by Hanya Yanagihara
New York: Anchor (reprint edition), 2016.
832 pages. $17.00. (paperback)
Time and endurance are now part of the story. I carried Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life with me for two full seasons — hardcover, 720 pages — and I felt every ounce of it. It frayed the seams of my black backpack. A brown stripe on the fore edge evokes a long-forgotten cup of coffee. It is furred with slips of torn paper marking pages I mean to return to: green, from a notepad I used up months ago, and strips of newsprint from the dated papers on my kitchen table.
In between the seasons of reading, with only 140 pages to go, I put the novel back on my bookshelf, and there it sat fallow for about six months. Instead of finishing it, I began and finished other books. It wasn’t that I didn’t like A Little Life. Quite the opposite. This novel consumed me, to the point that I was almost frightened by how I would feel as Yanagihara steamed through to the final words. How much emotion was I willing to give to this, after all? Did I trust the author enough to believe that she wouldn’t cheaply manipulate how much feeling had already been cracked open in me? It took some time to decide.
This is a book about how to help, and how to ask for help. It is about the difficulty of receiving what we need and want, not just during hard times, but over the entire sweep of our life. We follow four friends who met in college in Massachusetts as they begin their adult lives in New York City: Willem, who comes from a Swedish family in rural Wyoming and becomes an actor; Malcolm, a dreamy architect from a wealthy New York family; J.B., a restless and precocious painter raised by a single Haitian mother and a corps of aunties; and Jude, around whom the book orbits, who is gifted in both mathematics and law; a lovely singer and talented cook; and a man who is physically and emotionally imprisoned by an outrageously abusive past.
Yanagihara switchbacks into their deep pasts and far futures, up to the point where only one of the four is still alive. She is a master at handling the propulsion of time — how it drags, or sweeps us away; how the weight of the past threatens to pull us back, and how we can, or cannot, imagine what comes next. She understands the way a running joke threads its way through a friendship, over years.
Jude’s favorite law professor — Harold Stein, a major character — makes a speech to his contracts class that is suggestive: “In this class you will learn the difference between what is fair and what is just, and, as important, between what is fair and what is necessary. You will learn about the obligations we have to one another as members of society, and how far society should go in enforcing those obligations. You will learn to see your life — all of our lives — as a series of agreements …”
“A little life,” indeed. The whole of the universe is in here.
Yanagihara uses food as a way to mark time, a quiet through-line in an expansive story. When we first see our foursome, they are in their early twenties and sharing a late dinner at a favorite Chinatown restaurant, eyeing each other’s leftovers hungrily and studying the bill so that they can “divide it to the dollar.” Thanksgiving is the touchstone holiday that we return to, year after year. A critical scene near the end unfolds after a pot is put on the oven to boil — preparation for a dinner that will never be completed. When Harold orders cookies made in the shape of bacteria (a gift for his microbiologist wife) from the bakery where Jude works, Jude bakes them with remarkable precision. He then delights when Harold boasts about how the cookies were a hit, but he never discloses that he was the one who stirred the batter.
Food shared, cooked, given, and avoided is not only how characters reveal themselves, but it is the realm of contention for this story: this is where relationships solidify and where they disintegrate. That’s not just craft; that feels like life. I think of how this ordinary act of eating contours my own life, as I haul the heavy novel to a New Year’s yoga retreat with silent community meals, and then on to my parents’ house, where we circle the kitchen table in the same seats we’ve had since I was a child, and then back to my apartment in Detroit, where I turn the pages of A Little Life while eating the simple night-lit dinners I made for myself. Meal after meal after meal, and this novel was still beside me.
A Little Life is beautifully written. Sentence by sentence, the prose is exulting. Every word chosen is the exact right word, save for an over-use of first names in the dialogue. (“I’m sorry, Mal.” “It’s okay, Jude,” Malcolm said.) This feels false and leaden. And the choice of naming the core character Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes, feels heavy-handed, despite the contextual justifications for it. (Jude was an abandoned infant and was raised in a monastery.) In the sections that follow Jude’s character, the narration relies on the pronoun “he,” in contrast to the sections that follow Willem, Malcolm, J.B., Harold, and others, where the narration uses their first names in an evenhanded way. It feels like a bit of obvious literary trickery intended to weigh down Jude’s character with his trademark caginess, and it becomes quite annoying.
But that’s the worst of it. The rest of the prose is a sharp-cut splendor that makes you want to read it aloud to anyone nearby. “This! Listen to this!”
And there is that other way that we mark time: with our work. There is something fantastical about how Jude, Willem, J.B., and Malcolm all become world-class successful in their fields. Before the book is over, J.B. has had a retrospective at the Whitney, Malcolm has built a museum in Shanghai, William is a top-flight Hollywood celebrity, and Jude is one of the most powerful attorneys at one of the country’s most aggressive law firms.
But the book depicts the intricacies of work with enough detail that it becomes possible to suspend disbelief. In a surprisingly rare feat for a novelist, Yanagihara shows how work changes over time — new roles, new responsibilities, rough patches, lunch hours, evolving relationships with colleagues. She shows how luck, boredom, self-justification, inspiration, and effort play into what we do, and its rippling effects into the rest of our lives.
