A Little Life
A Little Life is a 2015 novel by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. The novel was written over the course of eighteen months. Despite the length and difficult subject matter it became a bestseller.
The novel follows the lives of four friends in New York City from college through to middle-age. It focuses particularly on Jude, a lawyer with a mysterious past, ambiguous ethnicity, and unexplained health issues. Jude walks with a limp and suffers from severe nerve damage in his spine that causes him great pain, which he blames on a car injury he sustained as a child. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, he also habitually self-harms. The rest of the group includes Malcolm, a struggling architect from a wealthy biracial family who still lives at home; JB, a painter of Haitian descent; and Willem, an aspiring actor whom Jude is closest with due to their both being orphans. After graduation, Jude and Willem share a one-bedroom apartment due to their relative poverty compared to their friends.
Despite this apparent closeness with his friends, Jude finds himself unable to divulge either details of his past or current state of mind to his roommate. Nonetheless, he thrives in his law practice and develops a close parent-child relationship with his former professor, Harold, and his wife Julia, which results in the pair adopting him when Jude turns thirty. While thankful, the time before the adoption is filled with further bouts of self-harm as Jude believes he is inherently unworthy of affection. Meanwhile, the rest of the group finds success in their respective fields, with Willem becoming a star of theater and then film. JB finds success as an artist but also becomes addicted to crystal meth. The group stages an intervention, where JB mocks Jude by doing a crude imitation of his limp. In spite of successful treatment and a great deal of apologizing, Jude finds it impossible to forgive JB. Willem refuses to forgive him too, causing the group to fragment, with only Malcolm remaining friends with all four members.
It becomes clear that Jude was sexually traumatized at a very young age, making it difficult for him to engage in romantic relationships. His friends and loved ones begin questioning this isolation as he enters his forties, with Willem especially being baffled with regards to Jude's sexuality. As his loneliness grows more intense, he enters an abusive relationship with fashion executive Caleb, who is disgusted by Jude's limp and his increasing use of a wheelchair. Jude finally breaks off the relationship after Caleb rapes him, and they meet a final time when Caleb follows him to a dinner with Harold, humiliates him, and then follows Jude to his apartment where he brutally beats and rapes him, leaving him for dead. Jude nonetheless refuses to report the incident to the police, believing he deserved it. Only Harold and Andy, Jude's doctor and ongoing confidante, know the truth of the failed relationship.
Although Jude's body manages to heal, the rapes cause him to flashback to his childhood wherein he was raised in a monastery and repeatedly sexually abused by the brothers. He recalls a period when one of the brothers, Brother Luke, ran away with him, forcing him into years of child prostitution. After he was rescued by the police, Jude was placed in state care, where the abuse continued at the hands of the counselors there. After the break-up with Caleb brings back this childhood trauma, Jude finally decides to kill himself, but is unsuccessful. In the aftermath, Willem comes back home and begins to live with him. Jude continues to refuse therapy but begins to tell Willem the least traumatic stories about his childhood, which Willem finds disturbing and horrifying. The two soon begin a relationship, but Jude continues to struggle with opening up, and does not enjoy having sex with him.
In an attempt to curb his cutting, Jude decides to instead burn himself as a form of self-harm, but accidentally inflicts third degree burns that requires a skin graft. The wound is so severe that Andy tells him he has to tell Willem what happened, or else he will do it for him. Before Jude can tell Willem, Andy accidentally divulges the information. Willem is horrified, but after a difficult fight, Jude finally confesses that he does not enjoy sex and tells Willem about the years of sexual and physical abuse he endured. He also reveals that the damage to his legs was caused by a man called Dr. Traylor, who picked him up after he ran away from state care at age 15 and held him captive, eventually running him over with his car.
The relationship continues, with Willem sleeping with women and not with Jude. The two settle into a comfortable life together, which is shaken when Jude's legs become worse, and he must reluctantly amputate. He manages to learn to walk again with his new prosthetics, and the pair enter a period of their life which Willem dubs "The Happy Years". However, while picking up Malcolm and his wife from the train station for a visit, Willem is involved in a car accident with a drunk driver which kills all three occupants. With his two closest friends dead, Jude descends once again into self-destructive habits, losing such an excessive amount of weight that his remaining loved ones stage another intervention. Though they are able to get him to gain weight and to attend therapy, years of depression and despair finally overtake him and he commits suicide.
