Book review: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life succeeds despite flaws
Booker long-listed novel about the survivor of a tortured childhood is implausible and uneven, yet succeeds by not taking the obvious route of redemption
Hanya Yanagihara's first novel, The People in the Trees, deserved a wider audience than it found: the self-justifying memoir of a prize-winning, pioneering scientist who took boys from a remote Pacific island culture back to the US, where he raised and abused them, it is linguistically and psychologically complex, stylistically elegant, dark and chilling - but few readers noticed. Now, with A Little Life, Yanagihara has reversed the proposition, telling the story of a boy who is chronically, outrageously abused, and his struggles to forget the nightmare of his childhood. This time everyone has taken note, including this year's Man Booker judges, who have selected it for their longlist.
At first A Little Life reads like a male version of Mary McCarthy's The Group, as four university friends navigate the wider world. Malcolm, J.B., Willem and Jude, randomly assigned as college roommates, become best friends. Bright, ambitious and talented, they all move to New York, pursuing different careers: handsome Willem works as a waiter while auditioning as an actor; J.B. creates trendily experimental art while dreaming of fame as a representational painter; Malcolm comes from a wealthy, demanding family and worries that his architecture career will not impress his father; Jude is a young lawyer, working for the public defender's office. The reader predicts that some will succeed, some will fail; some will build happy relationships, some won't; tragedies will strike and be overcome. The reader is quite mistaken, however: before long, all four friends are blessed with immoderate professional success, then two of them rapidly recede into the background, with Jude St Francis emerging as the novel's protagonist.
This choice has several consequences, most of them infelicitous. It increasingly reduces other characters to plot functions or representative types, while transforming a refreshing take on friendship, loyalty and sympathy into a more customary chronicle of suffering and a survival that is hard-earned and always contingent.
Jude closely guards his secrets, but 70 pages into this 700-page novel he reveals to Willem, his best friend, that he habitually self-harms, while the reader learns that a brutal childhood is behind his cutting. Gradually Yanagihara discloses the specifics of the abuse, while Jude's relationships with Willem and with the law professor, Harold, who becomes a surrogate father to him, eventually claim the book's attention.
Jude's first 15 years consist of unrelieved, grotesque abuse; and then an authorial switch is flipped. For the rest of his life (with the important exception of one disastrously abusive relationship), Jude encounters only selfless love and kindness: the patron saint of lost causes becomes a lost cause surrounded by saints. His friends are all very concerned with Jude, to the exclusion of being concerned about anyone else, including themselves.
There is something infantile and narcissistic about this pre-Copernican conception of Jude's world, a fantasy construction in which the people who love him are as endlessly occupied by his psychodrama as he is. In real life, people tend to get tired of other people's compulsions, largely because they are consumed by their own dramas.
But this is a little life that tilts toward a large fairy tale, about cruelty and nobility, evil and goodness. Indeed, it is something of a triumph to make characters as relentlessly virtuous as Jude's friends seem to be even remotely believable.
Equally implausible is the immense success of all four friends: Willem isn't just an actor, but a world-famous movie star. Malcolm turns into a globe-trotting, award-winning architect. J.B. is exhibited in MoMA before he is 30 - and his paintings are all of a major movie star, but no one in his audience seems distracted by that, or critical of the fact that he only ever paints the same three people.
There are some sharp insights into the culture of New York, a place that operates "as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault … only here did you feel compelled to somehow justify anything short of rabidity for your career; only here did you have to apologise for having faith in something other than yourself". It is not insignificant that this passage occurs early on; these characters live in a recognisably contemporary moment, with computers and emails, but history on a large scale does not happen to them. Nor do they ever outgrow each other: when they become distanced, it is intensely personal and deliberate, never situational or fortuitous. The only history that matters in this book is personal history.
Early on, Jude remembers a kindly social worker who told him before he went to university: "You have to talk about these things while they're fresh, or you'll never talk about them. It's going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it's going to fester inside you, and you're always going to think you're to blame." Jude certainly does think he's to blame, and Yanagihara never lets us forget it, imparting this salient fact many times over many pages. Jude's past has left him terrified of sex; and so, Yanagihara explains, "in compensation for the sex, there is the cutting, which he has been doing more and more: to help ease the feelings of shame, and to rebuke himself for his feelings of resentment". These are the clinical notes of the therapist Jude refuses to see, rather than a glimpse of troubled interiority. The People in the Trees was told in the first person, bringing all the perspectival complexity of memory and disingenuousness and self-vindication. Here, Yanagihara chooses simply to inform us what her characters think. This is not thought; it is voice-over.
The problem with telling rather than showing is not that it flouts an authorial precept first set down by Henry James; writers are free to break all rules, including that one, if it improves their books. But such narration is distancing; it leaves us watching what Jude feels, rather than actively sharing in his confusion and suffering.
Meanwhile, eking out Jude's memories of elaborate tortures has the unfortunate effect of turning sadistic tales of child abuse into narrative payoff, while the ever more baroque punishments to which he is subjected begin to resemble martyrdom at the hands of an author, rather than the thoughtless brutalities of other human beings.
And then Jude is saved - except that he isn't, which is the saving grace of a novel that remains gripping far beyond the point that it has any right to be. There is something admirable in Yanagihara's refusal to let Jude overcome his past, her uncompromising insistence that it must gradually overcome him. This resistance to redemption is downright un-American, and all the better for it. Willem thinks at one point of his relationship with Jude: "They had chosen another, more familiar form of relationship, one that hadn't worked. But now they were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn't officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining." The book does the reverse: it begins with something truer and less constraining, then reverts to the familiar.
A Little Life is uneven, unusual, unrelenting; it moves swiftly forward before lurching into longueurs of anguish recounted, self-hatred chronicled. "An elegant mind wants elegant endings," Jude says at one point. Elegant minds probably prefer elegant patterns throughout, and not only at the end. Like its protagonist, this is a novel discomposed by searching questions. But it also shows the truth of a maxim Edmund Wilson once proposed - that a novel can commit any number of sins so long as it does not commit the cardinal one: it must not fail to live.
Somehow, against all the odds, just like its protagonist, this book survives everything its author throws at it - and if it doesn't quite triumph, it has far outplayed the odds.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday)