There’s a well-known aphorism that you should “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This statement has been phrased a number of different ways, but essentially the meaning is that we all have problems and internal pain which isn’t necessarily evident at a glance. It’s helpful to be reminded of this when dealing with strangers, but reading “A Little Life” has made me more aware of the fact of how much this applies to our relationships with loved ones as well. As I get older I become increasingly conscious that friendships I’ve valued for years include gaps of silence. It’s one of the sombre facts of life that our family, friends and partners possess pain and have problems which sometimes aren’t disclosed no matter how close to them we feel. When I talk to these people I’m sometimes aware there are parts of their lives which are being withheld, that our conversations can skirt around certain subjects and that there are things I hold back as well. Large and small life issues, emotions and memories can be carefully avoided as if there were an unspoken agreement not to discuss them. The longer we know people, the harder it is to talk about these things. This doesn’t happen due to a lack of care or love; it’s a simple hard fact about how we all relate to one another. When the dam of fear finally bursts and there is disclosure, our relationships are often made all the stronger. Jude, the central character of “A Little Life,” is someone who lives with truly horrific mental and physical damage which most of the people he knows aren’t aware of. But really, Jude is me; Jude is everyone. He’s just a highly-dramatized extreme example. This long, emotionally-brutal, magnificent novel is a touchstone to those parts of ourselves that we hide from others – especially the ones we love.
Yanagihara’s intelligent, yet free-form style of writing possesses that rare, indefinable quality which draws you into the emotional reality of her characters and keeps you engaged with them for many hundreds of pages. It’s the same feeling I have reading Joyce Carol Oates or Donna Tartt. It’s what makes readers feel so strongly connected to the story and lives of the characters as if they are people we know ourselves. A large portion of the beginning of this novel is devoted to describing the friendship between Jude and three other men which began when they met in their first year at college and continues throughout their lives. It’s so rare for a novel to properly give scope to the scale which friendship can take over a lifetime and pay tribute to the importance it has on how we define ourselves. The book I was most reminded of when reading this was my favourite novel, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” whose poetic style differs so radically from Yanagihara’s more straight-forward approach, but describes the way friends can create their own reality by forming an enclosed circle of companionship. The space which friends Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm inhabit in this novel is in a sense timeless and outside of history. Although they primarily live in New York City, we’re given no clear markers of events that cement them within any particular space or timeframe. The novel is locked into the internal reality of the protagonists. So it is as if the narrative is driven by the centrifugal force of personality where the outside world does not exist unless it is being observed through the consciousness of its central characters. In other words, if societal events occur which don’t pertain to the characters’ experience or affect their relationship to each other then they don’t exist.
This frees the reader to only focus on the personal importance (rather than the social importance) of the many issues raised in this novel. Early on it’s casually remarked in conversation between the four friends that some are black and some are white. This is quickly corrected by another friend who asserts that they each possess different gradations of skin colour and they can’t be so easily categorized. As soon as the issue of race is raised, it is dismissed because how the characters are racially defined by society does not matter to their social circle. (As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says “Race is not biology, race is sociology”) At the same time, there are two peripheral friends who are both called Henry Young, but are different races. To distinguish them, the circle of friends jocularly refers to them as Black Henry Young and Asian Henry Young. Where this identification of race to define who the character is would come across as offensive in some novels, it is merely playful in “A Little Life” because it doesn’t affect how these friends view or relate to one another.
Similarly, sexuality is addressed in the novel only when it refers to the individual characters’ behaviour rather than how they are socially defined. Some of the characters remain ambiguous about what their sexuality is throughout their lives. When it comes up for one character it’s remarked that “he had had sex with men before, everyone he knew had.” So, no big deal. The only time it becomes an issue is when one character who has become a very successful actor stops hiding his relationship with another man. He refuses to officially “come out” or define himself as gay because such a definition is irrelevant to how he and his friends view him. The more interesting and emotionally-compelling thing about sex which Yanagihara wisely focuses on is how victims of sex abuse deal with intimacy later in life. For Jude, intimacy is agonisingly difficult. In some tragic way, it’s easier with an abusive partner than with a loving one. Again, although his life experience is extreme, I felt the way in which intimacy is discussed in the narrative when Jude enters a long-term relationship is relatable because we all to varying degrees have our own sexual insecurities and hang-ups. Sex becomes a kind of performance for Jude and many people feel they must perform a certain way during sex in accordance with their partner’s expectations and ideas of how sex should be. It’s stated that “within every relationship was something unfulfilled and disappointing, something that had to be sought elsewhere.” Love is making compromises and adjusting expectations to meet a partner’s needs, but it is also letting go of ideas of perfection or that sex should take only certain forms. I think there is something beautifully liberating about the way Yanagihara writes about sex and sexuality.
Reading this book was a rare challenge because it came to me personally with so much chatter surrounding it. I can’t think of another book where so many people I know have remarked that reading it was a life-changing experience. Similarly, opinions of “A Little Life” have been so diverse where some people love it and it’s driven others to feel angry and betrayed by certain elements of the storyline. I’ve been eager to read it but haven’t been able to until now because I’ve been so busy reading the many submissions for the Green Carnation Prize, but I plunged into it ready to experience it fully for myself. It’s a mesmerizing experience. I felt devastated by certain sections, but I was also staggered by the depths of suffering to which Yanagihara takes her characters. Whereas many novels wouldn’t get away with such extremes, I felt this novel does because of the sheer length of the book. The amount of time the reader is forced to spend with these characters makes her/him experience the terrible revelations about Jude’s abusive past as if he were a personal friend. This is why “A Little Life” feels so real and why it leaves many readers emotionally transformed. It’s certainly made me think about my past and my relationships with other people differently.