A Very Balanced Review: A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

a-little-lifeI’ve been wanting to discuss one of my favorite books, A Little Life, for a while.  I’d have no problem arguing I think this is easily one of the best books written in the last ten years, and it has a place of honor on my bookshelf (not that Yanagihara cares much about my book collection).  But it’s difficult to say why this novel lives so large in my mind; it’s hard to define what type of story this is, or even how it works, and so it becomes difficult to name the precise feeling you experience reading it: overwhelming pathos, maybe, or a deep sense of communal human experience.  So the way to begin writing about it may be as simply as possible: I read A Little Life about half a year ago, and the story remains just as moving and impressive in my mind tonight as on the day I finished the last page.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is an astonishing, breathtaking exploration of friendship, love, and trauma; at just over 800 pages the novel is, perhaps, frighteningly long, a narrative that spans the entire lives of its characters, from boyhood to well into late adulthood. Yet while its narrative gestures lean toward epic, the novel is taut, and thrums with energy; a page-turner with lyric sensibilities and a sharp eye for character psychology and social dynamics. Ultimately, Yanagihara has crafted a deeply-felt ode to life-long friendship and the transformative qualities of pain and love—despite the title, the compassion, tragedy, and ultimate redemption of the novel is anything but little.

Yanagihara’s second novel follows the intertwined lives of four college friends and sometimes roommates: rich-boy architect Malcolm; artist and addict JB; rancher’s son-turned-famous actor Willem; and Jude, whose life—and hidden traumas, manifested in physical ailments and stoic silence—is the epicenter of these friendships. The overarching narrative is surprisingly simple: four friends trying to become successful in their various fields in New York City. But the story is held together and pushed forward by a single, central mystery: what really happened to Jude? Yanagihara carefully doles out information about Jude’s history in small, tantalizing doses—a master Scheherazade at her work—but the real skill is the rich world created around Jude: four lives in complex, welcoming detail, with all the successes and failures and jokes and sadness of any off-page life we could imagine. The story expands surely, brilliantly, but dives deep and unapologetically into the worries of its characters and this, above all, is what balances the effects of a novel whose content could be (wrongly) reduced to “pain.”

A Little Life may well be one of the greatest novels written about friendship, and particularly male friendship and love. The emotional openness of the men’s relationships with one another, and the fluid way in which they explore and redefine what friendship and love means for each other, positions the novel as a unique and welcome presentation of contemporary friendship; these characters defy gendering, and become, above all, human beings on the page. It is telling and thrilling that of the four main characters, every one of them experiences, at some point in his (novel) life, a same-sex relationship, but the gendering of these relationships are utterly unimportant to the characters. They are people, in relation to one another. Yanagihara does not paint a rose-colored picture of friendship, and indeed reminds us that betrayals are not always forgivable. It is a great success of the novel, then, that the reader feels every betrayal, every reconciliation, as though it were our own.

Many readers will find the length intimidating and the subject matter emotionally exhausting; there is no way around Jude’s tragedy and tragic end, and Yanagihara isn’t going to let us look away. Not all pain can be overcome, the novel suggests. But this is perhaps the true grace of the novel: that despite the overwhelming sense of burden, of emotional and physical trauma, it stands poised as a triumph of friendship, love, and strength.

Bridget’s Balanced Review: 8/10

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