Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)

10 thoughts on “Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I found it nearly impossible to put my feelings for this book into words, but this is perfectly spot on. The reading experience was so trying, but letting go of the characters was so difficult for me that reading reviews like this several months after finishing is pretty gut wrenching, too.

  2. I’d pretty much decided not to read this book, but I appreciated your review and value your personal reaction to it. It’s interesting that despite being a powerful book, one that produced such a strong reaction, you cannot recommend it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. BTW, I definitely can relate to the notion that we you read a book like this you need to read about it in order to move on.

  3. I did not know that this was touted the “great gay novel” but then I never thought it was going into it.

    You say it so well: “There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.” — Interesting that you can’t recommend this, although I agree that this book is not for everyone.

    Thank you for yet another insightful review.

    • Thanks… Yes, I don’t mean that I don’t recommend the book in general, as if to say that it’s bad. It’s not at all. I just can’t bring myself to tell anybody that they should read it. Does that make sense?

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  5. I feel about most reviews of A Little Life’s portrayal of trauma the way you feel about the description of it as the great gay novel. It’s maddeningly, dangerously wrong to say that this book is a monumental and important depiction of trauma (which you don’t say! but I’ve seen so many reviews that do), when the trauma it portrays, the type of sexual and physical abuse Jude undergoes, is so far removed from what abuse usually actually looks like. It’s this very sort of stranger-danger alarmist bunch of storylines (in my opinion) that we’re constantly being told is what sexual assault looks like, when in fact the sexual abuse that most kids who are sexually abused experience is very very different from this, particularly with regard to the victims’ feelings of complicity. And I just thought it was ill-thought-out on Hanya Yanagihara’s part, when she could have told a far more interesting story that, I dunno, drew from research into this stuff.

    (end rant :p)

    • So, I think we share a similar concern about two of the deeper perspectives.

      I think she gets it right with some of young Jude’s relationship with Brother Luke (I know for a fact that this type of abuse is not uncommon, unfortunately). I can also imagine that some of what happened to Jude at the monastery, at the orphanage, and at the doctor’s house has happened to boys in real life, but you’re right that it reads, for the most part, as hyperbolic and, ironically, almost necessarily simple.

      The one thing I did like about the depiction of the abuse is that it at least is revealed in a way that makes sense to Jude’s trauma and character. If the story had been told chronologically, for instance, with the reader witnessing as this happened in actual narrative time, it would have been even less effective (in my opinion).

      I also think the abuse at the hands of Caleb bordered on (perhaps even went over into) the gratuitous but, again, sadly, I know of situations like this occurring… but in a 720+ page book, more time perhaps could have been devoted to developing that, rather than having it happen seemingly at the turn of a coin. I’m cautious about saying “this isn’t the way abuse happens,” because abuse, be it physical, mental, sexual, psychological, or emotional, manifests itself in a vast number of ways. Yanigahara’s approach, though, does seem mostly one-note (and that note tends toward the blatantly graphic).

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  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book in such an open way.

    In Australia there has been no reference to this as the great gay novel & I’ve just realised that I didn’t even tag my review post with LGBT. As you say this book is about friendship (& abuse survivor psychology) not sexuality.
    Sadly this type of institutional abuse is (or was – at least I hope we can now say ‘was’ more confidently) not common, but not unusual during the lifetime of Jude.
    In Australia we are currently finding out just how much this abuse occurred in our older institutions thanks to the findings of the Royal Commission. Jude’s case is extreme but not unknown. The extreme nature of his story, I think reflects Yanagihara’s desire to create a modern day fairy tale. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle with aspects of it or question why it was necessary to be so gratuitous.

    It’s certainly a thought provoking, gut wrenching read. It’s also hard to put down in a voyeuristic, drive slowly past the car crash kind of way.

    How do you feel about it now that a few months have gone by?

    • Great thoughts! Thanks for stopping by to read & share. I still feel pretty much the same about it as I did when I first read/reviewed it. I agree with you, though, despite it being sometimes tedious and sometimes overwrought or even unbelievable, there’s something about it that made me want to keep reading, to finish. Perhaps, mostly, my need to know if anything would ever turn out positive.

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