A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, may be the finest novel you’ll read this year. Long, at 720 pages in hardback, it’s the most page-turning, fingernail-gripping book I’ve read since Donna Tartt’s very fine Goldfinch. One of the most fascinating facts about fiction in the past five years or so is the number of very long novels but achieving critical acclaim and often best-selling status: remember Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna from a couple of years ago, which also fit both categories, as did Joyce Carol Oates’ splendid novel The Accursed. I often wonder about many cultural dictates and assumptions, whether they’re true, or simply predicated upon the busy, busy lives of our Young Professionals, where things like reading novels, or going to art shows, and the like, are supposedly impossible for such groups of people (though I note that eating out in fine restaurants is a very high priority, both in terms of money and time, for many in the millennial age group, as is exercise/gym time).
Yanagihara, about whom I know nothing other than what little’s on the book jacket (which mentions one earlier novel, followed by “She lives in New York City”, and no jacket photograph is present, which I assume’s a choice on her part. A Little Life follows in the tradition I mentioned last month, where a group of (male) friends meet in some very elitist New England college/university (I take it to be Harvard), and they room together in pairs of two, adjacent to the other two. The four young men are brilliantly delineated from the beginning of the novel: there’s JB, the already ‘out’ visual artist, mercurial and moody; Willem, who doubts his own intelligence, and is going in for acting, and who’s from a farm in small town America, originally, the only surviving child out of four in his family, who has almost no relationship with what’s left of his family, but who helped to take care of his much disabled older brother as long as he was alive; Malcolm, from a well off New York family, showing an early interest in and talent for architecture; and the elusive Jude, about whom the novel will ultimately circle, a young man of unknown origins, physically partially disabled, possibly the most brilliant of the four. These tight friendships, and the nature of the relationships between and amongst these four men, and a peripheral circle of friends right outside their group (like concentric circles of friendships), are well delineated in these early college years: the author, in describing the nature of male friendships, might have been on tricky territory, but she is so on the mark about these four men and their affection for one another–and loyalty to one another–that what might have been problematic, isn’t. I take these men to be millennials, so that all sorts of what are now known as ‘gender issues’ run all through the novel. In Yanagihara’s world, a kind of floating bisexuality is the norm; other than JB’s self-defined homosexuality, the other three’s sexuality is rather fluid, and comfortably so: the author is at her finest in following these new gender identities throughout the novel, and part of her brilliance is her understanding of these newer gender definitions, which may come as a surprise mostly to older readers (it did to me, at first).
All four of the men will end up following career paths in New York City; Jude and Willem will continue to room together. And although all four will have an immense amount of professional success, which perhaps is the book’s only weak link, as part of America’s new meritocracy, brilliantly educated, we know that some people do achieve success in a city as tough as New York. The furtive, elusive Jude, though he has musical talent and mathematical wizardry, chooses law school, and after a brief stint in the US Prosecutor’s office in New York, he joins a tough New York private law firm, and makes a fortune, and the author, again, is brilliant in describing the inner workings of such a firm. Jude, we know from the beginning, has been an abused child, and big sections of the novel unravel his appalling childhood, replete with sexual abuse for his entire childhood and adolescence. (It’s difficult to know how much to spill in a review, but Jude keeps all these horrors to himself). Virtually every one of his childhood fantasies, about having parents and a home and friends and the like, will be fulfilled, but whenever something/someone good enters his life, Jude is compelled to cut himself, as a way of managing his emotions. Again, the author explains the dynamics of this self-mutilation with brilliance and sensitivity; even Jude’s doctor, also a college friend, will allow the cutting to continue, as he also understands that Jude needs it and mostly manages it. Much of Yanagihara’s brilliance is in tackling socio-psychological issues of these types: sexual abuse; self-mutilation; bisexuality; career paths and choices; dealing with fame; finding (or not) love, but her core theme is friendship, and I can’t remember a novel that’s so assured in describing the love that friendship brings, and how each character’s choices of partners and friends and families are predicated on friendship, which she values above all other virtues.
Most of the novel centers around Jude, and is seen from his perspectives, and we wonder, at times, as do Jude’s friends and some colleagues, whether he is, or isn’t, mad, or going mad (at times , he probably is/does). But when the mostly ‘straight’ Willem finally decides that he loves Jude, and wants to live with him, knowing that his career as an actor may be compromised, we see Yanagihara at her absolute finest, most brilliant, most persuasive. We also know, by following clues that the author leaves along the way, that Jude will not always be able to compartmentalize his life as well as he has done for most of his life , that the horrors of his past will emerge (wonderfully, she doesn’t put random characters from Jude’s past in his path, but recognizes that memory, dreams and the like are what will bring all the childhood abuses back to Jude. His friends will bond and support when things get really bad, which never reads as betrayal, and, until the novel’s penultimate denouement, there’s a possibility of happiness, if not normalcy, for Jude when all’s said and done (the author’s not a fool, and will not/cannot allow such when all’s said and done: more tragedies will await Jude, of course).
Yanagihara writes flawlessly, and she’s a terrific storyteller. Her characters’ behaviors remain consistent throughout the book, even with the vicissitudes of career paths and successes and large amounts of time each will spend away from New York as careers blossom. Layers and layers of concentric circles describing events and interior dialogues and monologues continue to draw and keep these friends together (that JB will end up mainly painting these friends is a brilliant twist of plot, and there are so many such plot devices which seem perfectly credible, that one wonders how this author has acquired so much early wisdom, and how she knows so much about the men of her generation, how they think, act, speak, care about one another, and the like. You may find, as I did, that this novel grows in stature after the first hundred pages or so, and you may also find, as I did at the end, that Yanagihara has written a masterpiece, a novel that will define a time and place in American life that will sustain over time; I expect this novel to become part of the American canon: such is the achievement of Yanagihara. I urge you to read this novel, and hope that you’ll be as awed by it as I am.