This is a deeply frustrating work of art. A Little Life is alluring, seductive, hypnotic, and all the while, messy, clunky, stubborn, myopic. At 720 pages, my patience was exhasted. I laughed at the climactic event, its absurd, pointlessly over-the-top major character death, which focused pornographically on the details of the car accident (the dying character soars through the air, amidst a constellation of broken windshield glass, long enough for him to contemplate his fate). The climax stands in for the rest of the novel, as everything else is just as fever-pitched and desperate to convey how much the cast suffers... though, in a way, they don't suffer; the cast is so fully and completed protected from systemic violence or oppression thanks to their wish-fulfillment level of class privilege. In other words, this is a throwback novel, a 90s novel which could have been written by Jonathan Franzen. While the characters might use email and texting, the novel could have been set during any period, as Yanagihara purposefully occludes any temporal specificity. The characters are post-racial, post-sexual, post-corporate, post-everything; one section of the novel is titled "The Postman" referring to the nickname the three friends bestow upon mysterious protagonist Jude St. Francis, he of ambiguous ethnicity and sexuality.
I will say this though, if I might indulge in some personal reflection, for all its faults and clumsiness, A Little Life provided me, maybe, with some insight into one of my cats. All three of my cats are rescue animals, adopted from a local no-kill shelter where I used to volunteer. All three have mysterious backgrounds, unknowable origins, and a host of behavioural tics, some of which are lovable, others not so much. Grimey, the "middle child," the one adopted second, is a grey long-haired cat perhaps a Nebelung, perhaps a grey Chantilly. He was named Grimeister by someone at the shelter and I have no idea where this name derives. We shortened it to Grimey but mostly we call him The Floof, or Floofie (the other two cats are medium haired, so there's no possible confusion on who is the floofiest). When I first met the cat, he was suffering from ear mites, severe dental problems, matted fur and subsequent lion cut shave, and a severe lack of confidence. He hid from me and others. Slowly, the cat healed and was placed into regular circulation, as it were, where he was ready to be adopted. We chose him in part because he is so beautiful and regal. After months in the shelter, his beautiful coat was growing in. So was his confidence. We also chose him because he lived in the same room as Maurice, the first of the three, so we knew they would get along (one of the shelter employees assured me she had seen Maurice and Grimey cuddling, and one would only need minutes of knowing Grimey to suspect this claim was pure bullshit).
Initially, the Floof was not a perfect fit. He was frightened, would not allow much touching, and absolutely refused to let us brush him or clip his nails. His neck and mane would get mats and though he would let me use scissors to cut out the worst of them, he would fight tooth and nail (literally) if I brushed him. He also developed a peeing problem we were extremely slow to notice. We thought he was ejecting bile or perhaps diarrhea and our apartment stunk to high heaven. I knew he was pooping in the litter box but I never caught him peeing outside the box. After we moved into our house, his peeing was not only noticeable but unavoidable. He would pee on the floor right beside my partner's side of the bed and there is nothing like waking up at 2 in the morning with your nostrils clogged by the hot stink of cat piss. We increased our litter boxes from two to six (as a rule of thumb, you should have one more box than you do cats). I cleaned the boxes more frequently. I began observing him closer and closer, trying desperately to figure out the pattern. There is no random behaviour in animals like cats; they aren't smart enough. No matter how obscure the pattern, it still exists. I just had to crack the code. But I couldn't. I can't. Even if I clean the boxes daily and put them all over the house (we have one in the living room!!!), he still often pees on the floor, beside the box. Just yesterday, I came home to find that familiar hot sweet stink in the dining room.
We've ruled out medical problems, we've never disciplined him—we're told it's extremely counter-productive—we still love him, even if I want to throttle him, to yell at him. The Floof is a sweet boy: he cuddles, in his own way; he likes being around us; he likes playing; he adores Moogie, our third cat, even if he never wants to cuddle. He's kind and curious and beautiful and funny. His meow is hilarious. When he is picked up, he eventually cries like he's being murdered (I pick up all the cats every once in awhile because I need them to be accustomed to it. If there's a fire, I don't want to have to fight a cat. Just pick him up and go). He's a drama queen. He's gorgeous.
But reading A Little Life gave me some insight, taught me a bit of patience. I suggested to my partner that maybe The Floof was abandoned those few years ago because of his peeing problem. Perhaps he didn't develop the problem while living with us. Perhaps he's always had it. The years before we knew these cats are as opaque as possible; they cannot talk, they cannot tell us the circumstances by which they found themselves on the streets, fending for themselves. Only the scars and behaviours can give us some insight. For example, Maurice has lost the tip of one ear to frostbite; we can assume then he spent at least one winter outside. The Floof has a single puncture scar on his shoulder, not noticeable until we gave him a lion cut last year. Who knows where these things came from?
