‘The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. … But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself – his very life – had proven it. The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But fundamentally, he is the same person, … he knows that x will always equal x, no matter what he does, …’
Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
When I look for new books to read, I usually google lists of books that have just come out, online recommendations or books that have been nominated for or received awards. I also go for books that have been recommended to me by friends or family. And, of course, I choose books by writers I read before and know are good. But I rarely read online or print reviews, mainly because I want to build my own opinion and not be influenced by others. This approach mostly works, but sometimes it doesn’t. With A Little Life, it didn’t. I definitely should have picked up a review of Yanagihara’s book before reading it. It’s not that A Little Life isn’t good – in fact, it is quite impressive – it just wasn’t for me. The book is about four men living in New York. The story starts in their late twenties and ends when they are in their early fifties, although we find out about their younger years as well.
The main character seems to be Jude, one of the four men, who was sexually and physically abused in the most horrific ways as a child and teenager. The other three men are Willem, who is closest to Jude, Malcolm and JB. There is also Harold, a former university professor of Jude’s who later together with his wife Julia adopts him, and Andy, Jude’s doctor and friend. Moreover, we get to know (to a certain extent) other friends of the main group, including Richard and India and the two Henry Youngs. The story is told from different perspectives, starting with Willem’s, JB’s and Malcolm’s in the first part. After that, however, it is almost exclusively told by Jude, Willem and Harold. I don’t understand why JB and Malcolm get their own sections at all, to be honest – it seems quite irrelevant to the rest of the story. Harold is also the only one who gets to be a first-person narrator, possibly because he, with JB, is the only one who remains at the end. To put it very briefly, the story is basically centred around Jude, what happened to him when he was young as well as his present mental and physical struggles, and how the different characters view and engage with him and his problems.
I won’t discuss the storyline further at this point – it is simply too complicated and I am not at all sure I grasp the meaning behind the story, what Yanagihara wants to tell us. The point is, I absolutely cannot relate to it. Four middle-aged men living their lives in New York and dealing with their various struggles and problems? It couldn’t be further from my own life. This is where I should have read about the book before opening it myself. But I don’t regret reading the book, although it did take me quite a long time to get through it (at least the first half, the second was a little better). I never regret reading a book, even if it is difficult to read or about a topic I’m not interested in (the only two books I’ve never finished are Mann’s Der Zauberberg and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury). Reading never seems like a waste of time to me (unlike watching TV) and I can always find something to take out of a book.
And so it is with A Little Life. There were parts of it I didn’t like and yet it is an impressive book. But let me start with the parts I didn’t like. First, there is absolutely no female perspective in the book. The main characters are Jude, Willem, Malcolm, JB, Harold and Andy. Women are only mentioned in passing (as wives, girlfriends or friends) and don’t get much of a say. They don’t play a role in the story. The exception is perhaps Ana, who briefly takes care of Jude when he is rescued from his abusers (all male, too) as a 15-year old. But then, she dies soon after. One can only wonder – would Jude have had a different, perhaps better life if he had had a close female friend, a woman he can trust (even his therapist is a man)? My answer is, yes, probably.
The lack of female perspectives in this book leads me to two other questions. How does a female writer, in this case Yanagihara, end up writing such a story? And I don’t only mean the story’s male focus, I am also referring to the abuse Jude suffers. Admittedly, I haven’t had the time or opportunity to research Yanagihara and her background but it is nevertheless a question I am asking myself. Moreover, in a different post I talked about the fact that male writers often come across as ridiculous when writing about or from a female perspective. Now, A Little Life is a male-centred book written by a woman, which makes me wonder – is the same true for women writing about men or from a male point of view?
The biggest problem I have with A Little Life is, however, Jude himself. I don’t like him, which of course makes the book quite hard to read, with him being the main character. Why do I not like him? Well, for starters, he is too self-centred and obsessed as well as selfish. The way I read it, everything is about him – and despite his abuse as a child and teenager I can’t really feel with Jude: he doesn’t try to take matters into his own hands and get better. I cannot like people like that. I’m a strong believer in people following their own paths and making changes if necessary. Jude does in a way create a life for himself but he never makes the changes necessary to overcome his past.
