A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara review – where does suffering end?

In Steve Martin’s L.A Story, he remarks ‘Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends?’ In a similar vein, while we can probably identify the start of a story of abuse, how do we determine when it ends? There is a great human need to see each story as having an arc, every suffering an end and all life stories moving forward, in various manners of speaking.

But, as we all know, life does not always have a lesson or a meaning. The truth is that bad things happen to good people every day, victims of abuse and torture need not always see a light at the end of the tunnel. Being struck by lightning today does not reduce your odds tomorrow. In the papers and the news channels we read and watch stories of people who have undergone terrible trauma or abuse and in some way, the printing of the news story, the sharing of the tale, the nabbing of the abuser, say – all these act as some kind of turning point as per the story. The victim is finally out from under the oppressors thumb and can now start healing and get on the road to recovery, to live a rewarding life.Even more than the impacted person, we the readers of these depressing news stories need to believe that.

But what if someone doesn’t get better. It is not a question of them not wanting to as much not being able to? What if a victim of abuse is not able to appreciate the greatest, most wonderful gifts enough to shed the skin of abuse? Do you blame them for not being able to ‘move on’ in life? Or do we realise that just because we want something so, it does not happen; just because it would suit our narrative.

This, I think, is the primary point of Hanya Yanagihara(HY)’s novel, A Little Life. On the surface and initially it appears to be about four well-educated East Coast Americans who make their life in NYC, pursuing fame and/or wealth. The tropes are standard – Willem the aspiring actor, Malcolm the architect, JB the artist and Jude the lawyer. So far, so normal. The friends engage in easy banter and they all seem to have their future plans clear enough, whether or not success is a part of it. 
Slowly the narrative starts to focus on one of the friends more than the others – the enigmatic Jude St Francis (named after the patron saint, not so subtly), who plays his cards close to his chest, to put it mildly. His closest friends do not know anything about his background (which is slowly revealed to us over the course of the book – each chapter of his past more horrific than what went before, pushing our tolerance), his parentage (orphan left to be found) or his sexuality (none to speak of).

And just as horrific has his childhood was, Jude turns a corner into a golden present and future. After getting into the right schools and dazzling people with his brilliance and excellence (at most everything, it would seem) he manages to write himself a winning lottery ticket. His mentors are kind and understanding, patient and incredibly generous. His friends are all loyal, especially Willem, the budding actor, who never allows his girlfriends to make him choose between Jude and them (this must strike a familiar chord with us all, being one of the pitfalls of dating a person who doesn’t care for your friends). HY moves the story along well, even though the book is long and we find ourselves wanting to know both what exactly happened in Jude’s past as well as what the future holds for him. I found myself dreading his future (surely he had had his share of abuse and would now get to live a happy life, I hoped) more than I wanted to find out about his future (relentlessly gloomy and depressing, passed around from one abuser to another, trust broken repeatedly till he is but a shell of a functioning human being).

I think the purpose of the length of the book is to show that none of us can judge those who have been through something like abuse. Again and again I found myself thinking (or mentally screaming to Jude) that ‘this is good. Get over it. Move on’ and other ridiculous phrases that are so easy to say and so hard to implement. And I began to get the point of HY’s book – none of us, not even the all knowing reader is in a position to pass judgement on Jude’s moods or Jude’s inability to get over his demons, because IT DID NOT HAPPEN TO US.

It is a sobering lesson because it stands in opposition to what we are fed by the daily media all around it – You can win. Get moving on. Get busy living or get busy dying. In today’s world if a movie or a book doesn’t inspire you, or at least give you a smidgen of hope then it would be hard pressed to justify its existence. Grime and sorry and pain are excellent for act 1. But you better make sure that Hope comes around for the finale. Even if it is an artistic, mostly hidden, sliver of hope, that’s ok. But it has to be Hope.

So I walk around now, still thinking of the main characters of this book, and I overlook the few criticisms I have and choose to imbibe the depressing lesson of the book, the difficulty of reading about so much violence (both externally inflicted and self-inflicted) to the point of cringing.

It is a sad book. But while we go on complaining about how short life is and how quickly it is over, it is also the longest thing we know. Or for some, at least.

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