Unlike Jude, the wounded, broken, disabled, secretive protagonist, Floofie can't tell me what went wrong. So I have to remind myself to have patience. His past will forever be inscrutable to me and he's not always responsible for the things he does. Like Jude, he is frustrating, he is annoying at times, but he is also beautiful and worthy of love, something I try to remind my cat daily, something the cast tries in vain to remind Jude. Maybe like Jude, Grimey cannot let go of his trauma. Did he have a bad litter box experience years before? Frustrating not only because I have to clean up pee but because I cannot "fix" him. I can't seem to figure out what he needs. But like Jude and his friends, I must learn, I must remember his past is traumatic.
So I did find value in A Little Life, even if it wasn't artistic. Hopefully other readers find value, learn patience, forgiveness, love for the folks in their lives who are hurt and in pain. But that's not everything a novel is. Novels aren't just moral lessons. And even if this one were simply a moral lesson, I would still find it clumsy.
A frustrating read not only because of its numerous technical faults, but because of its central figure, a man who refuses any help, who refuses to let go, but perhaps cannot. His three close friends can't determine what is it that wounded him and what could heal that wound. 720 pages of people trying to help him but he won't let them. This wears on the reader eventually. Not only his refusals but the sheer amount of suffering he endures. The novel reaches a point of absurdity. A friend of mine hesitated when using the word "farcical," but I think she's right. By the halfway point, I had begun to turn on the book, to bridle at the seemingly endless cavalcade of horror enacted upon the central character. By the end, I had soured.
To me, it's not a matter of realism—whether or not it's realistic Jude lived through all this. It's more of a matter of aesthetic purpose. Why does the author torture this character so completely, so endlessly? What is the aesthetic purpose to this? There is a beauty to be found in suffering, for sure, or else there wouldn't be the subgenre of Beautiful Death. Roger Ebert coined the term Ali MacGraw's Syndrome in reference to Love Story, in which the actor gets more and more beautiful the closer she gets to death. We also have a whole history of gay literature predicated on loss; I wrote about Call Me By Your Name and loss here. Combine the two and you have A Little Life. Going back to one of the foundations of my essay on Call Me By Your Name, Brandon LG Taylor (here) writes about protecting and punishing his characters at LitHub (here). He writes, wonderfully, of his inability to introduce his characters to chaos:
There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be.Taylor found his writing met with resistance in workshops. Fellow students would complain of a lack of interiority, of an aversion to catastrophe, a lack of urgency. But Taylor couldn't help himself; unconsciously, he protected them from all the worst life could offer but the cost of doing so was hollowness. His characters never fully engaged with the world. In the rest of the essay, Taylor uses the examples of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Alice Munro (amusingly, one known for a six novel cycle and the other for short stories, a study in contrasts as it were). Knausgaard and Munro let their characters descend into the muck, into the slime of the world itself without ever losing their grasp on the characters themselves. Taylor calls this a "radical openness, a willingness to let the story do what it must in order to be truthful" and truth is what the characters deserve if we are going to be faithful to them.
Writing of her famous short stories, Taylor argues, "Munro does not protect her characters. She flings them out into the universe. Or she calls the universe to them, and the results are striking." She engages with catastrophe and what comes after catastrophe. She faces it head on, eyes wide open, and stares right back. The ordinary has its own terror for Munro's characters because it's inescapable, it is the daily material of their lives after all. Though Munro does so without "false heightening of rhetoric or a lapse into lyricism" or operatic gestures. She allows them to exist, even if existing is painful. In the conclusion to the essay, Taylor strikes upon the essential truth of why Munro is who she is, why she is so famous for what she does: "Munro’s capacity to get her characters into trouble without a clear idea of how to get them out—or even caring if they do—is brutal, yes, but her characters are so fully themselves that it never feels like she’s punishing them." And this where Yanagihara stumbles so much. Her characters aren't fully themselves. The trouble they get into is artificial, not of their own devising, but ridiculous circumstances stretching the suspension of disbelief of any reader.
