Themes of desperation and isolation are by no means strangers to authors, but I am hard pressed to admit many become as closely intimate with them as Hanya Yanagihara does in her second novel, A Little Life.
Despite the name, the book is heavy- not just in its themes, which will press on the reader until their weight is almost all the reader can think of, but also in physicality (coming in at over 700 pages) and distinction. It was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, and winner of the 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction.
The narrative follows four college friends as they leave college; primarily, readers follow Jude, a lawyer whose past is kept secret from both the audience and his closest friends, who are Malcolm (an architect), Willem (an actor), and JB (a painter).
As readers make their way through this massive (and massively distressing) novel, they begin to understand more about Jude’s character, about his past, and about his struggles.
Orphaned as a child, brought into a monastery where he suffered at the hands of pedophiliac monks, and as an adult suffering from a mysterious limp and diseases, Jude’s life is a technicolor reel of consistent pain, disappointment, and harm- either done to him on the part of others or by himself, as Jude also self-harms in an effort to gain agency amidst the relentlessness of his life (hint- it doesn’t work).
And, somehow, through everything, Jude becomes a successful lawyer. But for the purposes of this class, are we to assume this brings him satisfaction? Does success bring any of the characters satisfaction? Spoken through the lens of JB, arguably, the answer is probably not.
“He had always known he would be the first among the four of them to be a success. This wasn’t arrogance; he just knew it…and he knew, even as he was dreaming about his riches and fame and respect, that he would remain friends with all of them, that he would never forsake them for anyone else, no matter how overwhelming the temptation might be. He loved them; they were his. But he hadn’t counted on them abandoning him.”
This passage comes at a point in time when there’s been a rift between JB and the others, and though they’ve ostensibly forgiven JB, he understands his friendships have shifted in some intangible, yet recognizable, way, and his professional success brings him no closer to them. It doesn’t make up for his shortcomings as a friend, and it will never be able to bridge the gap he’s created between them.
The idea of professional success also doesn’t save the tragic Jude. Though his intelligence and his success as a lawyer are referenced repeatedly, they don’t save him from the trauma of his past or the from the tangible pain of his present; sexually assaulted repeatedly by a romantic partner, he attempts to kill himself. When he is unsuccessful, Willem is there for him, but that source of support cannot undo decades of acute suffering.
And after all of this, the novel does culminate in success.
After Willem and Jude are able to settle into a comfortable life and romantic relationship together, Willem and Malcolm (and Malcolm’s wife) are in a car accident with a drunk driver. The accident kills all three of them, and, eventually, Jude succeeds in ending his own life.
In a departure from the 3rd person structure of the rest of the novel, the final 20 pages are a 1st person reflection on the part of Jude’s adopted father Harold, directed towards deceased Willem, reflecting on the last year before Jude’s suicide. It is no less painful to read than any other portion of the story. Read at your own risk.
(Modeled off of The New York Times)