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A Little Life Paperback – January 26, 2016
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“Astonishing.” —The Atlantic
“Deeply moving. . . . A wrenching portrait of the enduring grace of friendship.” —NPR
“Elemental, irreducible.” —The New Yorker
“Hypnotic. . . . An intimate, operatic friendship between four men.” —The Economist
“Capacious and consuming. . . . Immersive.” —The Boston Globe
“Beautiful.” —Los Angeles Times
“Exquisite. . . . It’s not hyperbole to call this novel a masterwork—if anything that word is simply just too little for it.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Remarkable. . . . An epic study of trauma and friendship written with such intelligence and depth of perception that it will be one of the benchmarks against which all other novels that broach those subjects (and they are legion) will be measured. . . . A Little Life announces [Yanagihara] as a major American novelist.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Utterly gripping. Wonderfully romantic and sometimes harrowing, A Little Life kept me reading late into the night, night after night.” —Edmund White
“Spellbinding . . . . An exquisitely written, complex triumph.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose. . . . Affecting and transcendent.” —The Washington Post
“[A Little Life] lands with a real sense of occasion: the arrival of a major new voice in fiction. . . . Yanagihara’s achievement has less to do with size . . . than with the breadth and depth of its considerable power, which speaks not to the indomitability of the spirit, but to the fragility of the self.” —Vogue
“Exquisite. . . . The book shifts from a generational portrait to something darker and more tender: an examination of the depths of human cruelty, counterbalanced by the restorative powers of friendship.” —The New Yorker
“A book unlike any other. . . . A Little Life asks serious questions about humanism and euthanasia and psychiatry and any number of the partis pris of modern western life. . . . A devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger.” —The Guardian
“Exceedingly good.” —Newsweek
“A Little Life is unlike anything else out there. Over the top, beyond the pale and quite simply unforgettable.” —The Independent
“Piercing. . . . [Yanagihara is] an author with the talent to interrogate the basest and most beautiful extremes of human behaviour with sustained, bruising intensity.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“A brave novel. . . . Impressive and moving.” —Literary Review
“Enthralling and completely immersive. . . . Stunning.” —Daily News
“An extraordinary book. . . . The truths it tells are wrenching, permanent.” —Evening Standard
“A tragic love story. . . . A transformative experience, not soon forgotten.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Arresting. . . . An extraordinary work of fiction by a writer of tremendous insight. . . . Yanagihara has a keen, incisive eye.” —Irish Times
“Epic in scope, riveting on every page.” —Bookforum
“The most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.” —The Atlantic
“A miracle. . . . Yanagihara’s most impressive trick is the way she glides from scenes filled with . . . terrifying hyenas to moments of epiphany.” —Newsday
“Yanagihara achieves great psychological realism. . . . [A Little Life] seems to levitate out of history, edging towards the mythic or incredible.” —The Spectator
“An American tragedy for our time, a haunting plea for redemption.” —Toronto Star
“Devastating. . . . [A Little Life] has so much richness in it—great big passages of beautiful prose, unforgettable characters, and shrewd insights into art and ambition and friendship and forgiveness.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A touching, eternal, unconventional love story. . . . A hymn to serious, lifelong friendship” —The Financial Times
About the Author
Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.
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Overall, I found it to be an engrossing read; I felt for the characters, I thought it was well written (though not fabulous or outstanding, but decently done, very little purple prose, which I appreciate), and it generated a lot of response from me. I was okay up until the penultimate section "Dear Comrade," which I spent bawling my eyes out over. But the book made me think about larger issues, regarding art and class and sexuality, and I want to address just a few of those issues in my review.
I don't give this book a higher rating, however, because I do think there are some flaws. Certainly it could have been edited more tightly and thus been shorter. Two of the main characters are somewhat short-changed, and I would have liked to have seen further development with them. The initial meeting of the four friends is never fully explained, nor is the meeting and buildup of trust between Jude and Andy, and I would have liked to seen just how Jude came to trust his friends, particularly Andy and Willem, so deeply. Jude's career definitely needed more flushing out; he's a bigshot lawyer but what we see of his personality and private life doesn't fit with that, and I would have liked a better exploration of his life in the courtroom, to make him more three-dimensional as a character. I was also really irked that the novel has no historical setting. It follows these people for more than three decades, but at the very outset, in their youth, they have cell phones and modern technology, so I'm assuming the novel takes you into the 2040s, which is awkward. Also the treatment of queer issues and how society views homosexuality seems very modern but doesn't evolve as the time goes on. Some historical context to anchor the novel, the way key locations in New York anchored it, would have been welcome.