Furthermore, I don’t like how everyone else seems to be obsessed or even dependent on Jude: Malcolm, who builds Jude’s houses to accommodate his disabilities, Andy, who tries and tries to improve his health, as well as Willem, whose younger, disabled brother died, and Harold, who lost his first son to a rare illness. Both Willem and Harold can’t bear the thought of losing Jude. In my opinion this is because of their earlier losses. They do have their independent lives, but they can’t stop worrying about Jude. This comes at a cost to their own health. They almost become as dependent on Jude’s struggles and life as Jude himself. They can never properly move on with their own lives. Neither Jude nor Willem or Harold can change: Jude can’t move on from his past and his obsession with himself and his body; and Willem and Harold can’t move on from their past losses and therefore become dependent on taking care of Jude.
Only JB isn’t (as) dependent on Jude; in fact, at one point he mocks Jude while on drugs and Jude can’t forgive him – and therefore, neither can Willem. JB is left out although deep down he still seeks the others’ approval. Yet I think this is why he is one of the few people left at the end: because he is not (as) dependent and because he is left out and doesn’t play a great role in Jude’s and Willem’s lives after a certain point.
Moreover, I don’t quite like Yanagihara’s style or tone. It is often dark and implies misery and, of course, the book is full of misery. This is in fact another point I don’t like. I think there is too much misery in the book. Does Willem’s brother really need to be disabled and die? Does Harold’s first son have to have a rare illness and die? Does JB have to become a drug-addict? And then, there is Jude himself, of course: after the monastery and Brother Luke and the trucks, do we really need Dr. Traylor as well? Does Willem really need to die (his death is predictable and consequential with the rest of the story, though: it inflicts more misery on Jude)? I am, of course, fully aware that there are stories like Jude’s in real life. But do we really need it in this book? Doesn’t Yanagihara overdo it a little bit and thereby make it a little less believable? And again, what causes her to write about so much misery, and male misery at that?
And yet the book is impressive. It is, first of all, very detailed. There is clearly lots of thought and research and knowledge behind it. Yanagihara describes different professions – film, maths, architecture, law and arts – as well as places – they all travel across the world – in great detail. We as the reader really believe Yanagihara “knows her stuff” when these topics or places are mentioned. This makes me think she spent a lot of time researching and consulting various experts. This deserves recognition. Similarly, I like the way she includes lots of “everyday” things we can relate to – whether that’s relating to student life or life as a young professional. This suggests she knows or has researched about different ways of life. She may simply have a natural feel for different lifestyles as well. And finally, while I don’t like the characters’ self-obsession, I like the way Yanagihara actually describes their feelings, thoughts and self-doubts. The language is very detailed and helps us understand the different characters better. Related to that, I like how Yanagihara plays with different perspectives. It makes the story more unpredictable but connects the different people and events to each other at the same time.
Finally, I will discuss the title of the book – ‘A Little Life’. What does it mean? Well, there are quite a few different ways to interpret it. The term itself, ‘a little life’, could refer to an ‘average’, small life led by a ‘normal’ person. We can find some support for this interpretation in the book: the four men lead ‘little’ or ‘average’ lives in the sense that they have a ‘normal’ group of friends, go to or host ‘average’ dinner parties or go travelling like any other ‘normal’ person. Indeed, Jude is obsessed with being looked at as ‘normal’. And yet not one of them leads an ‘average’ life. They all go to Yale or another one of the famous US universities and become successful lawyers, actors, architects and artists. Could ‘a little life’ therefore be ironic? Or does it refer to Jude getting to ‘live a little’, to experience ‘a little of life’, despite his terrible past?
Would I recommend A Little Life? Yes and no – it depends on what kind of person you are and what kind of topic you like to read about. Yanagihara certainly is a great writer and storyteller and A Little Life an impressive book. There is certainly a lot to talk, ask and think about after reading the book. Nevertheless, A Little Life wasn’t for me. That doesn’t mean, however, that other people won’t enjoy it. If you like or are interested in the topic, then, but only then, would I recommend it.
About Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and journalist. She grew up in Hawaii. She is editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and previously worked for Conde Nast Traveller. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was published in 2013 and is based on the real-life case of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek.