Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

"A little life" by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador, 2015)

Over 700 pages with little white space, telling the stories of 4 college friends in the States.

  • Willem (actor). 3 siblings died young.
  • Jude (lawyer)
  • JB (artist). Gay
  • Malcolm (building firm). Rich parents (black father. white mother). Later marries Sophie.

It's dense with detail - hardly a word or description can go by without some back-story or imagery being inserted -

  • "Ah," Willem said, careful not to look at Malcolm, whom he did not trust not to react. (p.9)
  • Annika was speaking very fast and had apparently decided that the best strategy was to treat Willem like an eclipse and simply not look at him at all (p.10)
  • they also frequently dropped by his floor for a visit, preceding their social calls with a simultaneous knock and doorknob-turn that Malcolm had told them time and again defeated the purpose of knocking at all. (p.21)
  • only here [in NY] did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself (p.42

Asides are usually detailed -

  • But even his father, who had grown up poor in Queens - albeit with two working parents and a new set of clothes every year - had been shocked, Malcolm sensed, although he had endeavored to conceal it by sharing a story of his own childhood deprivation (something about a Christmas tree that had to be bought the day after Christmas), as if lack of privilege were a competition that he was still determined to win, even in the face of another's clear and inarguable triumph. (p.61)
  • The previous year, the first post-school-life New Year's that they had all been in the same city at the same time, they had all ended up separate and miserable - JB lodged at some lame party at Ezra's, Malcolm stuck at his parents' friends' dinner uptown, Willem trapped by Findlay into a holiday shift at Ortolan, Jude mired in bed with the flu at Lispenard Street - and had resolved to actually make plans for the next year. (p.66)

Jude's the most vulnerable of the 4 -

  • this was part of the deal when you were friends with Jude: [Willem] knew it, they all knew it. You let things slide that your instincts told you not to, you scooted around the edges of your suspicions. You understood that proof of your friendship lay in keeping your distance, in accepting what was told you, in turning and walking away when the door was shut in your face instead of trying to force it open (p.73).
  • "Like Judy here: we never see him with anyone, we don't know what race he is, we don't know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past." He smiled at him, presumably to show he was at least partly joking. "The post-man. Jude the Postman." (p.94).
  • They knew he was strange, and now his foolishness extended to his having convinced himself that he had convinced them that he wasn't (p.94)

There's a story around p.100 about his social worker, Ana - "around her he had felt none of the constant anxiety, nor watchfulness, that he seemed condemned to feel around everyone else; the vigilance was exhausting". Before she dies she advises him to think carefully about what to tell people about his past. What he hides from others is hidden from readers too. On p.146 we're told he was abandoned soon after birth, brought up by monks, abused by them. Consequently Jude thinks himself as a bad person. A doctor, Andy, who he sees regularly, befriends him and supports him for years.

Up to now, the 3rd-person voice has dipped into various heads. The section beginning on p.156 starts with "You asked me once when I knew that he was for me". It turns out that "he" is Jude, and "I" is Harold, a law lecturer friend - "It is morals that help us make the laws, but morals do not help us apply them" (p.168). Harold and his wife Julia offered to adopt Jude, who's now about 30. In one of several flash-forwards we learn that "He doesn't know this now, but in the years to come he will, again and again, test Harold's claims of devotion" (p.209)

In another side-story Jude tutors Felix, a lonely little boy. After the adoption offer, Jude tells him everything will be alright. But after p.300 Jude is violently assaulted by a boyfriend Caleb because of his disability. Jude thinks he deserves it, that he should be grateful for any human contact.

p.341 is another first-person section. Harold tell us about his son who died young, his guilt. The "you" character turns out to be Willem. Harold asks Jude why he self-harms. Jude replies "Sometimes it's because I feel so awful, or ashamed, and I need to make physical what I feel ... And sometimes it's because I feel so many things and I need to feel nothing at all - it helps clear them away. And sometimes it's because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn't" (p.360)

The 4 friends progress well in life and keep in touch until JB and Jude (hence Willem, always the most protective of his friends) fall out. Jude earns big money in law, defending BigPharmas. Jude dominates the novel from now on.

On p.393 there's his suicide attempt. Only now do we get some flash-backs about how Brother Luke fled from the monastery with 9 y.o. Jude, pimping him, them showing him how to cut himself.

By p.446 Jude is 43. Willem (who's now a famous, rich actor who's dated many women) discovers that he fancies Jude and they become a couple. Sex is an issue. It makes Jude cut more. Willem goes back to sleeping with women. Jude still keeps much of his past secret. He tries to come to terms with his memories. He receives blackmail threats. We read how Dr Traylor held him captive and caused him injuries that now require him to have both legs amputated below the knee.

The book ends in the first person - Harold reports on Jude's suicide and the fate of several other characters.

It's a long book, but it could have been longer. 2 of them holiday in Morocco, then later all 4 of them holiday in India, both events dismissed in a sentence or 2. I think the "The Happy Years" section is far too long, and that Jude's math interest needn't be there.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads (4.29/5 - 128,735 ratings, 20,391 reviews)
  • Sarah Churchwell (As its focus on Jude intensifies, the novel stops being what made it unusual and begins to make great demands on our pity for him. ... A Little Life is uneven, unusual, unrelenting; it moves swiftly forward before lurching into longueurs of anguish recounted, self-hatred chronicled)
  • Jon Michaud (the clearest sign that “A Little Life” will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, “A Little Life” becomes a surprisingly subversive novel—one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.)
  • Garth Greenwell (an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America. ... To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering)

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