In glaring contrast to its title, Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life (Pan Macmillan 2015) is as big in volume as it is in the weight of its themes, trauma and impact. The 720-page best-seller, a hot contender for the Man Booker Prize (it’s already bagged the Kirkus Prize in Fiction) was written quickly over an 18-month period, though the author confesses to “actively thinking about” the novel for around five years. Its mainstream success could be perceived as surprising, given the girth of its themes and Yanagihara’s relentless, no-holds-barred depiction of childhood sexual abuse.
The visceral language used to illustrate a litany of violence experienced by Jude (this reviewer had to put the book down for a break on more than one occasion) has opened up fundamental questions about the author-reader relationship. Where other writers who cover this topic often do so with their reader in mind, either by providing shades of light to cut through darker moments or by dimming the lights, so to speak, via plot devices (in Emma Donoghue’s Room, for example, five-year-old Jack is banished to the wardrobe while his mother is assaulted), Yanagihara is less occupied with providing such relief.
“I think where a book becomes particularly unsatisfying is when you can feel the writer holding back, when you can feel her acting like the reader’s nanny,” Yanagihara says. “And of course, the reader doesn’t need to be shielded from anything. What a reader wants is a fully realised creative world and that’s it, and I think that if a reader knows that the writer is committed to providing that for her, then the reader will go a great distance.”
You’ll never know how you’re going to react until you start reacting. I think trying to live life in a preventive way does no one any favours.
On the topic of trigger warnings (the literary equivalent of a red flag, signalling confronting content ahead), Yanagihara is sceptical, even in circumstances where a book risks opening old wounds for a particularly sensitive reader.
“I think if we go into the world of art with warnings, we stop looking at visual art, we stop listening to songs, we stop going to the movies, we stop reading fiction, and in the end, you end up cocooning yourself because you’re afraid of getting hurt. I understand that – I understand not wanting to put yourself in situations that are going to call back old traumas, but the fact is you’ll never know how you’re going to react until you start reacting. I think trying to live life in a preventive way does no one any favours.”
Over the first 60 or so pages, we are introduced to four friends who were once college roommates – JB, a Haitian-American artist raised by his mother and grandmother; Malcolm, a frustrated architect from an affluent family; the kind-hearted and recently orphaned Willem, who is a struggling actor-turned Hollywood star; and the mysteriously troubled, soon-to-become great corporate litigator, Jude.
Together, these friends attend parties, apartment-shop, go on dates and forge successful career for themselves in New York City. The warmth with which Yanagihara paints the relationship between these four, particularly the affection between Willem and Jude, fills the reader with delight. You would be forgiven in assuming you are settling into an upbeat, big smoke bildungsroman (its opening has drawn similarities to Mary McCarthy’s 1963 best seller The Group). The date is ambiguous – Yanagihara is loath to pin the novel to a certain time in history (there are no references to historic events, only some vague throwaways to a financial crisis), and as a result, A Little Life becomes a tale that is timeless and could exist at any moment.
Visual art is a strong anchor throughout the book, within its characters, references, and descriptions of violence that are almost cinematic in their gore. Yanagihara created mood boards on Pinterest in preparation for the novel, which featured works by American photographer Felix Cid (famous for depicting young people in New York), and Diane Arbus’s drab 1961 photograph, The backwards man in his hotel room: NYC. Since the book's release, she has also shared images of the works that inspired her on A Little Life's Instagram feed.
Graduating from an all female college into a female-dominated industry (she was formerly the deputy editor of T: The New York Time Style magazine as well as editor of Conde Naste Traveller), Yanagihara confesses to an anthropological interest in observing men.
“I was interested in what they didn’t allow themselves to talk about and the rituals they had with one another,” she says. “I found the topics they are allowed to discuss without threatening their sense of what maleness is had a much smaller range than what women can.”
Before long, it becomes evident that Yanagihara has a deeper agenda in mind than offering an effervescent, male, coming-of-age story. Jude, a character battling tremendous physical and mental scars from a childhood he refuses to speak of, starts to relentlessly self-harm. Soon, we are whisked off into a secondary narrative as Yanagihara uses flashback to convey the brutal homosexual paedophilia that Jude suffered at the hands of the priests, doctors and counsellors who raised him. So violently are we plunged into the depths of despair (Jude categorically rejects every helping hand extended to him) that each gruesome flashback becomes harder to stomach.
Between the evil Brother Luke, the men he is pimped out to in bleak motel rooms (Yanagihara wanted to recreate the vastness and loneliness of America she experienced as a child travelling cross-country with her family), and the sadistic doctor who runs him over and leaves him physically crippled, A Little Life takes on the guise of a dark fairy tale, leaving us desperately wanting the comfort and resolution that such stories historically promise. But Yanagihara never offers this on the table to begin with.
“I don’t personally believe in therapy for myself,” the author muses. “I think it’s like religion – it’s helped a number of people and offered solace to a number of people, but it isn’t for me. I think the thing that makes me most suspicious about therapy is that every therapist I’ve encountered or heard about really does think that life is the answer to life – that one should always keep on living, and I don’t think that that’s necessarily true.
The topics they are allowed to discuss without threatening their sense of what maleness is had a much smaller range than what women can.
Even when it becomes apparent that Willem, the compassionate Hollywood heartthrob, is in fact in love with Jude (queue visions of manicured, picked-fenced, Happily Ever Afters), his life is taken in a cruel twist of fate, ultimately sealing Jude’s demise. Unlike so many other works, Jude has no redeemer, and as a reader, you can’t help but wonder about the author’s role in creating a character so doomed from the beginning, and what lessons she wishes to impart.
“I want them [the reader] to think about this idea of happiness and whether it is achievable and how intolerant we are about people who can’t seem to find it. I want them to think about how much of life is in our control and whether we can help repair people. I want them to think about if there’s a point in which a life becomes unliveable.”
Undoubtedly, A Little Life is one of the most challenging books you will read, but as Yanagihara points out, this is one of art’s primary roles, and we owe it to ourselves to take up the challenge.
Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @mariamdigges.