A Little Life is Complicated

Welcome, my friends. Today, I want to discuss with you something 5 years late.

A little life
Cover of A Little Life

About two months ago, I discovered a reading vlog by paperbackdreams in which she decides to read, for the first time, A Little Life. Over the course of the 35-minute video, she ponders whether she’ll cry knowing that its reputation for difficulty already, and as the book progresses, she does. As if on a preset playlist, the tears come at the same moments it seems every twitter user, every critic, and every apologist for this book has.

Seeing such a strong reaction, I felt a gravitational pull to read the text, as it seems many others were drawn to do around its release. So I bought it, and I read it in three days. I could not put it down, though not, perhaps, for the same reasons as those who find it unimpeachable. And…I cried. Not as much as I expected, not as brutally, but I cried.

And now I’m processing it. Let’s process together, because, unlike my usual feelings on stories like this, I loved this book and I feel guilty about loving it; and I am angry at Hanya Yanagihara for many, many reasons and I am multitudes right now.

I am going to forego any attempts at objectivity in this review/analysis or whatever you wish to call it. While it seems that what I am feeling is common amongst those who have read this book (a simple google search will show an endless list of panegyrics to it and remark on its hypnotic readability and emotional devastation), there are elements of this book that strike particular nerves that I would feel remiss if I pretended that I could separate from the tangle of thoughts and feelings and resonances that this particular book struck within me.

I loved this book that hurt me. Let me explain why.

Sidenote: while I have done my best to refrain from spoilers, to the extent it is possible in a book review, there are some to highlight my frustrations with the text. If you have not read the book, please do so for the best experience of this essay. I have also marked sections that contain real spoilers, in case you do not wish to be spoiled.

For other book reviews, please check over here. To my Bakuman readers, I will get back to that soon enough. Figuring out a proper schedule is a challenge.

What is a little life

A Little Life is a novel written in eighteen months by Hanya Yanagihara about the lives of Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude. Four young men in pursuit of their dreams in the world of acting, art, architecture, and law. The story follows them from their early twenties, to their various successes through their lives up into their middle age. As the story develops, we learn about each of them, with an increasing focus on the ethereal, mysterious Jude St. Francis, a man of unclear nationality with a murky past, who cuts himself. Over the years covered, we learn about Jude’s life story, and come to see the true value of friends and lovers in the face of abject misery.

There is not much in the way of plot. It is divided into 7 sections, each composed of 3 chapters. It is Yanagihara’s second novel, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. It is slated to be adapted into a television show, and has a reputation for emotional potency, melodrama, and being quintessential reading for the 21st century LGBT+ community.

[I]

The Enjoyment

A Little Life is the type of tale I’ve drifted further and further from as I’ve grown older. When I was young, I would seek out difficult books, movies to feel immense, overwhelming pain, and sorrow. It was mostly old, foreign art films, and high art literature of the modernist variety that made me feel as intelligent as it did awful. I’d sit on the recliner the wrong way, feet dangling over cold metal, and work through the text I knew would make me feel like shit.

A Little Life hails from that tradition of unflinching, brutal storytelling. It reaps high emotional-dividends. It has that earthy specificity and richness that so few texts achieve. There was little in the way of affectation, and the melodrama fit the texture of the tale. The prose is detached, concrete suited to such a story. Reporter-like, journalistic, telling more than showing and flowing like a pellucid river that gleams with impurities of silt and seaweed.

It reads easily and it flows effortlessly, hypnosis that compels you to read further. The 7 Parts abide by the logic of the mundane. Each detail is an accretion, a pebble being placed on your back until you have the weight of Atlas in character details. From the shabbiness of Lispenard Street to the lavish Green Street and everything in between; to the Main Characters spheres of influence and their respective niche and venue, every detail slots precisely into place. Whether that be the vanities rushing like flies in between takes for Willems acting or JB’s Mid-Career Review. The effect washes over you, creating a sensation of fullness, richness. It’s rarely beautiful, but it is good. Balanced.

The characters are vivid, approachable, likeable, complicated. Willem’s kindness and Jude’s contentment at his luck are effervescent. There are few flashy moments that announce them, just regular human foibles. Harold’s bombast and JB’s self-involvement come from honestly developed places. Andy’s perpetual frustration at Jude. Jude’s frustrating stubbornness and pain. It feels truly human.

