#DiverseDecember: A Little Life


Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

It may be called a little life, but it’s not a little book at 720 pages.  Nevertheless, although it took me a long time to start reading this book (because I wasn’t sure I could bear the grimness) it didn’t take me longer than 4-5 days to read. The style is very fluid and easy to read, although some scenes were (as people had warned me) very painful. If you want to find out the plot, look elsewhere, as it’s been pretty much covered everywhere. I’ll just give you a few thoughts which struck me as I was reading this.

The first thing that struck me is how much like a fairytale the book is: the ‘baddies’ are really evil, while the ‘goodies’ (Willem, Harold and Andy) are unbelievably patient and loving. Yet there is no happy ending – that is a Disney invention. If we look at Grimm or Andersen, there are few happy endings there too, and much darker twists than Disney wanted to translate onscreen. Just like in Hansel and Gretel or Bluebird, we find here characters which appear at first sight to be benign and then suddenly turn malevolent.

The second striking thing is how much this book represents a paean to friendship and love, to the ‘family of choice’ that you create in your youth and supports you through life. It’s not surprising perhaps that the main group of friends (and most of their subsidiary friends) are all childless – and therefore more likely to be able to visit and be there for each other.  In real life, you’re seldom likely to get this level of support. I’ve got wonderful friendships, but we are scattered all over the world (so perhaps this book is a bit insular in its focus on New York). And even when living within driving distance of each other, my experience has been that you spend more time with people you don’t necessarily like that much but who are ‘conveniently close by’ or ‘parents of children that you can share chores with’ and so on. Practicality over real depth. The really intense, close friendships of ‘heart and minds’ fade away, or are reanimated only very occasionally. Not out of ill will, but simply because people are too busy, too absorbed in their own concerns, too unwilling to go beyond appearances (to be fair, this does appear also in the book), or simply unthinking. It’s the casually callous that will kill you every time – symbolized to a certain extent by JB in the book (the egocentric artist).

little2Third point to make – the world of privilege described in the book: the apartments in NYC, the houses in the countryside or abroad, the dinners in fine restaurants, inviting each other to fancy parties, each one of them successful in their own profession. In a way, it sells the American dream of meritocracy: if you have brains and work hard, you will achieve success? How many middle-aged men who have been to good schools can prove that is not true? (And many more women, no doubt.) How would envy from those who have never quite made it destroy their friendship?

The abuse that Jude suffered is of course horrendous, and the physical and mental consequences are heartbreaking. But I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to the many victims of abuse who do not have the money or support to create a comfortable lifestyle for themselves, pay for medical supervision or transform their homes to cope with disabilities? How many do not find those well-meaning and wealthy people to protect them? At first I was mildly annoyed by this, but then I thought that perhaps that is precisely the point the author wants to make: that even where the façade seems glittery and benign, even for people who seem to have it all, there are scars that run too deep, especially mental scars. So, in many ways, this feels like a critique of the ‘cult of positive thinking’ in American society, the insistence that everything can be ‘fixed’ – through therapy or money or medical intervention.

Fourth element, or perhaps I should have put it first, as it is an entry for #DiverseDecember after all, is about diversity. It’s only lightly touched upon – JB is the most vocal one about race, while for the other friends it seems more of a non-issue. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, especially Jude as the ‘post-man’, post-race, post-sexual, and the fact that the friends belong to all ethnic groups and all sexual persuasions, and that male friendship is a lot more nuanced and touching than we give it credit for.

Author photo from The Guardian.
Author photo from The Guardian.

Finally, stylistically I found this book quite interesting. The author seemed to be breaking all the rules that us debut novelists are taught. A chapter very often starts with a jump in time and a character sitting somewhere just before a momentous event and remembering something from the past. Then we get a flashback – not just a short one, but one that goes on and on for pages, leads to another memory then another, and so on until we forget about the opening setting until we are brought back with a jolt to it twenty pages later, by which point we’ve stopped caring about it. I’m not saying that isn’t how the mind works – and Virginia Woolf or James Joyce do it very successfully – but this is not that kind of book. Not experimental enough. Instead, it piles on both incidents and thoughts, and many of the most important events seem to take place off-stage and are just remembered by the characters. Practices that newbie writers are told to avoid – and yet Yanagihara has been praised for her style, which reminds me a little of Balzac or 19th century Russian novelists. Which goes to show that you need to write as you see fit and critics or teachers be damned!

So I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. It certainly didn’t leave me indifferent, but I cannot say I loved it. What about you? Who has braved reading the book and what did you think of it?

For other views on this book, see Simon Savidge , Naomi Frisby and Lizzi at Little Words .