Now, then, to give my two cents on the biggest negative criticism, that this is tragedy porn: Yes, it is a very difficult read. Yes, lots of horrific tragedies are heaped on to the main character, and some may view this as unrealistic overkill. But as someone who works in the counseling profession (though I am NOT a counselor, I just work with them), I can tell you that people who have the history of physical and sexual abuse that Jude has are more likely to face continued abuse as they grow older--they are more likely to get into abusive relationships, for example, and struggle with self-harm and drug abuse. We don't like to talk about these issues, because they are difficult and have no easy solutions. If you think what happens to Jude is unrealistic or overly exaggerated, I have very bad news for you. Child trafficking exists; there are many, many incidents of an authoritative figure--a coach, a doctor, a family member, whoever--taking advantage of young children, sometimes abusing them for years; pedophilic rings do exist, even in America; and of course abuses committed by members in organizations such as the Catholic Church have occurred and continue to occur (and be covered up). I wouldn't say that the suffering Jude experiences is unrealistic. Quite the opposite: These things happen under our noses every day in America. We don't like to face it, but it is reality. We certainly don't like to face the long-lasting consequences; we the public think everything is OK when the pervert goes to jail or whatever, we revel when these bad guys get their comeuppance, but the psychological scarring and warped worldview of the victims continues for the rest of their life. We don't want to acknowledge that some of these victims are going to suffer forever.
Two of the many themes in this novel deal with this idea of "tragedy porn" in an oblique way. The first is that life is not fair; this theme is pretty explicitly stated, even by Jude, fairly early on in the novel. I'm reading this book, particularly the difficult "Dear Comrade" section, and thinking, "My god, life is so unfair! This isn't fair!" And that's part of the point. There is nothing about life that is fair. We are all going to suffer in our lives. We are all going to be or going to know someone who has been abused in some manner, who will attempt or be successful at suicide, who has (sometimes quite severe) mental illness, who struggles with drug abuse, who has been in an abusive relationship, who is injured or killed in an accident, who suffers from a debilitating illness or disability. Life is quite unhappy. I am reminded of a story once told of the Buddha; a grieving mother came to him asking him to heal her dead child, and the Buddha told her to bring him rice from the household of someone who has never been visited by tragedy. She couldn't find anyone in her village untouched, and thus the teaching: All will suffer. No one is exempt from life's ugliness.
The second section in the novel, "The Postman," lays out a lot of themes and world views of the characters, particularly Jude and Harold, and is worth a revisit and a closer read, or, if you are reading it for the first time, you should pay particular attention to this section and keep it in mind as the book goes on. I think a close read of this section might affect your opinion of the novel overall. I think "The Postman", with its discussion of the law and debate between Jude and Harold, is probably the most enlightening as to what the book is really about.
Second, the criticism of the book as tragedy porn is somewhat mirrored in the novel, as artist JB makes a successful career in his paintings, particularly those of Jude. We as readers can criticize the book as tragedy porn, but we are remiss if we do not recognize that within the novel itself, JB uses his friend Jude as tragedy porn. For JB, as with Yanagihara, Jude is subject matter, and JB uses his chosen art medium to comment on Jude. Is this exploitative tragedy porn? Is it wrong of JB to use Jude as material in his paintings? Is it wrong for Yanagihara to use Jude (who is fictional, of course) as material in her book? Both are capitalizing on Jude's pain; within the worldview of the book, JB becomes successful off Jude's suffering, and obviously in our world, Yanagihara has crafted a successful book off Jude's suffering. Of course, it's different because we readers know Jude is fictional, but within the book's world, JB and Jude are both quite real. Is it acceptable for JB to paint and profit off his friend? Is it acceptable for Yanagihara do the same, or is the author crassly manipulating her readers? Is Yanagihara just toying with the emotions of the reader, just piling on the pain in an overwrought manner to elicit a cheap response? I don't think so; I get this sense of manipulation from other authors (such as Jodi Picoult, Mitch Albom, and Alice Sebold), but this novel doesn't feel like cheap manipulation to me. It somehow feels more authentic and sincere.