Even texts of literary significance sometimes fail to make a character rise above the status of character into something the feels fleshy and real. While some characters don’t get significant development – JB and Malcolm in particular – they are felt presences and they interact against the story in ways that make their struggles vital, breathing, squalling and all the rest.

The narrative also gives off that rare satisfaction of completeness that only truly great novels have. A sensation that every nook and cranny that needs to be plunged has been. There is nothing left to explore, and so the story stops. The lives we’re following, despite crossing decades, have a satisfying roundness that makes the scant time spent in any one year feel inconsequential. Each year builds and gives weight.

And, most surprising of all given its reputation, A Little Life is beset by grace. More shocking than the fondness and relateability of the characters was the fact that despite the darkness that ran through the text like a broken, varicose vein, bleeding dark blood there was genuine amber warmth, contentment and joy to be found between the pages. Willem and Harold’s characters in particular, the bedrock friendship and love they share with Jude, and Jude’s own contentment at the good he gets in his life unmoored me from the sensation of darkness. The found family aspect and the love both romantic and friendly that each character shared was truly beautiful.

The darkness isn’t entirely cynical and it’s not in isolation, either. Unlike much of the text I associate with torture porn or brutally honest depictions of mental illness and abuse, there wasn’t some keening existential dread at the bottom of the book’s message. There wasn’t an underlying contempt for humanity. It made every effort at honesty. The characters have highs and lows and revel in both of them equally. Good and bad exist against each other in real balance.

That, I think is why I’m loathe to call it torture porn. It’s got just enough of the good parts of life, the soft quiet moments, the genuine moments, that I didn’t feel totally manipulated. That’s the first complication.

[2]

Catharsis and Honest Darkness

Several points in this text made me cry and the ending made me sob. A reflexive jittering pain like a muscle spasm. But it was not the horror and the gore that made me cry, it was the weight of earned character moments, and, at least for the very end the accumulated weight of the story. Honest tears.

When I was 14 I had a similar experience when I watched Midnight Cowboy for the first time. It wasn’t tears then, I was not emotionally developed enough to be comfortable with that. But in the graceful semi-dark of the living room, there was a strong sensation of fullness and utter devastation. The quintessential gay cinema of 1969 in its portrayal of desolation and friendship in the darkness between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo felt similarly honest and overwhelming.

Another film that felt similarly filling in the same, sad way is Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff). The suffering of Anju and Tamaki as well as their mother, abject and horrific as it is, is played counterpoint against the lithe value of mercy. In these stories – weighted more toward film because of my youthful ambitions – I am able to overlook the cruelty of the narrative because the cruelty is in a balanced emotional context.

Jude’s suffering – which we will discuss further down – is horrific in every conceivable way, but it isn’t isolated. It is wrapped in a light and love that keep it from manipulating the audience entirely. By Yanagihara’s own admission, she upped the dial on every emotional switch which allows for the darkness to even out. She was interested in creating an exaggerated reality – from the extremely improbably successful careers of the protagonists – to the brutality wrought against Jude.

And, although I loathe to admit it, the depiction of abuse and trauma is…honest. This hurts to say because I am regularly disgusted with the portrayal of abuse and trauma in the modern-day, as well as mental illness. While Yanagihara fails to transcend those things which make me angry about modern abuse narratives, she does a commendable job in portraying the gordian emotional knot of someone who has been the victim of severe abuse. Several negative reviews find the traumatic elements to be unrealistic. Unfortunately, it isn’t. These things happen.

The cyclical nature of the pain, the scar tissue accumulated over years that close doors to potential healing. The need to feel completely secure to the point of over-security, the sincere and unspeakable damage caused by abuse it’s all there. Jude’s suffering is genuine as are the habits of mind which keep him trapped.

My love for the book came during Part 5 – The Happy Years – because it created necessary ballast against the trauma. There is darkness in Part 5 as the story sequesters itself. Heading into lonelier, darker territory. But it’s not all there is. The characters still have moments to be happy. To be. Even Jude shows some effort at healing. There are open communication and love.

In other words, there was an effort at good faith depiction of healing from abuse. It wasn’t tacked on at the end, and I appreciated that enough.

