I finished this novel more than a month ago, but I have been struggling to think what to say about it ever since. In one sense, the many insightful, thoughtful, brilliant interviews I’ve read with its author have spelt out my thoughts for me (in contrast to the majority of interviews with writers of fiction, which often disappoint – it’s interesting how some excellent writers seem to find it very difficult to reflect on their own work). When I first heard of the novel, I felt, to be honest, rather puzzled by comments from clearly frazzled readers about its emotional brutality, because the synopsis made it sound like yet another novel about four college friends trying to forge artistic careers in New York (think Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Joanna Rakoff’s A Fortunate Life, most recently, or Mary McCarthy’s The Group, most famously). This, it turns out, was entirely deliberate:
I… wanted the narrative to have a slight sleight-of-hand quality: The reader would begin thinking it a fairly standard post-college New York City book (a literary subgenre I happen to love), and then, as the story progressed, would sense it was becoming something else, something unexpected. (Hanya Yanagihara on Vulture.com)
This type of manipulation of reader expectations is something that I love in novels, but of course there is more to A Little Life than that. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because one of the reasons I was so engrossed in this 700+ page monster (I finished it in a feverish few days, helped by having to spend seven hours on buses) was because of the very quality that Yanagihara highlights in her interview; the feeling that you never quite know what’s coming, despite the straightforward simplicity of the plot, which ultimately is not much of a plot at all. The feeling that you don’t want to know what’s coming; the feeling that you have to know.
It’s early in A Little Life that we realise that Jude, one of the four main characters, has had a hard and secret past. Jude only gradually comes into focus for the reader – the early pages of the novel linger on artist JB’s indulgent childhood with his Haitian American mother and Malcolm’s irritation at still having to live in his parents’ house where their obvious preference for his ‘fabulous’ sister Flora is continually demonstrated. However, once he takes centre stage, he does not leave it, and as we work our way through his past and present suffering, we realise that this is a novel that is really about pain, and the impossibility of truly moving on from such mutilating experiences. ‘I wanted A Little Life… to begin healthy (or appear so), and end sick — both the main character, Jude, and the plot itself,’ says Yanagihara. In a Guardian interview, she expands: ‘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.’
This is an important point. There does seem, in fiction, at times, to be a dichotomy between the idea of a novel that is literary and by extension, praiseworthy, and stories that deal explicitly with the consequences of abuse. The shadows of popular misery-lit memoirs such as A Child Called It hang over even excellent novels such as Heather O’Neill’s Orange Prize shortlisted Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was initially jacketed in a way that seemed designed to appeal to that market (left). This point is made very well by Jon Michaud, writing about A Little Life in The New Yorker: ‘The graphic depictions of abuse and physical suffering that one finds in “A Little Life” are rare in mainstream literary fiction. Novels that deal with these matters often fade out when the violence begins.’ A detailed treatment of such matters is, he argues, more common in genre fiction, citing the abuse of Theon Greyjoy in both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, among other examples. Yet it is precisely because Yanagihara dares to tread this line, and to risk being called crude or sensationalist, that this novel is so exceptional.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the depiction of rape in fiction, with some writers and commentators, such as Nicola Griffith, going so far as to argue that writers should not write about rape. I disagree strongly with Griffith (although I admire her guts in saying straightforwardly what many articles merely imply) and I think A Little Life is one of the best ripostes that one could make to such a point of view. I agree that many incidences of rape in fiction, such as Sansa Stark’s rape in Game of Thrones, are gratuitous and unnecessary. However, the idea that we all know that rape and abuse are wrong, and so it is pointless to depict such awful acts, completely misses the point; actually, the amount that people don’t understand about rape and abuse is staggering, as demonstrated by some of the recent commentary about rape in Game of Thrones. (Here is an example of some bad arguments about why the scene was necessary, which also mixes up show commentary with book commentary; here are some counter-arguments to these claims.) Surely the right response to this ignorance is to write more thoughtful, more nuanced, more serious portrayals of abuse, rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet by refusing to write about it all? Furthermore, A Little Life is also a salutary reminder that women are not the only victims.
If this all makes this novel sound worthy but depressing, I can assure you that it is not. A Little Life is an emotionally difficult read, but it has an incredible narrative drive, an achievement that is all the more spectacular given that it is an entirely character-driven novel. To be clear: this is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years. I haven’t been so immersed in a story for a very long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. And perhaps this is the point where words can say nothing more than: please, read it.
I received a proof copy of this novel directly from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK now.