Nothing Little About “A Little Life”

Review of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (USA: Doubleday, 2015)
By Kevin Tan Kwan Wei

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Hanya Yanagihara’s sophomore novel A Little Life contemplates the debilitating effects of physical and emotional trauma. Written in 18 months, the novel became an award-winning bestseller despite its 720 pages. A Little Life tells a coming-of-age story. It is divided into seven parts and the tale is largely told chronologically. Flashbacks are interspersed frequently to provide readers with relevant backstories to our protagonists. A Little Life is centered on 4 characters – Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm.

The novel begins with the four friends living in New York City after graduating from college. Yanagihara wastes no time in defining her characters. Of Malcolm, she writes that he “was quiet. He often forgot what he considered inconsequential details, but he also never seemed to mind when people grew impatient with him forgetting.” The style for revealing character is simple and direct. She has a tendency to condense her characters, including minor ones, with stark statements: “Findlay was a walking career memento mori, a cautionary tale in a gray wool suit”. The brief character descriptions feel as if they were plucked out of a screenplay. I did wonder why this was done. After all, in other parts of A Little Life, Yanagihara is capable of writing with vivacity. I can only surmise that she is largely focused on exploring their interactions and memories.

As each character embarks on his career (lawyering, acting, visual art, and architecture), the novel tracks the interplay of their thoughts and relationships. This is an ambitious move. Yanagihara has created a bildungsroman wrought large. Focusing on just one of these characters would have been enough to fuel a moderate-length novel. Instead, Yanagihara opted for both depth and breadth. Although she gives each of the four characters some coverage, it is obvious that the novel is heavily focused on Jude.

Jude is the centerpiece of the entire novel. On the surface, Jude seems to be a highly gifted individual. He is a successful lawyer with a Masters degree in mathematics from MIT. His adopted father and mother are a law school professor and a medical specialist respectively. Yet he carries the emotional baggage of a dark past. Jude was abandoned as a baby at a dumpster. The priests from a nearby church found and raised him. Unfortunately, Jude endured an unhappy childhood, as the priests would resort to harsh, corporal punishment if he misbehaved. Brother Luke, a man whom Jude saw as a father figure, preyed on Jude’s naivety. When Brother Luke absconded and took Jude with him away from the church, Jude’s desire for human affection resulted in him willingly providing sexual services to clients to support Brother Luke and himself. The morbid memories of sexual abuse and child prostitution continue to haunt the adult Jude.

In A Little Life, readers learn that Jude’s life is a never-ending tragedy. There is no redemption for him due to the repressive desolation he finds himself in. Jude compares his inner demons to “hyenas” and it is easy to see why. He has a compulsive need to please people but is simultaneously disgusted by his own flaws:

“He was frightened of everything, it sometimes seemed, and he hated that about himself. Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else, hatred of himself.”

This depiction of Jude’s thoughts is characteristic of the novel. It is untouched by dramatization but is, instead, clipped and repetitive. The style highlights the psychotic self-doubt that plagues Jude. Jude’s world is shrouded in darkness and filled with emptiness. Nonetheless, the length of the novel overwhelms Yanagihara’s incisive insights into human nature. In the case of A Little Life, she is far too indulgent in her approach to character development. By continuously teasing out and then rehashing Jude’s insecurities, she runs the risk of tiring her readers’ with Jude’s masochistic blend of self-loathing and self-pity. Personally, I lost any sympathy I had for the character by the midpoint of the novel. Like a draggy Taiwanese soap opera that does not know when to stop, Yanagihara goes on and on in describing Jude’s paranoia, as when he meets his adopted mother, Julia, for the first time.

“Jude!” she said. “Finally! I’ve heard so much about you, I’m so happy to be meeting you at last.” It sounded, he thought, like she really was.

Most puzzling, Jude’s insecurities with people extend even to his close friends. Jude often begrudges his physical disabilities and questions the sincerity of his friends. He even doubts the kindness of his physician, Andy.

