This book discusses the plot of Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.”
As a critic, I find myself in a strange position with Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.” Her doorstopper novel, about the lives of four college roommates who remain life-long friends, is one of the best new books I’ve read this year. And due to its exceptionally graphic depictions of physical abuse, sexual abuse and self-harm, and the way those depictions infect the narrative like a cancer, it’s one of the few pieces of art that I could be convinced deserves a content warning even for adult readers. I want to tell you all to read it. But I would also completely understand and sympathize with people who heard tell of both the greatness and pain of “A Little Life” and decided to let Yanagihara’s considerable achievement pass them by.
“A Little Life” is structured like a grim inverse of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Jude St. Francis, whose suffering and intermittent transcendence of pain binds the other characters to him, is like Beth, the saintly, sickly younger March sister. Willem, Jude’s best friend, most devoted caretaker and eventual lover, resembles Jo, an artist who ultimately gets to do the work she wants by dint of persistence and purity of vision. JB, a talented artist who lets himself be seduced by a wealthy, corrupted friend, has some similarities to Amy March. And Malcolm, who becomes a talented architect, makes homes like Meg March, if on a grander scale. These four young men are bound by friendship, not by blood, but they’re no less family for it. The unit is completed by Harold, one of Jude’s law school professors and eventually his adoptive father, who serves as Marmee to all of them.
In “Little Women,” Beth is released from her long illness by an early death. Her passing is heart-rending, but it also serves as motivation for her sisters. Jo, who has sublimated her longings for family into Beth’s care, begins to reckon with her true ambitions as a writer and her desires as a woman. Amy, faraway in Europe, recognizes the value of the simpler life she left behind in the United States and marries her childhood friend Laurie. Meg puts aside the old vestiges of her longing for luxury and becomes a devoted mother. But in “A Little Life,” Jude outlives two of his friends, and his pain fails to transform the essential character of the third. Harold, rather than getting to celebrate his children’s triumphs, is left to mourn them.
“All those answers I had wanted about who and why he was, and now those answers only torment,” Harold thinks of Jude toward the end of the novel, left with the failure to know his child and the failure of his love for Jude to ease Jude’s suffering.
But I find that I’m discussing these parallels to avoid coming to my real reckoning with the agony of “A Little Life”: its intensely detailed depictions of the sexual and physical abuse that Jude experienced as a child and that he experiences as an adult during an abusive relationship, and the self-harm that Jude was taught to practice by one of his abusers.
“The graphic depictions of abuse and physical suffering that one finds in ‘A Little Life’ are rare in mainstream literary fiction. Novels that deal with these matters often fade out when the violence begins,” Jon Michaud wrote in a review of the novel in the New Yorker, noting the tendency to turn away in “Lolita” and “Room,” and comparing the cruelty in “A Little Life” to “Game of Thrones” or “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” “What makes the book’s treatment of abuse and suffering subversive is that it does not offer any possibility of redemption and deliverance beyond these tender moments. It gives us a moral universe in which spiritual salvation of this sort does not exist.”
Novels can’t be timed like this, of course, but it almost feels as though “A Little Life” is an intervention into the debates that have been sparked by “Game of Thrones” in particular, about violence, viewers’ endurance and the point at which stringent depictions of pain become pornographic rather than revelatory. I agree with Michaud’s assessment of the moral power of “A Little Life,” but that doesn’t make the book anything less of an endurance test, one that left me racing for the ending even as I seriously contemplated setting it aside without finishing it (I can’t remember the last time I’ve done this).
“She knew that he wore his life on his skin, that his biography was written in his flesh and on his bones,” Jude reflects of a social worker who advocated for him as a teenager, and that’s how readers ultimately come to know Jude, too. His astonishing successes as a lawyer, his talents as a cook and baker, and his efforts to be a dutiful son to Harold and his wife, Julia, are all Jude’s covers for the mortifications of his flesh. We learn that Jude is so badly scarred that he dresses in heavy layers so “Even if someone were to accidentally graze his back, he was wearing enough layers so that they’d never be able to feel the ridges of scars beneath.” From Jude’s perspective, Yanagihara takes us through his obscene relief as he cuts old scar tissue out of his arms, Jude’s agony as he sets a circle of his skin on fire, coaxing the flames with the application of olive oil, and through his sensation of sex as an adult, “the meaty smack of flesh hitting flesh, the wounded-animal moans and grunts.”
Michaud argues that Yanagihara’s novel, which alternates accounts of Jude’s present life with dispatches from his past, when he was abused in a monastery, pimped out by a pedophile and ultimately run over by another man who kept him captive and sexually abused him, “draws on these lighter stretches to make the darker ones bearable.” But those lighter stretches also become colored with dread as the novel progresses. Yanagihara trains us to expect not relief but new horror; what’s meant as balm becomes a way of prolonging pain — and preparing us for fresh horrors.
She also makes us wonder just what it is that we’re doing. Are we extending understanding to Jude, and if so, what does it mean, since we cannot comfort him? Are we confronting the limits of our desire for easy narratives? Carol Anshaw began her review of “A Little Life” by invoking a familiar cable news and tabloid narrative: “The lock on the toolshed is smashed, the motel door is kicked in and a child emerges — blinky, freed from years of sexual service, the violence finally at an end. The newspapers celebrate another triumph of the human spirit, and move on. But does the victim do the same?” Netflix’s brightly hued “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” suggested that the answer is “no” in gentler terms than “A Little Life” does — the show generally confines the story of its heroine’s (Ellie Kemper) suffering to throwaway lines such as “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” rather than going into extreme detail.
Or is “A Little Life” reminding us why those narratives exist? At times, it feels as though Yanagihara is running an experiment that’s meant to prove the limits of our willing to look, to define the point at which we’re sated by the details of other people’s pain. This cartography will be particular to each one of us. But as we all try to determine our own boundaries, “A Little Life” feels simultaneously like essential reading, and a book that it’s more than reasonable to reject.