Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life
Harrowing is the word most commonly used in reviews and in conversation where A Little Life is involved. It is a word more commonly associated with a dreadful ordeal than a seven hundred page novel. There is no point shying away from the fact that the book is far too long. However, Hanya Yanagihara is such a pro in the world of books that no one can blame her editor from baulking at the prospect of that particular conversation, especially as the story itself is undoubtedly compelling. The friendship between four university friends as it twists and breaks over several decades living in New York is as gripping as it is complicated.
Except it is not about four ‘little’ lives, because the stage is set for just one. Anyone intrigued by Malcolm’s daddy issues and burgeoning architecture career will be disappointed – he is really just a supplier of divine interiors after page 200. JB is the only one with a sense of silliness, and the release the reader feels from his comical presence is palpable, until the jokes and then his presence also recedes. Willem is the kind heart who seems to be a dim failed actor, until he gets his break, and is the best friend Jude could ever ask for. He is endlessly patient, and somehow avoids being annoying.
Jude is the unwilling star; the bleeding angel, the lawyer, baker, studio assistant, adopted son and abused vessel of what loosely represents the care system in America. Such is his beauty and grace that those who don’t want to paint him want to carve their marks into his (already battered) flesh to appropriate a piece of him for themselves. His story has been compared to a misery memoir, but whilst A Child Called It contains mawkish sentiment, and gestures of hopeful rhetoric, A Little Life has none of the above. The ending is not happy, and the very worst things happen to good people. Yanagihara, when asked about the expanding taint of child abuse in the novel, has explained that it is not that she is especially interested in children or abuse, but in this form of abuse as the ultimate form of abusive power.
Where Yanagihara has the edge over a well written journalistic by-line on an amazingly accomplished and complicated individual is her setting. The former careers from humble box room beginnings and cheap Vietnamese food to slick urban mega flats and haute cuisine. A few people left the narrative here: the endless square footage and minimalist contemporary art provide a bleak contrast to Jude’s scarred wreck of a life. Or perhaps their hearts just creaked with envy at the mental image these palaces summoned, which was too much when the reader has already been put under a certain amount of emotional duress. As covered in our Booker Prize piece, Yanagihara wanted to move away from the typical portrayal of New York’s geography and capture the hunger of the city’s inhabitants. She accomplishes this in every sense of the word – everyone works till they drop, they are always moving into bigger apartments or building new houses, expanding their empires and upgrading. Strangely, when it comes to appetite, despite her descriptions of iced cakes and Thanksgiving meals, I have never felt less hungry while reading about food. The opposite was the case when reading Fleming’s Bond books – never have scrambled eggs sounded so tempting.
Her most enchanting character is a supporting role. Harold the law professor first meets Jude at law school, where he buys Jude some clothes for a job interview. He is gentle, funny, a devoted husband and father and an appalling cook. He adopts Jude, and loves him persistently when Jude – like many victims of abuse – desperately tries to push him away. He gently continues to reappear, and that is his simple and irrefutable way of showing love. Harold is Mr Tom, Gandalf, John Keating and Atticus Finch combined. He represents the most pure manifestation of familial, paternal love in a novel which is interesting in tracing every kind, including the fleeting and the inadequate. Blood ties are replaced by friendships as the important family structure for Yanagihara’s characters, especially for those without children.
So harrowing, yes, too long, certainly. However, A Little Life is a detailed tapestry of style without being overly stylized, honest without being brutal for the sake of impact, and Yanagihara’s characters will floor the reader, often when they least expect it. It is not the image of a broken figure curled up on the floor in the dark that sears, but the gentle insistence that you look the speaker in the eye, figuratively speaking, as they are showing you something new.