Hanya Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, was a brilliant, devastating if chilly novel, that confronted the worst excesses of male hubris through restraint and excision. Yanagihara’s follow-up, which has justly been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, approaches similar subject matter – masculinity, violence, secrets – but from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Just about every one of A Little Life’s 700 pages is saturated with trauma: child abuse, rape, domestic violence, dysfunctional families, addiction, self-harm, suicide, grief. If Emo musicians needed a literary masterpiece, then A Little Life is it.
The effect is all the more heightened after the novel’s opening, which describes a touching, even nostalgia-tinged love square between handsome actor Willem, volatile artist-in-waiting J B, Malcolm who is privileged, steady but anxious, and Jude, the enigma within this novel’s riddle.
About a quarter of the way in, J B and Malcolm retreat from the limelight, which burns ever more brightly on Willem and blindingly on Jude. What you make of the novel very much depends on how you feel about Yanagihara’s hero, an orphan who has survived a devastating childhood but whose heart-breaking past is withheld from reader and friends alike.
Jude’s duplicity is helped by the conspicuous nature of his material success. A poster boy for the American Dream, he earns a fairy tale education, fairy tale friends, fairy tale Manhattan job, fairy tale apartment, and finally a fairy tale boyfriend: Willem, by now an Oscar-winning millionaire movie star.
The clarity of Yanagihara’s prose is perfect for dissecting blind ambition, the consolations of work and money, and how these paper over the cracks of fragile, fractured individuals. So it is with Jude, a self-harmer whose wrecked body can hardly withstand the incisions he makes.
One could read the persistence of these self-soothing rituals as a fable of the hollowness of America’s pursuit of happiness. Interior decoration can spruce up a downtown loft, but does nothing to touch Jude’s inner self-loathing. But what makes A Little Life so powerful, unsettling and occasionally infuriating is Jude’s imperviousness to the love of his friends. Jude demands that we ask whether life is always worth living, whether some wounds are so deep as to be unrepairable.
If Yanagihara writes sharply on external rewards of accomplishment, her chiaroscuro style is even more unflinching when detailing Jude’s secret world of violence. “Before he had been taught to cut himself, there was a period in which he would toss himself against the wall outside … again and again until he sagged, exhausted, to the ground, and his left side was permanently stained blue and purple and brown with bruises.”
The percussive over-abundance of that sentence (“and ... and ... and ...”) might describe A Little Life as a whole. The reader too will sag exhausted to the ground, overwhelmed by how much pain one human can endure. I shared the frustrations of Jude’s adoring friends, but like them I could not look away, so completely did Yanagihara’s world convince.
Proof that sometimes in art more really is more, A Little Life is unlike anything else out there. Over the top, beyond the pale and quite simply unforgettable. Whether it makes the Man Booker shortlist – and it really should – this parable of modern life will last long after the winner is crowned.