Last year, I attended a workshop with sales representatives from the major publishing houses promoting forthcoming books. One particular rep discussed dozens of titles, but she stopped and reflected on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. She read the manuscript and knew that it was special, and that it would be one of the most outstanding fiction titles of 2015. I couldn’t wait, and the rep shared her manuscript with me, months ahead of publication. It’s an imposing book – its 720 pages contain some extraordinarily depressing material – but it’s also a beautiful meditation on love and friendship, with some passages so elegantly written I read them over and over again.
A Little Life tells the story of Jude St. Francis, and we first meet him and his three closest college friends – Willem, J.D. and Malcom – struggling in New York after graduating from college. Jude – kind, mysterious, disfigured and obviously harboring a painful past – is the epicenter of the group. We follow Jude and his friends as they live their lives – their careers, their loves – but the novel’s driving force is that we learn, slowly, painfully, graphically, about Jude’s past. It’s horrific, and while the scenes themselves aren’t especially graphic, they paint a clear enough picture of what he endured. Jude’s method of release – cutting himself – is told in much more explicit and stark terms.
So, you may gather that this is a depressing book, and I can’t argue with that. But it also has some of the most gorgeous writing that I’ve encountered in recent fiction. Yanagihara writes about love – between two lovers, between adoptive parents and adult children, love of self – throughout the book, and it moved me every time. Take this passage about friendship:
Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
One of the criticisims about the novel, as outlined in the New York Times book review, is that the characters exist in a world independent of the events occuring at the time – for example 9/11 – thereby disconnecting them from the real world and rendering them flat. I couldn’t disagree more. A Little Life is an interior novel about a finely drawn character that I cared about deeply – just as much as his friends cared for him.
~posted by Frank