“He sometimes wondered whether Andy thought of him as only a collection of viruses and malfunctions. If you removed them, who was he? If Andy didn’t have to take care of him, would he still be interested in him? If he appeared one day magically whole, with a stride as easy as Willem’s and JB’s complete lack of self-consciousness, the way he could lean back in his chair and let his shirt hoist itself from his hips without any fear, or with Malcolm’s long arms, the skin on their insides as smooth as frosting, what would he be to Andy? What would he be to any of them? Would they like him less? More? Or would he discover – as he often feared – that what he understood as friendship was really motivated by their pity of him?”

The length to which Yanagihara goes to flesh out Jude’s plight borders on the illogical. We were told earlier on that his friends had never denigrated him in front of others; in fact Willem had even defended him from stinging insults through physical retaliation against his tormentor. Yet, all this build-up is conveniently forgotten in favor of developing the tragedy of Jude’s life.

I find Jude’s character arc to be highly improbable. Yanagihara’s preoccupation with filling up his life with tragedy has blinded her to the inconsistencies in Jude’s character. In order to sharpen the contrast between Jude’s professional and private lives, she furnishes him with law and math degrees. We are also told that he is a highly skilled lawyer who is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. Yet, we are also supposed to believe that Jude is so haunted by morbid memories of his past that he resorts to self-harm. This does not make any sense. How does a cutthroat corporate lawyer function with all that emotional baggage?

What Yanagihara aims to accomplish with Jude can be better understood through her references to other literary figures. Most prominently, she makes multiple references to Charles Dickens. At one point, Jude is likened to someone “playing the role of an impoverished governess in a Dickensian drama.” In another place, she directly refers to the name of a Dickens novel:

“With Brother Michael, he read Great Expectations, and managed to misdirect the brother into a long segue about what life for an orphan would be like in nineteenth-century London, a place as foreign to him as Pierre, just a hundred-some miles away. The lesson eventually became a lecture, as he knew it would, but from it he did learn that he, like Pip, would have been given to a relative if there were any to be identified or had. So there were none, clearly. He was alone.”

It is thus apparent that Yanagihara has high narrative ambitions for Jude’s role in A Little Life. Jude is to be read as a dark, modern-day re-imagining of Dickens’ orphans. Like Oliver Twist from the novel that bears his name, and Pip from Great Expectations, Jude is an orphan trying to find acceptance from society. However, that is where the similarities end. Unlike Dickens, Yanagihara does not reward her restless character with any form of redemption and solace. Instead, Jude is treated to more suffering and torment. He is the whipping boy of Yanagihara’s lofty literary aspirations.

As one perseveres with the novel, it becomes increasingly obvious that Yanagihara’s obsession with pain and trauma has limited the work’s potential. The fact that there are other interesting elements in the novel that were set aside adds to the disappointment. For instance, Yanagihara does explore America’s multicultural society. JB would

“board at Canal and watch the train fill and empty at each stop with an ever-shifting mix of different peoples and ethnicities, the car’s population reconstituting itself every ten blocks or so into provocative and improbable constellations of Poles, Chinese, Koreans, Senegalese; Senegalese, Dominicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Pakistanis, Irish, Salvadorans, Mexicans; Mexicans, Sri Lankans, Nigerians, and Tibetans – the only thing uniting them being their newness to America and their identical expressions of exhaustion, that blend of determination and resignation that only the immigrant possesses.”

It is such a waste that the immigrant narrative is not explored further, especially when JB is a Haitian immigrant. The chapters involving JB’s struggle as an immigrant finding success are few and far between. One can only lament what A Little Life could have been if Yanagihara had apportioned equal focus to all the characters instead of piling most of it on Jude alone.

Yanagihara begins promisingly enough with a cast of interesting characters but fails to do them justice. The novel is bogged down by its length and suffers from tiresome repetition of its themes and ideas. Ironically, the novel would have been better served if it had abided by its own title. There is probably a tighter, tougher version of A Little Life that could have been unearthed with strict editing.

But then again, since when was life ever little?

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Kevin Tan Kwan Wei currently contributes articles to Your Commonwealth, a youth blog supported by The Commonwealth Youth Programme. He has served as a judge for The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition, and is one of the inaugural participants of the Young Critics Mentorship Programme. He was recently awarded the Leading Change Journalism Bursary 2017 by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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