Hanya Yanagihara’s masterful A Little Life is-dare I say- one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ferociously heart-breaking and profoundly, unimaginably upsetting, this harrowing beauty of a novel chronicles the saga of four college friends: Willem, a handsome, kind-hearted actor, Malcolm, an aspiring architect, J.B., a talented-if cocky-artist, and Jude, a mysterious litigator. The setting: New York City, the twinkling land of starry-eyed hopefuls where the only thing people have in common, one character notes, is their drive for success. When the novel opens, each character has yet to materialize his ambitions: Willem, like most would-be actors, spends his evenings waiting tables in between auditions, his tips sustaining him rejection after demoralizing rejection; J.B., like most starving artists, pays his electricity bill not by selling his paintings but by working at a downtown art magazine as a receptionist while Malcolm, despite having landed an impressive associate position at a prestigious architecture firm, finds himself hopelessly unfulfilled. As Sinatra sang in his classic ode to the restless city, Yanagihara’s characters have “vagabond shoes” that are “longing to stray.” But what first appears to be your typical bildungsroman about four best friends trying to make it in the big city turns out to be both a devastating and heart-warming account of the inescapability of the past, the solace of friendship, and the limits of human endurance.
A Little Life purports to be the story of four friends but the story is really Jude’s alone. Beautiful but tortured, Jude is a mysterious figure throughout much of the novel: no one, not even Willem or Malcolm or J.B., know anything about his upbringing. Such an enigma is he that J.B. takes to calling him the “postman” because he’s “post-sexual, post-racial, post-past, post-identity.” Over the course of 700 horrifying pages, we learn Jude was abandoned at a monastery at birth and as a child was made to endure unspeakable sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Though Jude goes on to have a life most of us would envy- a successful career as a corporate lawyer, a loving relationship with a thoughtful (not to mention gorgeous) movie star, a New York socialite’s exciting calendar of chic rooftop parties and nights at the theater- he’s a man wounded. Despairing and tormented by terrible self-loathing, he believes himself fundamentally unlovable after years of being degraded in the most monstrous of ways. Is it possible, A Little Life wonders, for a man to bear so much suffering and still persist? Throughout the novel, Jude’s past has a stranglehold on him which he desperately tries to escape:
“There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly. But this method wasn’t effective: the memories seeped out anyway. The important thing, he came to realize, was to eliminate them, not just to store them. So he had invented some solutions. For small memories—little slights, insults—you relived them again and again until they were neutralized, until they became near meaningless with repetition, or until you could believe that they were something that had happened to someone else and you had just heard about it. For larger memories, you held the scene in your head like a film strip, and then you began to erase it, frame by frame. Neither method was easy: you couldn’t stop in the middle of your erasing and examine what you were looking at, for example; you couldn’t start scrolling through parts of it and hope you wouldn’t get ensnared in the details of what had happened, because you of course would. You had to work at it every night, until it was completely gone. Though they never disappeared completely, of course.”
The past’s inescapability becomes one of the novel’s paramount themes when Jude realizes he’s eternally doomed to his own identity. Just as “x must always equal x,” who he was must always define who he is. He may have love and friendship, prestige and wealth but he will never be entirely liberated from the horrors of history:
“The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. Always, absolutes, nevers: these are the words, as much as numbers, that make up the world of mathematics. Not everyone liked the axiom of equality––Dr. Li had once called it coy and twee, a fan dance of an axiom––but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it. It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.
But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself––his very life––has proven it. The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated.”
The saddest part of A Little Life is that Jude believes himself deserving of such heinous mistreatment. Violated by the very men who were supposed to protect him, forced as a child into prostitution: Jude was very obviously a victim. But- like many victims- he directs his rage inward. To cope with his trauma, he begins cutting himself, a masochistic habit he continues into adulthood. Yanagihara spares no mercy in her detailing of Jude’s self-harm, at one point revealing he had long ago “run out of blank skin on his forearms” and so “recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue.” Seeing the damage he’s inflicted, Jude feels “disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he had deformed himself.” Such graphic depictions of violence, though gruesome, never feel titillating or excessive but rather seem necessary to depicting Jude’s anguish. Not only does Yanagihara handle this sensitive material expertly, but she constructs the novel with great skill: just as Jude’s traumatic past relentlessly intrudes on his present, so too does it encroach on the reader in the form of distressing-and disturbing-flashbacks. James Joyce’s epic hero Stephen Daedalus once memorably called history a “nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” A haunted man, Jude St. Francis knows intimately this sentiment.
Though A Little Life probes the depths of human depravity, it also reveals man’s extraordinary capacity for love. Despite never fully understanding the demons that beset him, Willem, Malcolm and J.B. remain Jude’s loyal friends, selflessly caring for and consoling him during dark nights of the soul. At times- in fact- I found it hard to believe any one person could be blessed with such devoted supporters.
But A Little Life’s tragedy is that love is not enough to deliver Jude’s soul. In the end, trauma is trauma is trauma and, though we cherish uplifting stories of redemption, sometimes absolution never comes. True to life but brutally sad, A Little Life will linger long after you’ve shut it closed.