Her characters are punished so frequently and so completely, but at the same time, they're absurdly protected. They become hollow in Yanagihara's hands because they are so cared for by the narrative. All four main characters reach absurd levels of success in their respective fields. By the time artist JB is in his fifties, he owns a gallery and hosts a career retrospective of his own work. Architect Malcolm, with whom the novel spends some time in the beginnings before abandoning his life entirely, is so successful he builds museums and galleries across the globe. Willem, the actor, goes from being a waiter at the beginning of the novel to an Oscar-winning force of nature, with his face on billboards literally across the globe (Jude sees one in Beijing while there on business). And Jude himself goes from public attorney to almost chairman of a private firm famous for getting corporations out of lawsuits. They own and build numerous houses. They have drivers, maids, friends with money. They take trips to Morocco, Spain. In one telling scene, Jude just gets on a plane to Paris to be alone, and the novel takes time to mention all the friends he has in Paris whom he is avoiding! Imagine having so many friends that you fly across the world and have to avoid them even there too! They're never forced to face anybody of a lower class than their servants, none of whom have any dialogue. Jude sends a thank you gift to a nurse, but this is just to show the audience how teeth-rottingly nice Jude is. Despite the novel starting with the four of them in dire economic straits, they never really suffer. One lives with his friend's parents. They live in New York City for most of the novel and while their apartments are small, they still have more than one apartment! JB, the artist, has a studio and an apartment and goes back to his successful family's home for laundry and food when needs must. Jude is adopted as an adult by two law professors who own multiple dwellings. It's ridiculous.
Yanagihara wants to punish these people and she does, often in absurd and pornographic detail, but she still protects them, and this scrapes them hollow of any profundity. They're both the most sheltered people on the planet and the most tragic of all time. Jude's long litany of abuses wrought upon his body are awful, no doubt, but he still has a lifetime access to a gifted physician who never charges him for the decades of weekly appointments. Andy, this doctor, is apparently on call 24/7 and loves Jude so much he's willing to take care of him for years and years with Jude rarely if ever following his medical advice. What would the narrative have looked like if the cast hadn't had their insulating layers upon layers of class privilege? Jude even has a temper tantrum when Andy announces, tentatively, he wants to retire; he's 61 years old at this point and has been taking care of Jude for eons, but the narrative has never spent any time with Andy. We never learn who Andy is or what begot his absurd loyalty to a man who won't listen to him. On and on there are scenes of Andy debriding Jude's wounds or lecturing him on his low weight, and Jude never listens and the audience never gets an inkling why they stay friends, why Andy would put up with this other than for the narrative to keep Jude alive. It's just another brick in the artifice's wall.
Jude suffers terribly in his childhood and Yanagihara can be applauded for seeing this trauma all the way through, for exhaustively detailing it, for never flinching. And though the narrative reveals his past, through drips and drabs and clumsy flashbacks perfectly timed like a carefully engineered airport thriller, I still found myself drawn to Jude's story. When you are standing outside this novel, you can't see anything other than Yanagihara's graceless hands, her lack of control, her clunky sentences, her frantic breathless cataloguing, but if you are inside, comfortably snug inside the narrative, you can't help but care for Jude, just as the characters do. I only shed one tear during my reading (and I'm a very easy crier) at the very end when Jude expects Harold, his adopted father, to hit him but instead hugs him. But I found myself invested. I was happy for Willem and Jude when they became a couple. I was relieved when the rift between JB and Jude is healed. I laughed when they told a funny story or when a character is lovingly mocked by his friends. I even gasped and tensed when Caleb punches Jude.
The novel's descent into absurdity comes with the introduction and eventual dispatch of Caleb, Jude's first adult relationship. Of course, of course, in this novel's world, the first person Jude likes romantically is abusive. It's almost inevitable in this universe. Perhaps the novel is trying to make a point that victims of abuse gravitate towards perpetrators of abuse, that abuse is cyclical. If that's the novel's intention, it comes off terribly, clumsily, wild and uncontrollable as a point. The execution is dismal. Caleb shows no signs of abusive behaviour until it happens like a gunshot in the dark and the reader wonders why Caleb was introduced in the first place if his sole purpose to further damage Jude.
But just as the novel punishes, it protects, to a laughable degree. Caleb is taken off the board, as it were, just as fast and eventually, over the course of a couple pages, we find out he dies painfully and quickly of (surprise!) pancreatic cancer. Jude never has to face him, never has to confront him. Instead, just after Caleb, Jude falls into a romantic relationship with his favourite person ever, Willem, whom we're reminded, is an absurdly handsome successful film actor!
Taylor concludes his marvelous essay with, "the idea is that one must be willing to leap and to plunge and not expect to rise, but to find in that great descent if not meaning then at least peace, or joy in the motion" and though other authors, such as Munro, find great beauty and artfulness in that motion, I'm not convinced Yanagihara can or even wants to. She wants it both ways and the novel suffers for it. Her characters are abused and beaten and beat themselves and abuse themselves, but paradoxically and exasperatingly, she still coddles them and comforts them and scoops them out of danger. They're both vessels for punishment and empty of meaning. Jude becomes the cliche, the beautiful gay man who suffers, and after 720 pages, I'd had enough.