A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

a little lifeHanya Yanagihara’s editor asked her to make changes to A Little Life, specifically to tone down the abuse in the second half of the book and to cut several hundred pages from manuscript.  Ms. Yanagihara refused, according to an article in The Guardian.  Had she taken her editor’s advice, her book would have been better, in my opinion.  Author’s listen to your editors.  Still, A Little Life has made the Mann Booker Prize long list for 2015 and looks like a heavy favorite for the short list to be announced tomorrow, so Ms. Yanagihara must know something her editors don’t.

I however, will take their advice.  I’m toning down this review, and I’m going to shorten the more rantier aspects of it as well.  But be warned: this review will contain spoilers.  Lots of spoilers.  Like a refrigerator after the power’s been out for three days.

And I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like it and I’m not going to be shy about that fact.  This is going to be a rant. Pots will be shot at before I’m done.

The story is set in a New York City out of time.  The four main characters live their lives free of history.  Gay men with no concern for HIV.  New Yorkers who never saw the Twin Towers fall.  A man abused by Catholic clergy as a child who never noticed all the lawsuits against the church.  This may be intended to give the book a fairy tale aspect which works  up to a point.  But A Little Life has been called The great gay novel.  Can The great contemporary gay novel be a book that never mentions AIDS? The book almost seems like it’s hiding from contemporary events.  Can you really say a novel is an accurate picture of America if it never mentions anything political at all?  What is America if not political?

These are major issues that I had with Hanya Yanagihira’s novel A Little Life.  However, I was more than willing to overlook them because I was enjoying the set of four friends she created in the opening chapters of her book so much.  Willem, Jude, J.B. and Malcolm start out the novel as college friends each beginning a career, each hoping for the success that will leave a mark on the world.

I liked them.  They were fun to be around.  I wanted them to find success or at least happiness.  That they lived lives completely devoid of all references to current events untouched by everything that went on in the world over the last 40 years was something I could let slide several hundred pages.  But there were over 700 pages.

I even kept going with A Little Life even after the author began to abandon J.B. and Malcolm in favor of Jude and Willem’s relationship.  I did find this a disappointing choice as both Malcolm and J.B. were worthy of their own  book.  Even as Willem began to lose the three dimensions he had at the start of the novel becoming basically a foil for the story of Jude, I kept going.  The second half of the book turned out to be the story of Jude.

Jude is a pretty darn fascinating character.  The survivor of horrible childhood abuse, he has made his way in the world, becoming a highly successful corporate lawyer by day; he cuts himself at night, the only way he has been able to deal with the lingering demons of his youth.  This is a point very much in the books favor, this idea that one never really “recovers” from childhood abuse.

His story carries the book quite well, but letting it take over the narrative the way it does turns the characters of J.B. and Malcolm into what Alfred Hitchcock used to call McGuffins.  You thought this was going to be story about four witty college friends who become artists, but it’s really a story of how one man survives horrible abuse.

Hah!  Fooled you, reader.

When it’s working, dribbling out the horror over a series of flashbacks or expository dialogues can be effective, and it works in A Little Life, for about five hundred pages.  It’s a long book, but it’s a quick read, something I wanted to immerse myself in for hours at a time.  The mystery of what happened to Jude, he won’t tell any of his friends nor his doctors, kept me as interested as wondering whether or not J.B. would ever find true love.

But once you’ve set the bait for your readers the way Ms. Yanagihara has done with Jude, you really have to deliver the goods.  So much so that what is revealed has to be horrible beyond what you or I would imagine.  That’s problematic in a story like this one.  If your novel is about how people deal with the effects of child abuse, then the exact nature of that abuse can take on too much importance if it is portrayed. Once the reader is forced to witness the abuse, it’s only a matter of time before the act of reading takes on a voyeuristic tone.  Jude is abused by nearly all of the monks who live in the monastery where he is raised after having been left on the doorstep as an infant.  That’s terrible enough to explain everything about Jude, but there’s more.

The one monk he thinks he can confide in steals him away from the monastery with the promise of a better life only to turn him into a child prostitute subject to abuse at the hands of a long series of men at various truck stop motels throughout America. This is horrible enough to explain everything about Jude, but there’s more.

After he escapes from Brother Luke, he is abused by the men in the group home where he is sent to live.  This is awful enough to explain everything about Jude, but there’s more.

Enough already.

But, the book was still good enough, and I still cared about the characters enough to keep reading.  And there was still one secret Jude hadn’t told us yet–how his legs were injured.  This reveal was one bridge to far for me.  I’ll leave you this one “unspoiled” just in case.  My reaction to it in two words.

Please.

Really?

It was very difficult for me to get back into the novel after such a jarring, unrealistic plot twist.  Suddenly, A Little Life had gone from being a male version of The Group, to a gay version of A Child Called It to a pretentious literary version of Saw IV. 

It’s sure to make the Mann Booker Prize shortlist tomorrow.

But I was still so impressed with the book’s opening chapters, and I still liked the characters enough to keep reading.  Unfortunately, Ms. Yanagihara had one final twist in store for me.  It felt a little personal, like a kind of punishment for all of my faith in her story telling.  Love my characters, well, too bad.  I’m going to kill half of them in a single random act, an act that will drive Jude to finally take his own life leaving you, dear reader, with nothing but one character I lost interest in 300 pages ago.

That’ll teach you.

End of rant.

This book counts as number 17 in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.  I have a few days left before the official end, but I don’t think I’m going to make it to 20.

