After an acclaimed debut, Hanya Yanagihara returns with a story that emerges as one of the most challenging and thought-provoking to come along in some time.
One of the facets of great literature is its ability to create an experience that transcends life, that winds through the emotions, the possibilities and impossibilities with which we share our collective existence. Often when a book goes to a place of impossibilities, of tragedies and profound sadness, we wonder why it's necessary, why the author felt the need to turn their gaze onto something painful. If an artist controls their creations then why would they choose to create art that evokes pain? On this subject, I know two things: one, the idea that we control our own creations is something every artist learns - quickly - to be a falsehood; and two, that sometimes art exists to bear witness to pain, because every emotion and experience in life shares this sphere and none has a greater claim than the rest. This perception was on my mind consistently as I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life. In it, she tells a story not only of extraordinary pain, but also of singular importance. Upon finishing this 720-page tome I couldn't recall a book that had ever stricken me with this same combination of emotional highs and lows, one that challenges and somehow embraces the reader, that disturbs them and yet reminds them of the astounding necessity of humanity and human connection.
The story of A Little Life revolves around Willem, a handsome actor with a patient heart; Malcom, an architect who seems always on the cusp of perpetual longing; JB, an ego-centric artist with his own personal brand of flamboyancy; and Jude, a deeply intelligent lawyer who has always kept his friends at arm's distance from his past. Yanagihara has an extraordinary way of making the unremarkable remarkable even in the basis of her story: here are four people - unfamiliar to the reader - that are living essentially normal lives with an unspoken undercurrent, and here we are, completely and suddenly and inexplicably absorbed. With profundity and eloquence, Yanagihara unveils the heart of each man, lingering as the other three also seem to do on Jude: Jude, who never lets anyone see the scars of his past, whether physical or emotional; Jude, who never shares even the most commonplace memory from his childhood. As the gut-wrenching truth of his youth is revealed, the devastation threatens to derail the reader. Here, the story delves into its most difficult layers, a seemingly fathomless ocean of grief.
Yanagihara handles her novel's most challenging subject matter with an honesty that makes it feel even more raw - subject matter which ranges from physical and sexual abuse of both children and adults (committed, one should note, by people in trustworthy positions of service) to depression and self-harm. There is no question of the brutality of this material, though the author is sensitive and respectful at every turn, adopting a certain vagueness at some of the most harrowing topics while others are portrayed explicitly. It falls to the reader, of course, to determine their level of comfort with committing to this sort of book; or rather, how uncomfortable they are willing to be. It was an unquestionably emotional experience - at times I felt I wanted to hug the book as a way of reaching my compassion through the pages to Jude, and at other times I found myself with a strong resistance to where the story was going. Ultimately, though, I think Yanagihara places a thin but solid stretch of hope in the story through the dependable characters who truly love Jude: his mentor Harold and Harold's wife, Julia; his resilient doctor, Andy; his many friends and colleagues, particularly Willem, Jude's greatest protector. Not only do these characters create a warm presence in the midst of Jude's cold circumstances, but they are each so richly imagined that they're a pleasure to read about individually.
Yanagihara tells the story of Jude, Willem, Malcom, and JB with exquisite artistry, in some ways quietly unexpected in its delivery. The narrative chooses its own pace languidly, sometimes switching tense and occasionally changing entirely to a first-person perspective; the timeline, too, swirls with just enough chronological nonchalance to resemble a life being remembered piecemeal, memories being recalled by unremarkable things: a look, a sound, a touch, a daydream. Despite its gloomy trajectory, the story maintains a gray-hued lightness and what ultimately seems a story of a sad history, a sad present, a sad future, manages to carry traces of important things: the small, sometimes graceless moments of simplistic contentment, of happiness that seems fleeting but ultimately carries us through our darkest hours. In many ways it shows, rather than how darkness stands in battle against light, how the two exist together, both equally tangible, both equally overwhelming. And while we might feel swayed by one, while our actions might be dictated to by another, we are ultimately at the mercy of something greater: an ethereal combination of fate and love.
In some ways A Little Life takes on a fizzy halo of magical realism, in part because we would like to believe that the reality of the story where such tragic things might befall a person doesn't actually match the bearings of our own reality. This is sometimes bolstered by the quirkiness of Yanagihara’s imagination: the names of characters, names like Rhodes and Citizen and Phaedra, which take us a bit out of our perception of the everyday. Even the creation of blockbuster films in which Willem plays a covert spy, a legendary ballet prodigy, a hero from some far-off time in history, all seem to render a sense of separation from "real life". But, ultimately, as it veers off toward a safer non-reality it catapults into the reader's world with a thoroughness that only happens once in a while, only with truly great, lovingly crafted, painstakingly detailed books. And as it lingers, it lays down its roots in the reader's heart, strong enough to allow it to stay with us well after the final pages.
A Little Life culminates as a superb piece in every way: through its unique construction, which seems to turn the basic workings of a novel into something more liquid in form; through the authors aching, luminous prose; through the striking pain of its story, as well as the striking resonance of love's existence in the face of great desperation. It showcases Yanagihara's tremendous ability not just as an artist utilizing words as her medium, but as a visionary whose fearlessness will undoubtedly continue to take her to places of uncommon beauty. With this novel, she turns emotions into visible things we can hold in our hand and allows the story to create a sort of three-dimensional diorama of its own world within the reader's mind. In the end, while I fully expected A Little Life to be what I would categorize as a sad novel - and from a literal perspective I suppose it is, undeniably - I found that it instead does something quite unique: it balances the colossal frailty and unthinkable pain of life with the tremendous wonder of the gifts we exist to receive.