A Little Life isn’t the type of book you want to read alone. Or at least, you might read it alone, but then it winds its way into the fabric of your brain to such an extent that naturally you want to discuss it with others. I was about halfway through when I found myself tweeting that I cared for Jude St Francis —the unfortunate protagonist— as though he were my own child and could it get any more brutal? (Yes, in case you're wondering).
I naively thought, initially, that I was the only person who’d be talking to twitter about it. Then I saw lots of other tweets and felt as though we were all partaking in some kind of cyber bleeding heart cry-off about Jude’s life (which was probably far from most of ours) and I felt a bit cringy about the whole thing. But still, for me the point of literature (and art in general) has always been to make you feel. I know trashy page-turner detective novels do that, as do badly ghost-written misery memoirs with titles like Mommy, No, but what separates ‘A Little Life’ from those things is the way in which it creates such an epic, complex portrait of a person’s life whilst avoiding any clichés about redemption or a linear path to healing.
A blurby synopsis for the unfamiliar: A Little Life begins as though it is going to tell, equally, the stories of four male friends living in New York, all of them fresh out of a top university and on the road to star careers. There’s JB, a gay painter, the Brooklyn-born son of Haitian immigrants; Willem, an actor/waiter of working class Swedish/Icelandic origins who stopped talking to his parents after his disabled brother’s death; Malcolm, an architect with a trust fund; and Jude St Francis, about whom little to nothing is known. Jude is dubbed ‘the postman’ by JB who describes him as ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-sexual’ as his sexuality and ethnicity are a mystery. Indeed, almost everything about Jude is a mystery, particularly his life before college, yet it becomes apparent early on that Jude is deeply troubled. He has ‘episodes’ in which he is incapacitated owing to problems with his legs from an undisclosed accident, he self-harms regularly and brutally and his arms, leg and back are covered in scars. As the novel continues it hones in on Jude and details about the horrors he experienced in the first fifteen years of his life slowly unfold.
The author, Hanya Yanagihara, has been accused of being gratuitous with the novel. I am not really one for such arguments, but there were times reading it when I thought, ‘this is too much’. I don’t think anyone should have to censor themselves, but it did almost feel over the top how much abuse Jude experienced. Of course what he went through could happen to someone, but it’s almost like Yanagihara put him through every horrific thing a person could go through and then when she was done with that, she added some more.
So why would anyone want to read such a book? Why is this the most compelling book I have read in years? Well, it isn’t actually 730 pages of Jude being tortured, what happened to him in his early life does unfold slowly but it’s intercut with his adult life and is very much a book about how trauma lives on in a person if it is never confronted, how anger can implode and turn in on itself. Jude never directs his rage at those who harmed him, always at himself.
The self-loathing, anxiety and illumination of the way in which the past chokes us in the present is very universal and relatable, whether you have suffered anywhere near as much as Jude or not. Perhaps in some way the fact that Jude has seemingly gone through everything means a person can relate to him having gone through anything.
A Little Life is also very much a book about friendship, where a traditional sexual/romantic relationship is not at the centre. Jude and Willem do eventually become lovers, but one of the acts of love Willem imparts on Jude is ceasing to have sex with him when he realises it can only cause Jude pain. Hanya Yanagihara has said herself she doesn’t believe in marriage (always a stance that gets the thumbs up from me) and the book challenges the normative notion that to be whole as a person one must be in a sexual/romantic relationship, or that one must have sex, or that not enjoying it is a flaw to be corrected.
Even Willem and Jude’s relationship is an extension of their already deep friendship and whilst JB and Malcolm do not play as big a role in the novel as they appear to at the beginning, the importance of their relationships to each other and to Willem and Jude as friends, is just as important, if not more so, than their romantic relationships. In this way the novel is one of the best takes on queer, non-normative family since Michael Cunningham’s A Home At The End of the World (which fans of A Little Life should read if they haven’t already). Whilst A Little Life rejects any kind of redemption narrative, the moments of solace in Jude’s life are all provided through friendship.
Despite the gratuity of some of the book, I think there is a something pretty beautiful in the honesty it displays — life is sad, life is painful, life is difficult, trauma is hard to survive intact and always leaves an imprint. There is something sort of wonderful and cathartic in the rawness of confronting that head on without flinching.
The book also gives a pretty non-clichéd take on suicide, resisting a black and white idea of a better or worse option. Harold (a key figure in Jude’s life who adopts Jude in his thirties) says of his own desperate attempts to keep Jude alive: ‘. . . you can see that it is costing them, you can see how much they don’t want to be here, you can see that the mere act of existing is depleting for them, and then you have to tell yourself every day: I am doing the right thing.’
Thanks to hormones, I have been physically unable to cry since October (and I used to cry all the time) with only two exceptions, both when reading A Little Life. Reading it is sort of a traumatic experience but it’s also beautiful, enraging, devastating and enthralling; pretty much everything it is to be alive.