Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel, “A Little Life,” is a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose.
At the opening, four young men move to New York City after having finished college. They are devoted to one another, each with bright paths glimmering before them: JB, a gay, brilliant and arrogant figurative painter, is the only one of the four sure of his inevitable success; Malcolm, an architect, is a disappointment to his high-income parents, unsure of his sexuality and perplexed about his “insufficient blackness”; Willem, a handsome, unambitious actor, works as a waiter while being desired by men and women alike; and Jude, an orphan with a mysterious past, is an assistant prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Despite the brothers-in-arms setup, however, the narrative quickly concentrates on Jude. “As long as they had known him,” Willem observes, “they had known he had problems with his legs,” and despite gentle prodding from his friends, Jude never attempts to share his secretive past, prompting JB at one point to call him “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.” What remains unspoken to the boys, however, remains agonizingly, self-destructively clear to Jude, and it’s his desire to maintain a veneer of control despite his past physical and sexual trauma that creates the major dramas in the narrative.
Throughout the novel, Yanagihara, an editor-at-large with Condé Nast Traveler, evokes New York’s subcultures and socioeconomic groups, rather than any particular time period. Those who have trod similar paths will be familiar with the phase of dividing a meal in Chinatown “to the dollar,” followed by the wandering period before people’s careers and lives begin to take their various turns.
This timelessness also allows Yanagihara to maintain a tight focus around the effects of Jude’s sexual abuse. As he progresses through life — eventually being legally adopted by a kindly law professor — Jude, as many victims do, retreats to self-harm.
“You have to talk about these things while they’re fresh. Or you’ll never talk about them,” says a social worker who cares for him early on. “It’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame.” As Jude rejects his friends’ attempts to intervene, this prediction sadly becomes more and more realized.
As Yanagihara paints it, however, his friends’ love — real, selfless love — is the thing that could save him, if only he would let it. When he eventually falls into a romantic relationship with Willem, there’s a hope that his life will turn out after all. But sometimes people are beyond repair.
“I don’t think happiness is for me,” Jude says during a drunken session with Willem. As upsetting as that is to hear, the implication is clear; and when further gutting losses come — and come they do — it’s impossible not to look back and wish that earlier on there had been a tithe more care for Jude.
Through insightful detail and her decade-by-decade examination of these people’s lives, Yanagihara has drawn a deeply realized character study that inspires as much as devastates. It’s a life, just like everyone else’s, but in Yanagihara’s hands, it’s also tender and large, affecting and transcendent; not a little life at all.
Nicole Lee is a writer based in New York.
By Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday. 720 pp. $30