Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) has been written about widely and short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. As I started it on the recommendation of my local bookseller this past summer, I had heard very little of the hooplah. I believed I was reading a typical modern tale of four friends who went to college together, chronicling their coming of age, their successes, failures and jealousies in relationships and work. But A Little Life defies this genre. The friends are an architect, an actor, an artist, and their friend Jude, around whom they and this story revolve. Jude is a man of great beauty, although he is never physically described by the author. He is brilliant and creative, although he makes his very ample living as an attorney. Yet with all of the accoutrements of success, Jude cannot allow himself be loved, so severely is he traumatized by abuse he suffered as a child.
Jude practices a ritual behavior that can result from episodes of trauma. He cuts himself. His legs and arms are a welter of scars, for which he is regularly treated by a doctor, Andy - the only person to whom Jude will show his naked body. I found Andy one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel. He shows his care for Jude in countless acts of kindness but also sometimes neglects to fulfill his duty out of his deep but confused compassion. Like every character in this novel, he is manipulated (but not consciously) by Jude's intense loathing for himself and ruthless willingness to push anyone who loves him away sooner than risk being hurt by them.
The name Jude may resonate as the patron saint of lost causes, and Hanya Yanagihara's novel is rococo with suffering, but I disagree with Janet Maslin's contention in her New York Times review that the main pleasure in reading it is the thrill of voyeurism. Audiences do get caught up in art that expresses the suffering of others. It is the currency of grand opera, epic film, and Greek tragedy, but the rewards of A Little Life amount to more than a sick pleasure in peeping at the horror show of Jude's trauma. In Yanagihara's saga, multiple characters lose someone deeply loved and the novel explores their differing responses to that loss. What part of them goes on, what part dies, and what part of that loss is replayed in their future relationships, that become the intersections of private sufferings.
Yanagihara's novel also strongly evoked Dickens. More than once the friendship between Jude and Willem, the actor, reminded me of Nicholas Nickelby and Smike, Although she doesn't share Dickens's arch humor, she creates deep sympathy for a man whom, if we look at his lack of trust, his manipulativeness, and his refusal to share anything of his personal history, might not be terribly likable.
Yanagihara creates an archetype of suffering in Jude. Of mixed race, an orphan (another Dickensian device) who doesn't know his own origins, we can project upon him the suffering of every man. The author voices her tale in third-person, but twice shifts to the less usual second-person perspective. The effect is jarring, and the first time the reader must work to orient themselves to the identity of both the 'you' and the 'I' of her new voice. This accomplished two things for me. I found myself in reading the first couple of hundred pages, sharing one critical observation of Maslin's review. For a book about four men beginning in their late adolescence, the story is glaring void of sex. It struck me as unbelievable, but what I realized when Yanagihara switched to second-person, is that her third-person perspective is not omniscient but circumscribed by Jude's experience and the force-field his back-story imposes. Then the sexlessness became understandable. The second-person voice she creates is at once closer and further away. We switch to the point of view of a single character (whom I won't reveal) addressing another character. In this, we are further away from Jude but in another way, I felt the promise of getting closer. If we moved from third-person to second-person, then why not from second to first, but this shift never comes. In writing about a character who is beautiful, but we can't see him. who won't even wear short sleeves in front of his closest friends, Yanagihara's accomplishment is to have created in her reader the same tension experienced by Jude's friends - a frustration at never being able to get close to Jude, to know him, and yet an inexplicable attraction to him and compassion for him.