Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Well! This is a big book, both in terms of length (my wrists were getting tired holding it up) and in terms of clout–it’s attracted a lot of attention. Glancing over some ratings on Goodreads, lots of people love this book, but it has also drawn a lot of criticism for being “torture porn,” too melodramatic, and not believable.
First, a synopsis: this book follows one character, Jude, throughout his entire life, and we start the story post-college, when Jude and his best friend Willem are searching for an apartment in Manhattan; we are introduced to their two other best friends, who they roomed with in college. Some have said this is a book about a group of friends; I don’t really think that’s the case. We get glimpses here and there, but in over 700 pages, the story does not ever stray far from Jude.
I’m kind of divided over this book. I have chosen not to give it a rating here because parts of this novel handle issues/themes I care about better than almost any book (any book?) I have read. I absolutely get why people love it. At the same time, it does handle other things worse than books I disliked. So it was a mixed bag for me, but it was a great mixed bag, and one I am very glad I read.
[From here on out the review will contain spoilers, but nothing huge I don’t think.]
On the one hand, I think one of the reasons it gets a ton of praise is because people are bowled over by some of the more graphic scenes. I will say that was not the case with me. Although obviously certain scenes are very uncomfortable or upsetting, I have a pretty strong stomach for reading about abuse and violence (watching it, on the other hand…very sensitive to that). And a cynical part of me thought that people were treating the book like Jude’s friends treated him–with kid gloves, because they didn’t want to criticize a depiction of something that is obviously harrowing. I think there is this line of thinking that goes, if it’s hard to read, if it tackles abuse, it must be profound; if readers have to look away, the effective evocation of horror means that it is deep and weighty. The same thing happened with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book I thought was overall pretty bad: everyone was so horrified at the descriptions of the POW camp that it won the Booker. Well… this book is more complex and thoughtful than that one, for sure. So maybe that cynical part of me is being unfair, but I have to wonder–if the scenes weren’t as graphic, if there weren’t so many of them, and the book still had the same premise and the same ending, would people have given it as much praise? Do people really have to “see” it to believe it, to accept that something is bad and can’t just be “gotten over”?
Which leads me to the people who disliked it because it was “torture porn” or exploitative. It’s a good thing to question violence in narratives and to ask what purpose it’s serving and what kind of message it sends. Personally I have a hard time agreeing that it’s exploitative because I’m not sure who it’s harming (if you have an answer to that question please let me know!). Maybe people think Yanagihara is using themes like sexual abuse to manipulate people and drive up sales. But child abuse happens; sexual assault happens. Is it better to pretend they don’t exist? That people don’t suffer as Jude does? I personally did not find the descriptions of these scenes prurient or salacious; they weren’t tasteful, either. They were, I thought, ruthless and efficient. They didn’t pull punches, but they didn’t rub your nose in it, either. They were, basically, straightforward–it’s just that you can’t really give a straightforward account of something so awful without it also being awful. As to the charges that it was over the top, just a ridiculous amount of “torture” to the point that it’s not actually plausible (and therefore maybe exploitative or suspect after all)?
Well… when Caleb arrives on the scene, I did kind of roll my eyes. He was just so movie villain bad. Completely one dimensional and irredeemable in every way. And at that point, I was like, “COME ON.” And in a 700+ page book, it’s true that there is far less nuance than I would expect. But when I finished the book and thought about it, yes it’s true that Jude was exposed to a seemingly impossible level of child abuse. But he was also exposed to a seemingly impossible level of love and kindness. And exposed to it for longer, in situations that seem to me almost as implausible as the abuse. I know people who have been abused as children; I do not know a single person who was adopted as a 30 year old adult by two successful professors at a prestigious university and became their sole heir–I don’t even know a single person who was adopted as an adult, period. We can say without a doubt that adult adoption is rarer by far than child abuse or sexual assault; the type of friendship that Jude experiences with Willem is also, I think, exceedingly rare. AND a surgeon who is willing to structure his practice and, if not his entire life, then a good part of it, in order to treat Jude for his routine health, without ever charging him? Yeah, no. The amount of love Jude engenders in his friends is also completely unrealistic. If Yanagihara is heavy-handed with dishing out the abuse Jude gets, she is also heavy-handed when dishing out the love he receives.
Which makes me think that what she’s doing here is more a battle between good and evil than anything else. Jude shares his name, of course, with Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Yanagihara seems to be asking if there is such a thing as lost causes–if people can be traumatized so badly that there is no hope of truly recovering from it, no hope of living a normal life. Her answer is, unfortunately (and I think this may be something that pissed people off as well), “yes.” People are fragile. We cannot always will ourselves better, or make a full recovery, no matter who is on our team. It’s bleak, but that’s how it is sometimes. That is why, despite my sense that this book is, indeed, over the top, it also rings true in certain areas.
The thing I had the biggest problem with in this novel is the lack of characterization and, like I said earlier, the lack of nuance. Over seven hundred pages focusing on one character and we don’t really even get to know him. Yes, we see the lowest lows and the improbable gifts he’s been bestowed, but I kept wondering “what makes Jude so special?” Why do all these people love him so much? You get hints of it–he’ll make intricate party snacks, for instance. But there was something lacking–complexity, perhaps?–in the way he was drawn, the way all the characters were drawn. I did find many parts of the book somewhat tedious, repetitious, and bland. Maybe it was a writing technique designed to take us inside Jude, but the problem there is that I still had so many questions about him. To a large degree, all the characters are one-dimensional. This, along with the lack of cues that firmly tie it to happening in a specific time, make it seem like a fable or fairy tale: everyone is cardboard, clearly good or clearly bad, and it’s happening in some alternate plane. But it also feels like she is, on some level at least, going for realism by detailing the minutiae of Jude’s life, by following him so closely his whole life, and something about the way she blended them (or didn’t blend them) didn’t completely work for me. It’s also here that people can make the case that the pain in the book was overdone: we never see Jude in a court room and rarely what he does at work despite spending almost all of his time there, and yet how many times do we see Jude cutting himself? His work life–integral as it seems to be to him, his routine, his well being–is almost ignored; it is mentioned frequently, but rarely shown. It all happens off-stage, which is an interesting choice for how much it seems to matter to Jude.
One thing this book does well is raise questions for me to think about. I can entertain many points of view about this book and to some degree I think they are all valid. Yanagihara is a hack, Yanagihara is a genius; the book is moving, the book is maudlin; the story was a gripping page-turner, the story was boring; it is a masterwork, it is exploitative; she took the easy way out, she took the uncompromising point of view–I feel like there’s support for all these views and more. Sometimes, I like finishing a book and not really knowing what to think of it. I probably appreciate the questions this book raised for me more than the book itself. I liked the framing of certain issues and I liked what she was trying to do (or what I think she was trying to do, anyway), but I didn’t always like the execution. But “liking” may be beside the point here–I am interested more in my reaction (and others’ reactions–can’t wait to dig in to some reviews/criticism of it!) and the conversations I have with myself about it than I am interested in the thing itself.