Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is gigantic. In ALL the ways. In the physical sense, with its 700-plus pages, and in the emotional sense with its probability of wrecking you completely (but you’ll be grateful it did — promise). A Little Life, which is Condé Nast Traveler editor-at-large Yanagihara’s ambitious second book, spans over 30-ish years, following four smart, devastating guys who are best best friends. It is and it isn’t a story about their very decided efforts to make it in New York; it is and isn’t about friendship; and it is and it isn’t about personal growth and personal struggling. It’s a hard novel to condense, which only helps to prove it’s one of the best out there.
In a recent episode of Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood’s podcast, Lit Up, Yanagihara eloquently tries to clarify and explain that her novel is, “fundamentally a book about male friendship,” as well as a, “life that is being struggled to be lived.” There is a lot of information packed into those very few words. The novel’s focus is mostly on Jude St. Francis, a lawyer, and his friends JD (an artist), Willem (an actor), and Malcolm (an architect), who serve as Jude’s literary foils and “fairy-tale”-like supporters.
Jude, who is a beautiful, brilliant human, is tortured by a violent, unimaginable past. From what we’re able to gather from Jude’s fears, his self-loathing, his emotional inaccessibility, and the scars on his body, something unspeakable happened. Something (or a series of somethings) changed Jude’s life and marred it beyond recognition. Not only does Jude’s harrowing past haunt him, but the physical effects of it serve as a daily reminder — he is left with chronic pain, pain so significant it is barely manageable, yet he does his very best to conceal it from everyone. Jude is so damaged, so untrusting, that he barely believes his friends could possibly accept him for the person he really is.
A major aspect of the story is also about vulnerability and how many men are afraid to reveal their most tender, most raw parts. “Male friends have a much smaller tool box,” Yanagihara says on Lit Up, mentioning that she can talk to her female friends about everything — and that her guy friends (regardless of their sexual orientation) are less likely to be so open. This kind of dynamic is explored in Jude’s circle of friends. No matter how many times JD, Malcolm, and Willem try and try and try to (gently) pry open Jude and his past in order to help him, he doesn’t budge. That is, until pretty close to the end of the novel.
At times, the novel is hard to read — like really, really hard to read. It’s upsetting. And it’s cruel. Sometimes you’ll have to put the book down. Sometimes you’ll have to go watch something mindless on TV. But you will always return, because Yanagihara makes you understand and she makes you care so deeply.
Living vicariously through Jude, JD, Willem, and Malcolm, you slowly begin to see what happens when a body and its brain are pushed beyond their capacity. After putting someone through a tremendous amount of trauma, can they come back from that dark place? Can they come back whole?
Yanagihara tells Gould and Ledgerwood, “[In our society], we have to come back, we have to be a survivor; living in and of itself is the ultimate response to trauma.” The idea of being “unbreakable” is something we tend to obsess over. When something awful happens to a person, it’s usually expected that they fight back, that they “stay strong.” Well, that very notion is challenged in A Little Life, and Yanagihara’s characters are, in fact, breakable.
After I read A Little Life, I had to wring my heart out for awhile — no book had made me sob so hard and for so long (and I’m totally one with my emotions and tendencies to sob over anything). But I knew, that after I finished the last paragraph, that it had irrevocably changed the way I view the human experience and the way I view storytelling. I also knew it had changed my impression of the human life, and how very often we overlook those we should paying attention to the very most. If that’s not high praise for a novel, then I don’t know what is.
Images via A Little Life Instagram