This includes the work — and I do mean work — of making art. Often, in fiction, when a character is an artist, it is a tacked-on identity serving nothing more as shorthand for temperament rather than anything else. “Look how quirky and creative she is!” Any art such a character creates emerges, cartoonishly, in a fit of inspiration.
In A Little Life, the narration reveals the workday life of the artist, from the paintings of J.B. and his fellow makers, to Willem’s acting to Malcolm’s architecture, and even Jude’s singing and baking. We see the substance of it: cardboard models, call sheets, paychecks, the common area of J.B.’s studio space where someone put up a tented card: “DRYING. DO NOT MOVE. WILL CLEAN UP FIRST THING TOM’W PM. TX 4 PATIENCE, H.Y.”
J.B. takes the 11 a.m. train every Saturday and the 5 p.m. train every weekday to that studio in Long Island City. He likes the weekday-evening trips best because that’s when he could see “light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hairs into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine,” though, moments later, “the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors … a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.” This isn’t just beautiful writing; this feels true to a painter’s visual way of absorbing the world around him.
And here is Willem, when he’s still working as a waiter:
He was willing to wait. He had waited. But recently, he could feel his patience sharpening itself into something splintery and ragged, chipping into dry little bits.
Still — he was not an anxious person, he was not inclined toward self-pity. Indeed, there were moments when, returning from [the restaurant] or from a rehearsal for a play in which he would be paid almost nothing for a week’s work, so little that he wouldn’t have been able to afford the prix fixe at the restaurant, he would enter the apartment with a feeling of accomplishment … This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! It was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.
But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours, the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for [his brother], where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.
All of this shows that Yanagihara takes art seriously enough to pay attention to its parts. Reading it makes me want to be a better writer.
Money ebbs and flows throughout the text. The consciousness of who has it and who doesn’t infects most of us, no matter what our social class is. For a time, there is the awed disgust one feels at those who carelessly float on piles of cash that, it seems, allows them to make no choices at all. Later, when the four friends become successful, they find it rather natural to choose to be in places that are beautiful and to eat food that is especially delicious: why wouldn’t you?
There is also the anxious indebtedness of being a “have-not,” where you are terrified of even eating too much of a shared pizza, lest someone realize that it’s more than your fair portion. It’s the terror of the depth of your own want being exposed for all to see. I remember that feeling. I’ve had this feeling — specifically, with pizza. It’s not one I enjoy recalling. But it’s a memory that was there all along, and this novel pushed it back up to the surface with uncanny vividness.
It begins with an unexplained limp. From there, the physical consequences of Jude’s past become increasingly devastating.
When your vulnerability is physical, visible, it introduces profound complexity into relationships. But at the same time, we are all that vulnerable, anyway. We are all in need of care. Jude perpetually ignores what his doctor and others tell him is the best treatment for his ailments, and he even exacerbates the suffering of his body. On a very different scale, it reminds me of my own habit of not doing what I know is good for me: Meditation. Healthful release of anger. Avoiding emotional eating. I know I’m happier and healthier if I do these things. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s the only way you’ve known me: as someone who — who needs help,” Jude says to Willem at one point. A Little Life uncomfortably spotlights our capacity for self-sabotage. An instinctual refusal of our own wellbeing. Disgust with ourselves for being human creatures who need things. We are so gentle (most of us) with the vulnerabilities of others, and so much less so with our own. By tuning into this dynamic, A Little Life builds emotional power, most vividly apparent in a brutal moment, about mid-way through, between J.B. and Jude — a perfectly set up and executed scene that, long after I read it, still has enough potency to chill my skin when I think of it.
From what I understand, this much-awarded, much-discussed novel has received a great deal attention for its unscathing look at suffering.
It’s real; it’s there. But I want to emphasize that this is also a novel of happiness.
Happiness is so difficult to write about. Perhaps that’s why so many authors weasel past it with only a gesture. It is as if we suspect happiness to be so bright, like the sun, we can’t look directly at it. It is as if we believe suffering is the place where stories live, and happiness, by its very nature, is flat, saccharine, one-note.
A Little Life is rich with happiness, both ordinary and extraordinary, and that is why I found myself weeping through the final chapters, when I could finally bear to read them in late August. It was so many months after I began the book. My life had changed in dramatic fashion —a different city, a work life that involved letting go of everything I’d been doing and beginning anew, an overhauled personal life, a few deaths, a few births.
There is happiness. There is the sweet drunken dizziness of dinner parties with beloved friends. There is the arching joy of your artistic dreams coming true, and the hum in our legs after a very long walk. Weddings where the dancing is “loose-limbed and slightly chaotic.” The hushed awe of standing in the Alhambra. Summers of swimming on “a private spit of beach,” cycling through the sand dunes and soft evenings of sketching and reading, when even Jude feels “doped on sun and food and salt and contentment.” There is also the deep pleasure felt when we watch people we love be in love with each other — of seeing their quiet everyday habits, and their spasms of delight in the other’s presence.
The happiness is as real as the suffering. That is why Hanya Yanagihara earns the trust of her many readers.
I feel stingy about A Little Life. Over all this time, I have avoided reading any book reviews others have written, and I feel irrationally resentful that others will read this book. I struggled to finish writing this very review. It’s because this novel feels personal.
Reading is one of the greatest joys of my life; there are so many books that have marked me. But among the ones that I will count as having been unusually influential, of being what I must call my very favorites, A Little Life is there.about the author