A Little Life is a novel that’s received a lot of attention, a lot of critical acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award), a lot of rave reviews, but also a lot of negativity from a smaller coterie of readers and reviewers who absolutely hated it. For me, the experience of reading it compared to another recent (much less literary) blockbuster: The Girl on the Train, in that I found it almost impossible to put down while I was reading it, but had to stop and evaluate when I got to the end how good it really was and how much I actually enjoyed it.
Spoiler: A Little Life is a much better book than The Girl on the Train. But it’s not without its flaws.
There will be other spoilers. I’ll try to not to give away any major plot points that you won’t have learned within the first 100 pages of this 700-page novel, but I can’t promise to keep you completely unspoiled.
If you read any blurbs, or even if you just read those first hundred pages or so, you may believe that A Little Life is the story of four college friends: Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, as they make their young adult lives in New York City and embark on their various careers (law, theatre, architecture and visual art, respectively). But that’s misleading. A Little Life is the story of one character, Jude. Point of view shifts, so it’s not always told from Jude’s perspective, but it quickly becomes clear that this is in no way a true ensemble cast: The other characters’ perspectives and stories matter only as they impact upon Jude. This is sometimes annoying when another character — JB in particular — clearly has as rich, interesting and troubled a life as Jude does, but we get to learn very little of it. However, it’s not necessarily a flaw in the story; in a book of this length the author definitely had time and space to explore four lives thoroughly if she really wanted to, but she only wanted to tell one story, Jude’s, and that story is more than enough to fill these pages and make them an engrossing read.
Jude first appears to us as a young man in his twenties who carefully guards the secrets of what the reader quickly guesses must have been a horrifically abusive, traumatic childhood. The details of Jude’s childhood and youth are revealed gradually, in flashbacks, throughout the book, and there’s no doubt that those scenes (which are somewhat graphic, and would likely be disturbing for anyone with their own history of abuse to read) are troubling enough to produce the kind of young man Jude appears to be at the beginning of the novel. He is brilliant and kind-hearted but deeply scarred, in almost constant pain both physically and mentally; he loves his friends but refuses to be honest with them; he’s riddled with shame and self-hatred. He eschews both therapy for his mental health and pain medication for his physical disabilities, instead treating his own pain through self-harm (which is also described quite graphically throughout). Very successful in his professional life and greatly loved by those around him, who conspire to care for (and perhaps enable?) him, Jude is unable to find peace in his private life.
This novel has been criticized by some readers and critics for putting its main character through too much misery, gratuitously heaping hardship upon Jude in what some people consider a kind of “torture porn.” I didn’t find this to be the case. Much as we hate to think about it, brutal physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children does occur, and does produce lifelong consequences. With one exception later in the novel, nothing that happens to Jude in his later life is random bad luck; almost everything he goes through is organically and causally connected to the abuse he experienced as a child, and because of that I found it completely believable.
There were aspects of the story I did find unbelievable, however. I have no problem accepting that Jude is genius-level brilliant, although I have no idea why the author felt it was necessary to make him so good at so many things, especially those that have no bearing on the plot. Sure, he’s a brilliant lawyer, but he’s also a brilliant mathematician, a beautiful singer, and he can cook, bake and decorate cakes at a professional level. Jude’s skill in so many different areas, along with the dizzying levels of success and wealth that he and his friends all achieve in their professional lives (nobody in this novel ever has to worry about whether they can afford an apartment, a vacation, or a medical procedure, except for a short time in the very earliest chapters when they are young and struggling), lends the story a kind of fairy-tale quality. Adding to this is what has to have been a deliberate decision on the author’s part to strip the story of any historical context. The novel unfolds over a thirty-year period (nearly fifty years if you include the flashbacks) but there’s never any sense of when this is happening. Where is clear; most of the scenes take place in a lovingly-detailed New York City, but it’s a New York lifted out of historical context — no 9/11, no AIDS epidemic (despite many gay and bisexual characters), no historical hooks to hang any of the events on. The inner life of the characters, primarily Jude’s, dominates the story to the extent that it’s impossible to determine anything at all about the outside world. Characters seems to have access to cellphones and computers for most of the story but that’s all we get: it’s as if it takes place in an eternal present, which I found disconcerting although, as I said, I’m sure it was deliberate.
