Trauma is a sticky subject. Authors who take on the subject to confront the readers with the subject matter can often fall into the trap of sentimentality and excessive tragedy. I had no idea on what to expect from A Little Life, even avoiding the blurb to let the book surprise me. And for a while it did. The prose in A Little Life flows beautifully — I can’t deny that Yanagihara is a good writer. But as I read on the book, I became increasingly more frustrated with the choices the characters make. It became a long read at the end. Longer than I expected, and I think there is a lot of fat in the book that can be much trimmed.
A Little Life starts in easy mode — of four young men in their mid-twenties trying to wriggle their way into respectability in cutthroat New York. Willem is an aspiring actor who also waits to supplement his income, JB is a black artist who shares a studio with other artists, Malcolm comes from a good family and will soon be a world renowned architect. Jude is the most enigmatic in this group — trained in the legal profession and without anybody knowing his origin story.
He does have character flaws that he is only too aware of. He has a limp in his walk that he tells everybody that it is from a car accident, and from time to time he grimaces in excruciating pain from his leg which incapacitates him. Yet, he is the glue of the group and in some way, everyone gravitates towards Jude. You can say that as the book progresses, he becomes the central character of the novel and we will know more about him.
After the first hundred pages, the novel becomes more and more intense. We find out that Jude harms himself and we find that others around him want to help him get better. However, Jude does not allow an inch for anyone to let into his lives, and keeps his violent hobby — cutting himself — a secret. Despite his disposition towards self-harm, those around him are still drawn to him as he is a promising man. He was picked up by Harold, the legal academic who soon adopts him as his own. His doctor friend, Andy, always calls him out on his autoviolent behaviour but is still always there for him, to a fault.
It is no secret that Jude turns out alright, somewhat. He becomes a star litigator, quitting the DA’s office to work in a private firm and making partner in breakneck speed. But the cutting continues and even though he hides it well for a long time, it has an impact on others around him, especially Willem who became more suspicious. As Jude becomes older, Willem becomes more involved in his life for the better and usually, worse.
A Little Life is not a little book, and the themes are heavy. There is no context at times that in the beginning I wasn’t sure whether the story takes place a few decades from today, or only from recent years. There is no context on external events to pin down the time and place of the events in the story. I think this is a deliberate move from Yanagihara so that the characters take centre stage. There is no distraction from current events, only past events that happened personally to them. This is true especially in the case of Jude, who has a crazy back story of abuse.
It is a book about trauma and how the impact can last for decades. Jude’s normal is not like anybody’s normal — it is a life full of misery, pain coming from who knows when and abusive people. When he found friends who cared about him, he falls into a level of comfort that if there is a shift from this newfound comfort, he needs to retaliate to this reality and thus cutting himself.
It is something that I am trying to understand to this day: how self-harm provides some sort of “normal”. It is not something that I cannot imagine myself doing but recognise that many people do. There are important questions here, such as: do we let self-harmers continue their habit if it allows them to cope? In the case of Jude, he’s already an expert on where to cut, how to cut, yet accidents happen, infections happen and he will pay for it. And surely, this will also affect those around him.
Up to a point, I was numbed by the book. There is a lot of misery piled on top of misery here to the point that it is drama for the sake of drama. I wanted to throw the book out of my balcony. Every time Jude apologises to anybody, or anybody apologises to Jude, or anybody apologises to anybody, I cringe and wanted to punch these people in the face. It becomes boring and repetitive. It is the same pattern over and over again and the tragedies, and the post-tragedy apologies left a sour taste in my mouth. Euagh.
It does make me question though, if I would do the same for a person of this kind if he was one of my best mates. Maybe? But I think up to a point I’d give up. If the guy can’t save himself, that’s on him regardless of his past story. Call me a cunt but it is what it is. Jude has a bountiful resource of friends and adopted families around him who were willing to help him at any time of day, work their lives around him so he is “safe” and put up with his shit when shit goes down. One or two people, sure. But an army of them? I just don’t find this believable.
And that cover. Luckily I managed to snag a hardcover book so that I can take off the sleeve so that I won’t have to look at the dude’s face. I really wanted to overhand punch that face so badly because it looks so pathetic. This book just arouses much antipathy in me. I’m not sure if this is the reaction that Yanagihara wanted, but I definitely don’t feel like a better human after I finished reading this trainwreck of a novel.