Hanya 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.
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.
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.