The most jarring departure from realism for me, though, had to do with how Jude is able to be so successful in his career despite the constant psychic pain he experiences. Not that I don’t believe successful professionals can be concealing a lot of pain and heartbreak. But in my experience (and this is totally anecdotal, from my job, not based on any research — though I’d love to know if there is any) brilliant young people who have experienced significant trauma, abuse and mental illness in childhood and youth nearly always have one thing in common: they don’t reach the level of achievement they’re capable of in school or in their working lives. It’s not for lack of intelligence: it’s the lack of confidence, family support, and emotional stability that are just as essential as intelligence in achieving success. I have no problem believing that an abused child like Jude could be smart enough to earn an undergraduate degree, then a law degree and a graduate degree in pure mathematics: I just don’t think he would complete those degrees and go on to become a top litigator. Why? Because even if you brush aside the huge problem of financial support (as Yanagihara does quite lightly here; apparently Jude, with no family supporting him whatsoever, manages to get full scholarships for everything he does throughout all those years of school), most people who are in as much mental agony as Jude is simply lack the confidence and the inner resources to commit to such long and gruelling educational programs. The classic example is the kid from the deeply troubled background who longs to be a doctor, and is smart enough to do so: in my experience she nearly always ends up as a nurse or lab tech because she simply hasn’t got the resources or the faith in her own future to be able to commit to the years that med school will require. While I suppose someone could pull out an example of someone with a background as troubled as Jude’s who was capable of achieving his level of professional success, I found it strained credibility. At the very least, I thought, some of the tortured thinking and agonized self-doubt that Jude brought to all his personal relationships should have been seen to infect his professional life as well, but it never did.
All this lengthy digression is to say that a lot of what happens to Jude in the book (though not the initial abuse) seemed pretty improbable to me, and that in some ways he was an unbelievable character. And yet I found him, and the story, completely compelling, and hard to put down over the two days I read it. Can a character still be compelling while being in many ways unbelievable? If he can, it’s a tribute to the writer’s skill, and this is a very well-written book, even if it’s sometimes over-written. I felt completely immersed in Jude and his world even while the critical part of my brain was standing back asking questions about whether this many people would really structure so much of their lives around helping and supporting this one badly-damaged friend, or why Jude needs to be so damn good at decorating cupcakes.
So: compelling read, but a lot about the book that’s not great; it’s high realism that’s not always highly realistic. But there’s one thing A Little Life does really, really well, and I think that one thing is the reason why the book resonates with so many readers and will linger with me for a long time. It poses a really interesting question, and then it refuses to give an easy answer.
It’s very telling, in this light, that one of the internet people I heard raving about A Little Life, whose recommendation pushed me towards reading it, was John Green. Green’s The Fault in our Stars sometimes gets written off, especially since the movie adaptation, as a sappy teen romance, but in fact it’s a serious attempt to wrestle with one of the most troubling questions in the world: is there still value in a life that’s cut tragically short? If a person only lives to be sixteen, seventeen or eighteen — and if they know they’re probably only going to live that long — what value does life have? Eschewing the easy and common response that the life of a dying child or teenager is valuable because it’s inspiring to others, Green tackles that question brilliantly from the perspective of the dying kids themselves, who want their lives to have value in their own right, not simply to inspire those who will live longer.
A Little Life, as the title implies, addresses a similar question. What’s the value of a life if it is circumscribed by physical disability and mental torment? If a person is unable to meet the standards of “happiness” that our society seems to think normal — if professional success, which Jude does achieve, is unable to ever be supported by rewarding, stable relationships, mutual trust, sexual satisfaction and a sense of inner well-being — can that life still have value? The question isn’t “Can a person overcome the trauma of abuse?”, rather, it is “What does it mean to ‘overcome’?” If a person’s life doesn’t fit the blueprint of what we consider “overcoming” or “surviving” childhood abuse and trauma, is that life meaningful?
This is where Yanagihara is relentless and, I think, brilliant in rejecting easy answers. Though she does remove a lot of roadblocks from Jude’s way by giving him money, professional success and a network of people in his adult life who care deeply about him, she never gives him a break from the inner torment. The “cures” that in books and movies often seem to suggest they will lead to complete healing — therapy, and true love — are both available to Jude, but neither “works” in the way we’d like to believe it will, and I think this is the most realistic part of the book. A person can have available to him all the things that society says should “fix” the problem, but the problem remains. Right up to the end of the book, moments that promise hope, healing and a hint of resolution — moments where another author might have chosen to end Jude’s story — are undercut by reminders that pain is still there and the scars never fully heal. Hope and horror remain balanced throughout the book: prompting us to ask, if a character never truly “gets better,” does that negate the value of those moments of hope, love and connection? Do those moments still have value even if they don’t add up to healing? Is it in those moments that the value of this “little life” can be found?
The title is revealing in another way. Jude’s three best friends — the actor, the artist and the architect — all wish for big lives. They all want to be successful, admired, famous in their fields. Jude, by contrast, only wants the “little life” of normalcy that everyone else takes for granted: days without pain, intimate relationships built on trust instead of fear and dishonesty, the ability to sleep peacefully through the night without constantly confronting the horrors of the past. But, like so many people with chronic physical and mental pain, Jude finds that this simple, “little” life, the normal life, is beyond his grasp. That it remains so is what makes the book frustrating, disturbing, and — for all the ways in which it forces the reader to suspend disbelief — ultimately, I think, so true to life.