18 July 2019

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


Stefan has this "rule of three" where he thinks the ideal movie is three hours, the ideal TV series is three seasons, and the ideal book length is 300 pages. I get the idea and I've read plenty of incredible ~300-paged books (An American Marriage being the best example), but it's hard to compete with the immersiveness of big fiction. Starting an 814-paged book is a commitment and guarantees you'll be left thinking about the characters for a long time. After reading Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life I know I'll remember the name Jude St. Francis for the rest of my life.

I have been staring at the cover of A Little Life for what feels like years. The book was published in 2015 and has been front facing in Indigo ever since. I finally bought it about a year ago and started it in April. I still feel so invested in the character's lives well after reading it, which is a testament to Yanagihara's strong writing and character development.

A Little Life follows four best friends Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm, from college-age into their fifties as they traverse relationships, careers, and other hardships, as well as reckoning with some of the defining events from their past.

My life, he will think, my life. But he won't be able to think beyond this, and he will keep repeating the words to himself - part chant, part curse, part reassurance - as he slips into that other world that he visits when he is in such pain, that world he knows is never far from his own but that he can never remember after: My life."

Hanya Yanagihara
I should stress that I didn't feel alienated at all by the majority of the characters being male. Yanagihara had to listen to a bit of criticism regarding this which I find weird given that she is a woman. I've always been really interested in authors who write from the perspective of the opposite sex and Yanagihara said she found this to be challenging but also inspiring, especially given that so much of the book is about being vulnerable.

Though the book focuses on all four of the friends (with some sections dealing with more peripheral characters) I should mention that Jude St. Francis is the main focal point. We quickly learn that he deals with chronic pain but we're essentially left in the dark about the cause of it. As you read on you learn more and more about Jude's mysterious (and horrifying) upbringing while Yanagihara cuts back and forth between his past and present. I don't want to spoil anything about Jude's background because so much of the book is having it slowly revealed to you and seeing how trauma impacts his day-to-day years later.

His brain was vomiting memories, they were flooding everything else - he thought of people and sensations and incidents he hadn't thought of in years. Tastes appeared on his tongue as if by alchemy; he smelled fragrances he hadn't smelled in decades. His system was compromised; he would drown in his memories; he had to do something."

Part of what interested me in this book was this theme of friendship and connection over a long period of time. I couldn't help but think of when I first met Ben and he would tell me so many stories about his best friends from his time studying journalism. I loved hearing these stories and trying to piece together everyone's personality and how I'd assume they'd act.

I was always a little envious too because I've never had a large group of super close friends. My whole life I've always gravitated to one-on-one friendships, with the best example being the other half of this blog (lol). So one of my favourite parts of reading A Little Life was seeing how these relationships play out over time, about how some were closer than others and how they all negotiated each other's differences.

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."

Linus keeping me company as I read
I didn't really realize as I was reading A Little Life how controversial it's been considered. Reviews seem to be pretty polarizing. It's a Man Booker Prize finalist, but I'd also say about half the critics out there despise it. They found it "infuriating" and "subversive," and went as far as calling it "tragedy porn."

I don't agree with any of these comments, but I will say that I can imagine how this book could be very triggering. There are a lot of self-harm scenes in this book and a lot of the subject matter centers around physical and sexual abuse. You'll certainly cry a lot reading it. But A Little Life is a lot more than its heavy subject matter and there are plenty of moments of warmth and happiness.

I'll end this review by saying that I really, really loved this book. I love reading long fiction because of the way you work yourself in to the character's lives, and this is a phenomenon you can't always experience when reading something in the 300-page range. I'll end with one more passage that I love:

And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child's whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly and being forgiven, for the luxury of tenderness, of fondness, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent's reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of all his mistakes and hatefulness."

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