This is a big book in lots of ways. 720 pages. There’s nothing little about A Little Life. I’d picked up hints about this book in my reading. The Great American Novel. It made it a must read. Yanagihara’s second novel won acclaim from all the major players in literary fiction. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ‘Announces [on the flyleaf] Yanagihara as a major American novelist. The New York Times bestseller. A panegyric from Edmund White. A serious book about A Little Life that asks to be taken seriously. And yet.
Four guys go to college in New York together. Jude is sixteen. Polymath. He becomes a successful lawyer. Willem is eighteen. He becomes an internationally acclaimed actor. JB and Malcolm are also eighteen and black, Malcolm less so. JB becomes an internationally acclaimed artist, based on portraits of his group of friends (Jude, Willem, Malcolm and himself). He’s the bad boy, takes drugs and becomes an addict. Malcolm is a good mummy’s boy and becomes an internationally acclaimed architect.
The narrative begins in a run-down apartment in Lispenard Street shared by Jude and Willem, and ends in Lispenard Street, over thirty years later, but with a different narrator and point of view. It doorstops their friendship through their twenties, thirties, forties and into their early ‘honeyed’ fifties and ‘The Happy Years’ (post-ironic title).
Four friends, two groups of two friends.
Willem and Jude are poor orphans and shared a dorm room at school. Malcolm and JD are relatively well off. They also shared a dorm room, but their parents were loaded. Malcolm’s mum and dad, for example, let Jude live in their basement flat when his sister moves out. They love him. Everybody loves Jude. The secret is in his name Jude St Francis.
Willem tries to describe to his therapist what he means by friendship.
‘The word ‘friend’ was so vague, so undescriptive and unsatisfying, but how could he use the same term to describe what Jude was to him…And so they had chosen another, more familiar form of relationship, one that hadn’t worked. But now they were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.’
In simpler terms, it’s the kind of relationship not outside history but very much inside history and carved into trees by adolescents—fill in your own childhood names here—Willem loves Jude xxx, Jude loves Willem xxx.
Women love Willem. He has two long-term relationships with women that almost end in marriage and numerous other relationships that begin and end with sex. Yet it’s Jude he loves, but not sexually. Then sexually. Then not sexually. It’s complicated.
JB is straight, as in straightforward. He’s gay. Malcolm less so. He dates a guy and comes out to his parents as being gay, then marries a woman he falls in love with.
They have other friends who are gay or straight, or a bit of both. Jude is the exception. And his exceptionalism is the catalyst, because he has secrets that drive the narrative.
‘[Willem] would study him covertly, wondering how he had gotten from where he had been to where he was, wondering how he had become the person he has been when everything in his life had argued that it shouldn’t be. The awe that he’d felt for him, then, the despair and horror, was something one felt for idols, and not for other humans, at least no other humans he knew.
‘I know how you feel, Willem,’ Andy had said in one of their secret conversations, ‘but he doesn’t want you to admire him, he wants you to see him as he is. He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.’
Andy loves Jude too. But differently. Andy treats Jude when he cuts himself, because he’s a surgeon. A few years older than Jude, but he knew him at college. He’s treated his wounds two or three times a week. They argue and he threatens to have him committed and demands Jude see a therapist, but Jude doesn’t want that. He cuts himself to forget, but which brings it all back.
Good guys like Andy wear white hats. They’re immeasurably good. Too good to be true. Harold and Julia are other examples. We find out about their backstory and about the lost child. Jude worked for Harold and Harold came to love him as a son. They adopted him when he was thirty.
Bad guys wear black hats. The ‘long eel of memory’ extends back to Jude being left on the step of a monastery as a baby. Being brought up by monks who beat him and used him for sex. Brother Luke who groomed him and took away and sold his body to other paedophiles for cash in motel rooms across America when he was around nine.
He’s taking into Care and physically and sexually abused by those ostensibly caring from him. He escapes and sells himself to drivers from Montana to Boston truck stops. He’s fifteen now and gets picked up by Dr Traylor. He treats him for sexually transmitted diseases, but imprisons him in a basement. Jude imagines other boys being imprisoned in the same basement. He’s used for sex and when Dr Traylor grows bored with him, he drives over him with his car. That’s where his inability to walk properly comes from.
Ana, with the clichéd white hat, is a social worker, with a heart of gold. She helps save him and recognises his genius and gets him a place in college. She conveniently dies.
Then there’s Caleb. Black hat. He hooks up with Jude when he’s a successful lawyer. Caleb recognises him from JB’s painting. Caleb is successful too. He fucks Jude up, not just by fucking him, but degrading him and almost murdering him. He gets away with it. He also dies conveniently of natural causes.
An existential drama, which I don’t buy into. Jude suffers from what we recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shakespeare recognised the pattern in sixteenth-century Hamlet:
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, isn’t it one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself, but what one thinks about it.’
I’m not a fan of the writing. Everyone explains too much. But I’ve said too much already. I finished it, despite myself. Read on.