This darkness is the second complication. It’s good. But Part 5 had to save the text for me because of the parts that were torture porn. Part 4.

[3]

The Torture Porn

Before I decided to read this book, I looked at reviews from respected publications – NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal – and found a broad consensus that the book was good, and the “Subversion” was brilliant. More on that, later.

But when I went to goodreads, the inimical, often ornery batch of readers who post reviews, as well as some of the people I watched in reading vlogs all had a very similar response: it’s torture porn. It’s manipulative. It is designed to hurt the reader.

And…parts of it, are torture porn. Well, not parts, one part, in particular. Part 4, the Axiom of Equality which features the most emotionally harrowing sections of the narrative regarding Jude’s experiences past and present. This section is disgusting and horrifying. There is no other way to put it. And when reading the book, I felt the anger boiling within me that I always feel when I read abuse narratives. Particular abuse narratives, in which the story revels in its own cavalcade of darkness and terror.

I felt that anger, because, unlike Sections 5 and 6 which manage grace and honesty, Part 4 was the moment where the story stopped feeling like an organic narrative of a damaged character and felt like…an author hurting a protagonist for the purposes of telling a story. Yanagihara had this story in her for years and she developed with certain emotional beats pre-planned. She knew the story she wanted to tell.

I will not deny that anything in the story can’t happen in reality. That would be self-aggrandizing and simple minded. Characters like Caleb and Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor are all people who can and do exist. And they do horrible things. And sometimes they get away with it too. The people who are their victims get heaped on abuse after abuse like pascal lambs. These things happen. It is real. There are countless stories of people so broken they cannot be healed. I don’t like to admit it. But it’s the truth.

But in the fourth part of the story, there was an aggressiveness. A lack of subtlety. Caleb in particular doesn’t feel like a person the way Brother Luke does. He feels explicitly like a plot device meant to do horrible things to Jude. When I read him, I knew from the moment he arrived what he was going to do. And even then, the extent to which he does it is appallingly extreme. The rapacity with which Yanagihara feeds these horrors for the purposes of exaggeration at this moment felt designed. Conscious.

The moment I saw Caleb, I knew what was going to happen and I felt that paroxysm I get when people hurt other people. That lack of subtlety paired with the equally unsettled sequence that closes out part 4, in which much of Jude’s backstory is finally revealed pulls back the story’s machinery with such inelegance and almost glee that I wanted to scream. The person holding the marionettes is momentarily revealed; this is an atrocity exhibition for its own sake. The illusion of reality is dropped. And it wasn’t the kind of upsetting that felt earned.

It’s so fucking cruel. Not cruel in an honest way either. Not cruel in an earned way. It’s cruel in a way that speaks to my genuine discomfort with A Little Life.

It speaks to the something deeper and more troubling. The third complication

[4]

The Voyeurism of the “Normal”

Normal people gawk at things that aren’t. It is what you do when you are witness to accidents or the abnormal. Everyone gawks at misery. A Little Life, as far as I can tell – despite its honesty – is written by someone who knows how trauma operates, has clearly done research but has no understanding of the weight of trauma. It feels like a normal person fetishizing abuse because of its darkness.

This is offset to some degree by the honesty and emotional richness of the character work overall. JB, Willem, Harold, Julia, Malcolm, Jude, Andy and the whole cast are all given sufficient shading and texture to make them feel distinct, heterogeneous. Borne of different mindsets and approaches to life. No two characters feel the same. That grounded these sensations of voyeurism. Ameliorated the worst of it.

But Jude’s suffering suffers deeply from this fetishization of emotional vulnerability. The love Jude is shown, the real, true love saves it somewhat. But the exaggerations serves a master.

In the text, Jude’s trauma is written with a goal in mind – which we will elaborate on later – and that goal turns this text from purely honest to something manipulative. And that’s not only tied to Yanagihara’s goals in writing the text, it’s also with a mind for her audience.

Yanagihara is not writing this story for victims of severe trauma. In this case, the Author is dead; she could not write with such nakedness and have in mind the people who this text is about. While the book is unflinchingly honest about trauma – and effectively portrays it – this book was written for people who only ever look from the outside in. Those who are permitted to treat abuse as an academic exercise and not a tangible, horrific experience that will take years or a lifetime to heal from. It is a panopticon to the misery suffered by the people who can disconnect from it.

