Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, is controversial. Although shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award, the quality of the book has been relentlessly questioned since its release. There are several criticisms that often come up when the book is challenged, but the two most prominent complaints are as follows:
- The book is melodramatic.
- The characters are underdeveloped.
As someone who cannot make up their mind about the novel, I’d like to get into exactly why these criticisms are being made, and see what these issues mean for the quality of the book.
Image via The Guardian
This may go without saying, but there will be some no-holds-barred spoilers ahead, so if you’d like to avoid those, stop here. Furthermore, A Little Life takes a head-on approach to a very wide variety of troubling subject matter, including child sexual abuse, self-harm, mental illness and suicide, medical and surgical imagery, and domestic violence. If you need to avoid any of these themes, you should also stop here and I would also suggest that you avoid the novel in its entirety.
A Little Life starts off as one book, and ends as another. When you begin to read it, you think you’re in for a typical “friends trying to make it in the big city” story, the kind you’re familiar with from other ensemble NYC novels and critically-acclaimed indie movies. It very quickly becomes not that. The first fifty pages or so lead you through three of the characters’ origin stories, pointedly leaving out just one of them.
Image via Walking New York
The one omitted, Jude, sticks out immediately as the mysterious member of the group, but given his exceptionally handsome face and remarkable intelligence, he is absolutely captivating. While the backgrounds of other characters come freely and unbidden shortly after they are introduced, Jude’s story is not revealed until deep into the novel. The other characters, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Harold, Jude’s mentor and later adoptive father, have all certainly suffered in their pasts, but none of them have experienced trauma to the degree that Jude has, and as such, Jude is extremely resistant to opening up about his struggles.
The trajectory of Jude’s past is this: abandoned as an infant, he is raised by abusive monks until one of the monks, Brother Luke, a pedophile who has been grooming Jude so that he can kidnap him and exploit him by forcing him into sex work, does so. When Brother Luke is discovered by police, and Jude is rescued, Jude is placed into a group home, where he is abused again. Jude attempts escape by hitchhiking to Boston, again being forced into sex work to facilitate his travels. After contracting an STD, Jude is captured by Dr. Traylor, who holds him prisoner under the guise of treating his illness. Traylor abuses Jude and after a period of months, runs him over with a car. This causes Jude to suffer from chronic episodes of severe pain as a result of nerve damage. He is taken into the care of a social worker who encourages him to go to college. At the age of sixteen, he is a first-year undergraduate student and meets Malcolm, JB, and Willem. The novel begins after the main four have been out of grad school for a few years.
Many people have pointed out that while any one of these events happening to a person are believable, the notion that one person could be so incredibly unfortunate to have all these things happen to him is a bit much. After a certain point, it becomes difficult to comprehend the sheer amount of pain this man has gone through, and as a result, it is difficult to really empathize with him. One may begin to feel that Yanagihara is piling all this misery on Jude only to make us pity him.
On the subject of this particular criticism, Yanagihara herself has said:
I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste.
Image via Gathering Books
JB, Jude, Willem, and Malcolm. If you read the blurb of the book, or indeed, any summary that accompanies the book’s retail listings, you are led to believe that these four men comprise a quartet of characters we follow through the novel. While these four characters are indeed present, around a sixth of the way through the book it becomes clear that our protagonist is Jude. The other three men are by no means erased from the novel, but JB and Malcolm are definitely pushed to the margins, while Jude and Willem (by virtue of his close relationship to Jude) take center stage.
Jude is surrounded by people who absolutely love him. Willem, his best-friend and later partner, shows him a stubborn amount of affection and care, and Jude’s friends, his adoptive parents, even his doctor all demonstrate the desire to somehow make him better; to cure him, to make him value himself and his life and want to keep living. As I said earlier, the spoilers here will be comprehensive, so if you don’t want to know the absolute ending of the novel stop right here.
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The final act of the novel begins with Willem and Malcolm dying in a vicious car accident. Jude’s grief destroys him, his loved ones do not succeed in their efforts to help him recover, and the novel ends with Harold, in the first-person, telling the story of Jude’s last days. Jude’s funeral has an incredible turnout of people who all deeply loved Jude, yet none of them were able to change the course of his life. Even Harold expresses his defeat, saying that despite everything he had hoped for, he always knew how Jude would leave him. I suppose in this moment, Harold is meant to be speaking for us, the readers, who also would have held out hope for Jude’s recovery despite knowing that he was more than likely to die by his own means.
A Little Life is a long book, about 720 pages of emotional turmoil, and many readers feel jilted by Jude’s inability to stay alive in spite of the abundance of loving support figures he is surrounded by. These readers have argued that Jude begins the novel much the way he ends it, a point even made within the universe of the book. As Harold reflects on Jude’s death in the final pages, he laments, above all else, the state of mind he died in: “that he died still believing everything he was taught about himself– after you, after me, after all of us who loved him– makes me think that my life has been a failure after all.”
Yanagihara has said that the novel exists because she wanted to write a character who would not have the typical redemption arc we have come to expect from sad books with bittersweet endings. She wanted to see if narrative tension could be maintained when you know a character won’t recover. But does that make it okay? What exactly is the point of writing a character this way except to upset people? I have yet to figure this out, although I do think it is at least an interesting refutation of literary convention.
Having just finished my first read of the novel, I know that I will be going back for a second read-through (although I absolutely need a recovery period before trying to take that on again). I thoroughly enjoyed the process of the novel, but when I finished it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied by the ending, but my being unsatisfied doesn’t make A Little Life a bad book. Once I could safely read the reviews without having to worry about spoiling the story, I was perplexed by all the issues people had with it. I thought Jude’s past was certainly a lot, but it’s fiction, it doesn’t really have to be believable, does it? And the relentless suffering he deals with works to serve Yanagihara’s effort to write a truly unsalvageable character. Ultimately, I believe that whether or not A Little Life is worth reading fully depends on what you expect this book to do for you. As a reader, I had no expectations, and so I was free to enjoy the work for what it is, reading the characters as being representatives of nothing but themselves, much in the way I later found out was Yanagihara’s intention.
Now, should you read A Little Life? If you are sensitive to any of the extremely distressing subject matter I’ve previously listed, then no, definitely not. But if you can read such things with minimal discomfort, I think it’s worth a shot. The reasons people seem to take against the book are also reasons why you might love it.
Featured Image via Wikipedia and SBS Life.