I think this theme of exploiting tragedy particularly interesting if you carry it further into the real world. Where is the line between tragedy porn and art, or is there even one? I am reminded of some harrowing famous photographs, specifically: the photograph of Phan Th' Kim Phú, the young Vietnamese girl captured running through the street of her village, naked and burned by napalm dropped by South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam conflict; and the photograph of a starving child in Africa being stalked by a hungry vulture. Do you consider these images tragedy porn? After all, the photographers won prizes and became famous for their work (Kevin Carter, who took the latter photograph, later committed suicide, and his suicide note suggests he was driven to it by his guilt at seeing and photographing such images). Do you believe that these photographs are not tragedy porn because their raw, visceral subjects provide commentary on greater societal and political issues? Is it okay to exploit suffering if you are "proving a larger point"? To me that is the true definition of tragedy porn--capitalizing on the immense suffering of others to further one's own cause! Or perhaps we should step away from "art", and consider: I know people who were shot in the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007. At a candlelight vigil, one of my friends was in a small group mourning the loss of a dorm-mate, when a cameraman came by, lowered the boom mike into their circle, and recorded their crying. Tragedy porn? Exploitation? Journalism? Gun massacres are headline news, of course, as was the Vietnam war and the photo of the African child--does that make it okay? Where do you personally draw the line in the matter? I'm not looking to pick an argument, I merely think this is a topic worth exploring, and every person is going to have their own red lines on the issue.
I should also note here that I did not find parts of the book to be that tragic. Don't get me wrong, Jude (and others) seriously suffers--but there are many points of happiness and contentment, and two major events that happen to Jude are things I would consider glorious and wonderful. I won't name them, to avoid spoilers, but the book does have some happy moments among all the tragedy; and Jude is blessed with some amazing friends (we should all be so lucky for that!) as well as some horrible abusers. And after all, isn't that what life is? Hence "A Little Life"! It has its glories and its tragedies, but it is a little life all the same. We are all leading our little lives, and we will all experience both joy and tragedy.
So anyway, this is a very small summary of some of the emotions and thoughts this book provoked in me, and that is the reason I enjoyed it so much. While it did have some flaws, it made me THINK, and I like book that makes me think. This book had me squirming and crying at some parts, and laughing and smiling at others, but ultimately it gave me a lot of food for thought, and I appreciate that.
This novel does not lead up to a sad ending. Let me explain. Calling this novel “sad” is a massive understatement. It is 800 pages of tragedy after tragedy, because the “sad” doesn’t follow the pattern we are used to. It’s not happy and pleasant until the end where something sad happens- no, this book is a depressing hunk of paper with very little happiness in it. A Little Life is a long, winding tunnel spotted with skylights. You walk forward in the darkness with a couple of friends, and you are struck with sadness after sadness. Your friends get lost in the tunnel, you fall and break your arm, and then the tunnel gives you a foot of light where you can look around and take a breather before plunging yourself into the darkness. You don’t know what’s at the end, because the tunnel gives you no hints. You don’t know if you’ll exit into the open. You don’t know if you’ll hit a dead-end, but you keep on walking because by this point, your masochism has kicked in and you’re addicted to the torture.