The descriptions of self-harm, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse are persistent and the detachment casts Yanagihara’s interest in line with her profession as a Magazine Editor. There is an element of fascination with the other, fascination with grotesquery, and an intellectual disdain for intellectuals that that detachment reveals. When Yanagihara writes about Jude, there is the sense that she is able to divest herself from his personhood and more interested in how much suffering she can wreak on him.

While the purview of any author is to make their characters suffer, the precisely calculated detonations that go off in this story are calculated to break. They are put in like an architect blowing up the foundation of a condemned building to make way for something new. Jude’s suffering at several points is exacerbated by the author’s goals. Several moments of his suffering come off as unearned, an act of authorial fate, rather than a natural progression. Designed to drive him deeper into isolation and darkness.

And that makes this book unsafe. It is a minefield of emotional triggers. The graphically naked depiction of a person not only being broken, but who is so mired in their own suffering that they don’t believe they can be fixed is accurate to the point that I feel like anyone with significant emotional trauma is going to respond reflexively to the descriptions of emotional, sexual, and self-harm. This book will not turn away readers with emotional trauma, but it can certainly exacerbate their feelings of being traumatized.

It rankles personally. As a victim of trauma. This is the fourth complication

[5]

A Dark Mirror

I read this in an interim where I was relitigating recent emotional trauma. I will not discuss from whom, to what extent, or what type of trauma I experienced; only that I experienced it and that reading this exacerbated previous feelings and strains of thought that were buried within me. In several parts of the story, Jude’s suffering felt extremely real in ways that made me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

The feelings of self-loathing, the self-perpetuating loop of helplessness and victimhood, the painful process of trying to get better, but being forced back from better at every turn by one’s own traitorous mind. All of that rankled. It dug deep and for a moment I thought I was looking at a cracked, distorted funhouse mirror. Life became miserable for me in the three days I read it, and the subsequent days that followed. I felt helpless, and old habits of mind I had thought sufficiently wiped clean came and put their hooks in me.

The exaggeration of Jude’s suffering – even down to the choice of his name as the patron saint of hopelessness – dug into me and made my own insecurities bubble up to the surface. Like a cauldron filled with pitch that roiled and bubbled with horrible suppurating noises, I felt things being pulled to the surface. Resonances I didn’t want to see. Feelings that I didn’t realize had been buried.

And I was sympathetically more miserable, and the symptoms of trauma were exacerbated. I was angrier, and felt more powerless and helpless. I contracted inward. But I was also compelled to twist my gut in knots, to find out what happened, to see how it would all get worse. Old anxieties that had been quelled came frothing to the front full force. I read this book quickly to rip off the band-aid, to make sure I didn’t suffer.

I was lost in deep darkness that was a product of that resonance. I had moments of recognition in Jude and felt bad about myself. I felt guilty for past failings both perceived and real. And the fact that I enjoyed the book made me feel guilty because it was also stirring me up internally. Making me feel like hell. Lying in bed at midnight, reading about horrible abuses in a litany from conception onward.

I didn’t just read it quickly because it was hypnotic. I did it to keep myself from throwing myself into the old darkness I’ve worked hard to heal from.

This is the fifth complication and leads into the final, most significant complication. The one that makes this book’s quality as literature so, so complicated.

[6]

Yanagihara’s Design

Yanagihara, when asked about where she got the idea to write this book was inspired by the “subversive” notion of writing a story about someone who is irredeemable; someone who starts out broken, and doesn’t ever actually improve. Who remains unchanged by their experiences throughout, and worsens.

This is the heart of my struggle with A Little Life. It’s why I’m struggling with the fact that I enjoy this book so much, or that I found so much of value. My fundamental values are anathema to the premise of that. My lived-in experience of reading it screamed at me the whole way through.

When you write about a group of people, you represent them. Yanagihara chose to focus her concept of irredeemability on a character who was the subject of endless abuses. She also forces the situation so that Jude will never grow. There are off-ramps in this story; moments where Jude is given the opportunity and has the will to change. Then, Yanagihara, slave to her intention, drives the story down the dark path. The path where cannot heal.

