Lauded as a subversive masterpiece, pegged as a favourite to win The Man Booker Prize and one of the best-selling novels of 2015 – A Little Life has earned Yanagihara the kind of success few but the improbable characters of her novel could ever attain. The story follows the lives of four graduates from an elite New England College as they move to New York. There is the kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes tactless painter; unassuming Malcolm, working his way up from the bottom rung of the architecture ladder; and finally, the captivating yet enigmatic Jude. Each of them is broke but buoyed by their mutual circumstance, friendship and ambition. This early section of the book describes the boys’ relationships so warmly and so vibrantly that it is truly irresistible.
But something distances Jude from his friends. He struggles with his legs, suffers from episodes of severe spinal pain and his life before college is shrouded in mystery. The narrative, usually in the third person, is told from the perspective of each of the four friends and Jude’s adoptive father; giving each character the chance to recount their personal history and chronicle their experiences and thoughts about Jude. Context set, our first hint of trouble comes as Jude wakes Willem in the dead of night after an incident. Bleeding profusely from his arm, Jude is shifty about the cause of the wound and insists that he doesn’t want to go to a hospital, asking Willem to take him to a mutual friend named Andy, who is a doctor. Having sewn up Jude’s wound, Andy angrily points out to Willem, “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?”
From then on the reader is repeatedly subjected to scenes with Jude mutilating his own flesh with a razor blade, which Yanagihara describes so viscerally it might make some readers queasy. All the while, concrete information about Jude’s background is withheld and hinting phrases such as ‘those years’, along with sinister references to ‘Brother Luke’ and ‘Dr Traylor’, ensure that the mystery surrounding his previous life becomes the narrative vehicle that drives the novel forward.
As the novel progresses so do the career paths of each character: all four go on to become unparalleled successes within their respective fields. The middle-aged Jude becomes a much feared corporate litigator, Willem an Oscar-winning superstar, Malcolm the CEO of a globally successful architectural firm and JB has pieces from his first series of work exhibited at MoMA. But despite their incredibly unlikely and dramatic change in circumstance, character development screeches to a halt. The men remain boyish, with their attentions remaining obsessively inwardly focussed on their friendship group. New characters are introduced but seem two-dimensional, and their relationships with the quartet are wooden and contrived. Apart from enjoying a culinary/domestic upgrade, nothing much changes over this a-historic decade. The characters seem simply to age rather than grow.
The narrative then begins a series of repetitive contemplations on Jude’s mental stability, alternating between Jude and Willem’s points of view. Eventually the precise nature of Jude’s suffering starts to become clear as Yanagihara doles out a series of flashbacks; an unflinching catalogue of childhood sexual abuse, violence, suffering and difficulty, each one, more gruesome than its predecessor. It is sometimes more suffering than the novel can believably take, and though A Little Life is definitely not quite misery porn, its voyeurism explains a lot about this book’s popular success.
On the plus, just about everybody in Jude’s present tense loves him on a deep and profound level. They all seem to care more about his welfare than sometimes they do their own and without fail they each provide the paternal care and attention that Jude demands well into his fifties. There is something infantilizing and overly indulgent about Jude’s world in which the people who love him are as tirelessly infatuated by his drama as he is; at worst, Jude’s story errs towards cliché, martyrdom and melodrama.
However it is precisely the constancy of their affection and Jude’s disbelief of it that has excited critics. Jon Michaud, in The New Yorker, praised its “subversive” representation of abuse, which, he asserts, lies in the book’s refusal to allow “any possibility of redemption and deliverance.”
As contrived as this novel sometimes feels, it has the makings of an interesting story about a subject that is too rarely explored. Jude’s tale demands questions about whether we can ever truly understand the trauma of abuse or come to terms with it. In parts (particularly the exchanges with the most realised character Willem) the story can be genuinely affecting and Jude’s mystery successfully holds the readers curiosity. Ultimately however, a novel in the realistic tradition must be relatable to be effective. A Little Life stretches credulity just that bit too far and teeters on the edges of sensationalism. Its shock value is distracting and the impossible feats of the characters are difficult to relate to and emotionally engage with as we should.
By Emma Nuttall