We follow the stories of four characters, all college-friends who have moved from Boston to New York City in order to fulfill their dreams. Malcolm is an aspiring architect- timid and shy, whose overbearing parents are his pride and shame. JB is a painter- arrogant, optimistic and full of life, JB is the only one among his friends who is certain he will make it in life. Willem is an actor, calm and steady who has no family but his three best friends. But while the three have their own lives, their bond is strengthened by the presence of one Jude St. Francis. Jude is enigmatic. Despite having been friends for years, nobody knows anything about him; not his ethnicity or his sexuality. They don’t know anything about his childhood or his years before attending university. Jude has an injury; an accident severely limited the use of his legs, but nobody even knows how this came to be. But Jude is quiet, and he is kind and generous and dependent. And so the three friends lend their shoulders silently for him to lean on. This book is not set in one time period: years and decades pass, and each character matures, develops and experiences success and the perils of life, sometimes together, other times apart. As the narrative progresses, one thing becomes crystal clear: Jude has gone through an unspeakable childhood trauma. He is fragile and broken, battling so hard with inner demons that never seem to leave him.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed, plot-centered novel, put this book down and walk far, far away. A Little Life reads more like an in-depth character study than anything else. Despite there being a large, diverse, well-fleshed out cast of characters- make no mistake: this novel is about Jude. This novel is about Jude’s life, his depression, his experiences, his feelings of pain and insurmountable shame. It is a story about Jude’s relationships and his impact on the people around him. It is a story about love and loss, of betrayal and friendship, of perseverance and giving in. And because it follows the story of such a broken, intense young man, it is a difficult read.
It is a difficult read in more ways than one. Firstly, it is 800 pages long with very little action, with large chunks of paragraphs detailing the little moments in life, detailing theorems and laws and art and literature. Large chunks that talk about family, sex, career and the meaning of love- things that may not even need to be in the book. These large chunks familiarize you with our characters’ backgrounds, their introspections and streams of consciousness, their experiences with each other and outside of their immediate relationships. The characters in this novel feel real; more than once, I felt like I could reach out and touch them. They feel like friends, comrades you’ve known for a long, long time. Their happiness genuinely excites you, and their sadness genuinely devastates you. You also become so invested in their relationships with each other, almost as if you’re a mediator.
Apart from the thematic material, what makes this novel so hard to digest is the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they feel like friends- watching them suffer through unimaginable things hurt me. I have never felt this way before. Halfway through the book, I had already cried at least twice, excluding the point where I sobbed for ten pages straight. And then again after. Yanagihara’s empathetic portrayal of human nature, of human decency and monstrosity is so spot-on. I don’t know what else I can say.
Secondly, it is brutal in its honest, unflinching portrayal of mental illness. There were several moments in this novel where I had to set the book aside and steady my breathing. It is uncomfortable. It depicts self-harm and depression graphically but not gratuitously, with sensitivity without doing it for “the shock factor.” Finally, the constant jumps in time frame makes this book far from a casual read. You need to keep up. Each ‘section’ takes place a few years after the previous one, but sometimes Yanagihara alternates time within paragraphs as well. One time you’re seeing the friends’ lives when they are 35, and you jump back in the middle of a paragraph to when they are 28. It can be quite jarring if you’re not paying attention.
But having said that, Yanagihara’s writing is easy to keep up with. Daunting as it may be with its intelligent discussion of many themes (some of which I mentioned above) and the sheer scale of the book, her writing is welcoming. Complex, full of emotion and genuine feeling, full of ‘quotable’ things without it ever being overbearing or ‘too much.’ Authors writing in the literary fiction genre so often give off the impression that they need to prove something, but Yanagihara writes with effortless grace and poise. She’s not trying to prove anything; this is her in 800 pages- take it or leave it.
But despite all my praises, this is not a perfect book. My main complaint is the length. Bear with me. I have no problems with lengthy books, as long as the length is justified. Many will probably disagree with me, but I felt that the novel could have been cut short by at least 50 or 100 pages. For example, towards the beginning, we get such an in-depth look into JB and Malcolm’s characters, much of which doesn’t come back after the first section. Perhaps their backgrounds could have been weaved more seamlessly into the narrative as the book went along. A lot of the objective discussions about science and mathematics were beautifully written, sure, but didn’t feel like they needed to be there. But I’ve got to give Yanagihara this: despite the length, and despite the discussions on objective topics, I was hanging on to her every word. I didn’t skim a single page- I was just that invested.
So, here we are. You and me at the mouth of the tunnel. I made it out, and you’re asking me if you should take the chance. “It’s difficult. It’s long. It’s even terrifying at times, but-” and I prod you into the darkness, “it’s also exhilarating and beautiful and one hell of an experience.”