude in his childhood, the worst is the psychiatrist Dr. Traylor. The characters’ opinions aren’t the same as the book’s, of course, but maybe this skepticism of the methodology that has set the very terms of the book’s premise—that the psyche of a person wounded in childhood, whether he remains wounded or not, is not just a meaningful concept but also a source of endless fascination—has to do with the desire of psychotherapy to answer these questions rather than to ask them. The book’s uncertainty about therapy is even more striking in light of its validation of traditional anatomical/physiological medicine, as incarnated in Andy’s over-the-top, devoted ministrations to Jude. No matter how inexorable the decline in Jude’s physical condition, no matter how much abuse his body suffers, thanks to these medical ministrations Jude always recovers, even when that means, as it does eventually, that his legs must be amputated.
But the novel’s understanding of the relationship between mind and body is more complicated than these opposing depictions of medical care would suggest. Jude fears that the body reflects the mind—his damaged body is a sign of his damaged mind. But that damage comes in two kinds—the harm done to him by others and the harm he does to himself, especially cutting. In the latter case, the body trumps the mind: physical pain takes him away from his problems, makes him serene and gives him the feeling of control. But in other ways the body seems to have no relation to the mind—for all his belief that he is hideous, and despite the mass of scar tissue on his back and arms, Jude is strikingly handsome. In this regard, the relation of body to mind fits with the disjunction we repeatedly find in the book between how others perceive a character and how the character perceives himself: Jude can never shake his conviction that he is fundamentally soiled and unworthy of love.
Whatever the book wants to tell us about bodies and minds is connected to the intense emotion that the book is not just depicting but also making us feel. A Little Life is relentless in its description of the terrible things that happen to Jude. It exploits our responses to them, but it doesn’t simply titillate us, or revel in the horror. But it does want us to be emotionally bruised by the things it tells us about. More than most books it elicits extreme emotional responses from us: we take joy in their success, fear with them that this success won’t last, get angry at them when their self-defeating tendencies make them unable to accept the love and attention they are offered, and feel fury when they are hurt, visceral pain and anguish at the suffering their bodies endure, and hurt when we see how quickly life and love can be taken away. The quickening of our emotional response has larger social-political ends, similar to the way the melodrama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sought to further abolitionism, or the films of Douglas Sirk to explore the prison of women’s lives in 50s America. In Yanagihara’s case that end, I think, is the redescription or renovation of friendship as the most meaningful kind of emotional tie.
Extremes of emotion that suggest the possibility of new kinds of relationships the instantiation of which never overcomes the possibility of their failure, indeed, the failure of any relationship, the possibility of an isolation that might be enabling but which could also be terrifying—this convoluted knot of affective promise and threat seems encapsulated to me in the image on the cover of Yanagihara’s book, a Peter Hujar photo of a man with his eyes screwed shut and a hand (his own?—hard to say, though if so the posture is awkward, unnatural) touching the side of his face.
Although he looks anguished to me, the jacket copy tells me the photo is called “Orgasmic Man.” Of course Barthes and others made plenty of hay about the estranging, even destructive qualities of bliss, so it’s not as if those terms are necessarily contradictory. My uncertainty about this image, my changing sense of what it might mean in light of its title has an analogue in the design of the cover. In the right light, a holographic double of the title and author’s name shimmers into life, as if in recognition of the subterranean life that courses beneath the surface of even those who are closest to us. The power of A Little Life is to be able to expose that duality so movingly, to make us immersed in the lives of these characters, to do what literature does, to let us live in a world that is not our world. Of course there are risks in that displacement. Thinking back to my Swiss co-worker, who wanted her guests gone so she could get back to her book, I see now that the greatest paradox of A Little Life is that to be immersed in this enormous, exhilarating book about what it means to relate to others is to risk being distanced, even alienated from the others in our own lives, the ones we love in whatever hesitantly articulable ways we love them.