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22 Comments

  1. Jeanne says:

    I still loved it, but your criticisms are right on point. I especially love this sentence: “Suddenly, A Little Life had gone from being a male version of The Group, to a gay version of A Child Called It to a pretentious literary version of Saw IV. “

    1. I loved it, too. Until I didn’t. I think that’s why I’m as upset about it as I am. I really should have been writing a review praising the book to the high heavens, but it just went too far and then it went too far again.

  2. I also liked that line a lot. Pelzer, ouch.

    The fantasy aspect has made me wonder if something else is going on in the book, for example that there is a narrator deliberately suppressing the outside world and its traumas. But it has not made me wonder enough to read the book myself.

    Hey, maybe the events in Jude’s life actually are the outside events. Maybe his story is an allegory of history. It is so much fun to cook up superficially clever theories about books I haven’t read.

    1. Do you think the term “allegory” is overused of late? It’s been used to describe this book, but doesn’t an allegory have to be readily understandable as a message about politics or religion? I don’t see this book as at all allegorical. It’s an excellent book until it becomes a pretty bad book that some people have tried to excuse as an allegory.

      But you’re right, it’s fun to come up with clever theories about books we haven’t read.

    2. My “tricky narrator” idea is better than my allegory idea. But the allegory does not have to be understandable. It can be esoteric. Masonic symbolism, or some private equivalent.

      1. Teresa says:

        That could explain her unwillingness to take edits. If the allegory is embedded in every fifth sentence, extensive editing could wreck the whole thing.

      2. I think an allegory does have to be understandable to be considered a good one. I think the same holds true for all literary devices, to be honest. I’ve little patience with writing that’s deliberately obtuse. I don’t see an allegory in A Little Life, just a book with a great first half that deserved a better ending.

  3. Teresa says:

    A hyped-up literary version of Saw IV–you made me snort-laugh with that one!

    I’ve resigned myself to this being shortlisted for the Booker, although it doesn’t deserve it. But if it wins, you might be able to hear my screams all the way in California.

    1. That was me taking a pot-shot. I feel a little dirty about it but I’m glad I got a laugh. But, honestly, the plot just got so out of control. People, listen to your editors; they know what they’re doing.

  4. Terri Camajani says:

    What I love about your reviews? OK, beautifully written. But more – you always give credit where credit is due, but don’t let that hold out false hope. Another great review!!!

    1. Thank you. You make me blush.

  5. Great review! I found it was compulsive reading, but total soap opera – if it wins prizes, I can see an HBO mini-series. I do wish she’d taken her editor’s advice though – I begrudged reading the excess pages. I will be one of the few sitting on the fence with this novel though – It was manipulative, but I did kind of enjoy it finding it unputdownable (although its physical heft belies that!). Overblown, yet full of non sequiturs – things suddenly coming in that should have been mentioned before, things totally missing too – like AIDS, and none of the quartet ever talk about having kids in any way either….

    1. Didn’t Malcolm and Sophie address having children? This is one of my problems with the book, the way the rest of the group was abandoned by the author in favor of Jude’s story. But you’re’ right. C.J. and I are one of three gay couples in our immediate neighborhood, but we’re the only one without children.

      1. Maybe they did – but it was slightly strange to me that there was no next generation at all.

      2. I basically agree with you. With a set of four friends, the law of averages would leave at least one with a child or two. But I think this is part of the hermetically sealed world the characters live in. They don’t really live in our world.

  6. I ignored your advice and came over to read your review anyway! I see your points, but it doesn’t stop me from loving it. Do you really think this book would have been better if one of them had AIDs? I don’t know. They were so caught up in their own misery that I don’t think they had much time to stop and think about the suffering of those in the wider community….and perhaps the whole story finished before 9/11? I try not to worry about these things and just appreciate it for the amazing portrayal of friendship and love it gives.

    1. There were eamils in the book, along with other bits of tech that post-date the Twin Towers. It’s a choice the author made, to leave out world events altogether in favor of the tragedies she could imagine. My problem is that a portrayal of how friends stay together through hardship that excludes the hardships all of us faced, and all gay people in America faced HIV on a profound level, can’t really say much about friendship or love to me. If the author is “brave” enough to go where her book goes, why isn’t she “brave” enough to go where all of us went. This is supposed to be “the great gay novel” after all.

  7. Jane Mackay says:

    This review expresses everything I felt about the book, but you put it so much better than I could. Strangely, every review I’ve read writes of it as a book of four friends without mentioning the way JB and especially Malcolm just fade into the background; do you think reviewers only read the blurb on the book jacket? Anyway as the two creative artists I should have liked far more about the work of JB and Malcolm and how they achieved the level that did.

    1. I don’t think it’s that, though that could very well be the case. I know for a fact that many scholarly articles are the result of graduate assistants doing the hard work of reading the books their professors will then write about. In this case I think it’s because reviews today aren’t really reviews of the entire book–their reviews of the first half. Because we don’t want to review “spoilers” the second half of the book is often left out of the review completely. Since that’s where I think this book has real problems, I went into it unaware.

  8. Three-day power outage . . . shots at pots . . . I love reading your reviews, James, and this is a very good one. However, I disagree about the book. I read every one of the 720 pages eagerly and sometimes anxiously. I didn’t think of it as The Great Gay Novel, but as The Great But Somewhat Peculiarly Structured Novel. That I don’t fully understand. But when it comes out in paper I will buy it and re-read it.

    1. I wonder how it will hold up to a re-read. You really see just how good/bad a book is the second time you read it.

      1. That’s true. I’ll let you know.

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