All for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Because, to her mind, the concept of irredeemable characters is one that has not been plunged. Indeed, the New Yorker praised the concept effusively “Subversively Brilliant”. There is brilliance in portraying abuse as something that you can’t escape from. There are, evidently, too many stories of people working past their abuse and growing.

I will not litigate the quality of the book. But the premise that literature has not sufficiently plunged the depths of the broken and unfixable is not only flawed, it’s also downright myopic. From Byronic heroes like Heathcliff to the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy’s Shigekuni Honda and Kiyoaki Matsugae by Yukio Mishima, to Ahab and his obsession with finding the Whale; to Hamlet and Oedipus; to Bojack fucking horseman. Irredeemable characters are a dime a dozen.

To suppose that stories of the unfixable are underrepresented is intellectual vanity. Pure and simple. That already rankles. But when Yanagihara decides that the focus of her desire to portray someone broken is through an abuse narrative, then it becomes infuriating.

Save for very few stories, almost no one seems capable of telling a story about people who suffer abuse, addiction, mental illness, or any kind of emotional unwellness without painting them as inherently unfixable. At least not in literary circles. Mentally ill people do not have the luxury of leading fulfilling, healthy lives; mentally ill people, the abused are beaten down and need kids gloves. There is no reason to tell stories about the mentally ill in which it is possible to be redeemed, in which it is possible to work towards growth, happiness, and fulfillment.

This story is brilliant. But it is not subversive. It is telling the story of mental illness that is the common narrative we’ve all come to know: abuse victims are broken. And in this case, that’s the point. In fact, for Yanagihara who makes a genuine, good faith effort at emotional honesty through melodrama – and largely succeeds – she still feels the need to go out of her way to make sure Jude doesn’t get better for the sake of telling a more interesting, uncommon narrative.

That’s infuriating. I don’t need to be told, again, that I’m unfixable. Because I’m not. Nor am I irredeemable (an exceptionally poor choice of words). Those are ideas that pop culture holds about me. They are untrue. The idea that abuse victims can heal is subversive and novel. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are plenty of stories of people healing from trauma. But I rarely see them. Instead, I see people glorifying brokenness and telling me its real.

I read this book quickly, because I learned how to love myself. I’ve not healed completely, but I’ve made great efforts and huge strides towards emotional wellness. In spite of the fact that people consider me broken and unfixable. It’s fucking bullshit. It pisses me off.

This fury makes my adoration hurt so bad. I want to unabashedly adore this book. I want to recommend it freely, say how awed I am by the writing and the character work and the readability and the flow. I want to talk about how it’s great as LGBT+ representation (which it is). About how that darkness is purely cathartic.

But I can’t. Because to me, that tacitly condones the manipulation and the marionette and the intellectual pretension and the cynical desires to show someone suffering and not heal to which I am vocally and passionately anathema.

And that sucks.

[7]

A Little Life is Complicated

A Little Life is a great book. A Little Life is honest, and portrays found families incredibly; there are moments of genuine catharsis and the characters are rich. The storytelling is brilliant. The relationships are believable. The portrayal of trauma is true.

A Little Life is manipulative. A Little Life is cynical; it relishes in darkness in ways that make it at times feel like torture porn. A little life wants to think of itself as subversive. A Little Life is not subversive. A Little Life is almost transcendent.

And I’m torn about it. I want to love it, and I want to hate it equally. But these two sides war with each other because both have been fed. I love so much and I hate what lies underneath.

Is it a good book? yes. Is it a healthy book? no.

And for me, I can’t decide if that’s good or not. I don’t think I can actually recommend this to anybody, because of that conscious fetishization of trauma. And I especially don’t want to recommend it to people who have experienced extreme trauma and may get a flare up emotionally. Nor do I want to recommend it for its portrayal of mental illness, which is so cloyingly standard it borders on repulsive.

Rather, I’d like to say that it’s a powerful book. It made me feel things. It made me appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship and the beauty and gave to me living characters in a vibrant world. Fleshy and real and pulsing. Part of me wants to re-read it. But I don’t know if I will, for the sake of my emotional well-being.

Maybe, that’s enough.

And that’s all I got. If you like this and want to see more from me, give me a like or a follow on Facebook and Twitter. Please also comment with your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

Peace and love, as always.

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