NEW YORK, Oct 1 — Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” published in March, turned out to be one of the most talked-about novels of the summer. It’s a big, emotional, trauma-packed read with a voluptuous prose style that wavers between the exquisite and the overdone. A potboiler about very intense male friendship, it’s a sui generis phenomenon that became a runaway hit. And it is now a shortlisted contender for the Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded on October 13.
“A Little Life” initially looks like the story of four college friends who have come to New York from their Massachusetts school and are managing to lead hermetically sealed lives together. They are Malcolm, who still lives with his rich parents; JB, already an ambitious artist; Willem, a good-looking waiter; and Jude, a mesmerising wounded bird whom the others can’t figure out. These four intend to be friends for life, and the book intends each of them to be very, very successful in his chosen field some day.
It opens at an unspecified time, when Jude and Willem are living in picturesque poverty in Chinatown, their closeness solidified by shared deprivation. They also share a sense of suffering. Jude is secretive about his past, but we quickly learn of Willem that before he was “a kind man, he was a kind boy.” His disabled brother died young, and Willem will carry that memory with him as Jude grows from beautiful boy to a man who requires more and more patience and loving care. Their early friendship is so warmly described that this vibrant part of the book is irresistible.
Willem’s good looks and innate talent ease his way into acting. Meanwhile, JB, who is black, turns out to be a talented artist who concentrates on paintings of his three friends. He often paints Jude, whose unfathomable mixed-race origins and air of mystery make for beautiful images that are soon the talk of the art world, if also a great annoyance to Jude himself. And Malcolm, who is half-black, and easily needled by JB about it, has a gift for architecture that he parlays into a successful business. Someday he will be designing the fabulously hip homes (yes, plural) that Jude’s success as a fierce litigator allows him to buy.
So upward they all go. But this is not a happy story. At its heart is Jude’s secret suffering, and Malcolm and JB soon fade into minor characters as race becomes a nonissue. It will turn out that Jude has spent his whole life — from the moment he was first discovered, as a newborn either in or near a garbage bag — being subjected to horrendous abuse by a series of sadists who simply defy belief. The full parade of them adds up to almost more misery than one novel can contain.
Yanagihara, who now works for The New York Times as a deputy editor of T magazine, doles out the memories of them sparingly, breaking down Jude’s revelations into separate flashbacks that are scattered throughout “A Little Life.” As the book toughens and saddens, those flashbacks are mixed with present-day horrors about Jude’s repeated efforts to maim himself, and the small army of loving friends, elders and professionals who try desperately to help him.
Yanagihara’s prose is always ripe with modifiers, as when the book conjures rats that go “squeaking plumply underfoot”; is it possible for rats to squeak skinnily? A lot of this 720-page book is devoted to torrentially long and powerful descriptions, and without question, they pack a lot of power. But her mixing of metaphors makes for a mess. The phantoms that haunt Jude can be hyenas with “snapping, foaming jaws” at one moment, “banshees demanding his attention, snatching and tearing at him with their long, needley fingers” the next. The banshees and the hyenas appear on the same page, along with the lineup of human demons who have caused Jude to imagine them.
Willem and Judy, as he is often called, get a long way through life with a platonic relationship, even though they love each other deeply. For all its strong passions and intense, even ghoulish, medical curiosity, this book is conspicuously squeamish about sex. That reflects Jude’s terrible past, which is eventually exposed in all its ogre-filled detail. But there is far more physical attention paid to Jude’s many gruesome wounds, and his methods of inflicting them on himself, and the efforts of one superhumanly loving doctor to protect him from himself, than to any kind of physical pleasure.
Willem and Jude’s love for each other exists on a higher plane, with Willem as the loving parent Jude never had. Just to make sure that position is filled, Yanagihara also has a law professor, Harold, and his wife, Julia, formally adopt Jude when he is well into adulthood. Jude can hardly believe his good fortune when he gets a birth certificate that has parents’ names on it.
If, at times, Jude can’t believe his good fortune, readers may have the same problem. A description of the perfect country place built by Jude the Lawyer and Willem the Movie Star, with its long driveway, glass-cubed house, indoor and outdoor pools and enchanting wildflowers, throws Jude into raptures, because it’s “a place where beauty was so uncomplicated.” For a double dose of the vicarious, you are invited to press your nose to that glass and wait for Jude’s awful history to destroy him.
“A Little Life” eventually develops a relentless downhill trajectory. It might have had even more impact with fewer wild beasts prowling through fewer pages. But Yanagihara is still capable of introducing great shock value into her story to override its predictability. One major development here is gasp-inducingly unexpected, the stuff of life but also of melodrama. It may not lift the bleak mood, but it explains a lot about this voyeuristic book’s popular success. — The New York Times