A Little Life is divided into seven separate parts, and follows a chronological narrative with flashbacks frequently interspersed throughout. The novel’s narrative perspectives shift throughout the story’s progression. During the beginning of the novel, a third person omniscient perspective privileging one of Jude’s, Willem’s, JB’s, or Malcolm’s thoughts is utilized. As the story gradually shifts its focus towards Jude, its perspective progressively molds entirely around each character’s interactions with Jude and the experiences of Jude himself. This literary perspective is punctuated by first person narratives told from an unspecified future by an older Harold.
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A core focus of the novel is the evolution of the relationships between Jude, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude’s adoptive father Harold. Jude’s life in particular is populated by men who love and care about him as well as men that exploit and abuse him, and those who fall in the liminal spaces between the two categories. The social and emotional lives of each male character are the fabric that weaves the novel together, creating an insular narrative bubble that provides few clues about the historical moment in which the story is situated.
Yanagihara confines the reader’s perspective and emphasizes the examination of the distinct interior lives of each character and the people that populate and influence their lives, with few women dispersed throughout the story. As a result, the novel can be considered a rumination on the strengths and the limits of romantic love, friendship, and relationships among men. Despite these various iterations of relationships and attempts to connect with Jude, his existence is often stagnated by isolation and loneliness in dealing with trauma and pain. His few attempts to reach out and connect with others during his adult life manifest the repetition of yet another cycle of sexual abuse and trauma, as in his relationship with Caleb. The flashbacks to his abusive experiences with Dr. Traylor, Brother Luke, and boy's home counselors demonstrate the moral and affective extremes of abuse and exploitation that he experiences. Yet the novel invites juxtaposition by way of narration from Harold who shows a father’s unconditional benevolent love to his adopted son.
Trauma, recovery, and support
In an article written for New York Magazine, Yanagihara states that “one of the things [she] wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never got better… [for him] to begin healthy (or appear so) and end sick – both the main character and the plot itself”. The first sixteen years of Jude's life, plagued by sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, continue to haunt him as he enters adulthood. His trauma directly affects his mental and physical health, relationships, beliefs, and the ways in which he navigates the world. He struggles to move beyond the damage the past has wrought upon his body and psyche.
Other than Ana, Jude’s deceased case manager who predates the novel’s beginning, and Willem later in the novel, he divulges almost none of his past to those close to him. The failure to understand Jude’s trauma and the subsequent frustration that stems from his inability to build mutual networks of support among his friends and family is a constant point of tension in the novel. Jude’s friends, including Andy, are constantly plagued by doubts about the ethical choices such as allowing Jude to live independently while harboring the knowledge of his physically self-destructive behavior. Throughout the novel, Jude constantly apologizes for his actions and inability to take the help that would be given to him.
Chronic pain, disability, and self-harm
A Little Life depicts the everyday experience of living with trauma, chronic pain, and disability, demonstrating the inherent intersections with one another. As a direct result of Dr. Traylor running him over with a car, Jude’s spinal injuries have long-term health effects that trouble him for the rest of his life. He is prone to episodes of intense pain due to severed nerves in his back, lesions forming on his legs, and has difficulty walking. His insistent inclination towards independence manifests in the ways he constantly resists and fights his body as it breaks down with age, despite numerous treatments and surgeries. Jude continually attempts to take control of his body and his emotions by self-harming. His life is structured around pain and the anticipation of pain. As Jude grows older, he loathes the increasing dependence he must have on devices such as wheelchairs, canes, and relying on the care of others.
In The Atlantic, Garth Greenwell suggested that A Little Life is “the long-awaited gay novel”: “It engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. By violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truth denied more modest means of expression.”
In the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen referred to the main character's "gothic inverted fairytale origins" and "ghastly litany of childhood sexual abuse." The characters, he wrote, "seem like stereotypical middle-class strivers plucked out of 1950s cinema." He asked in regard to a minor character who became a crystal meth addict, "What real person trapped in this novel wouldn't become a drug addict?"
Yanagihara appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers to discuss the book. In July 2015, the book was selected as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and made the shortlist of six books in September 2015.
- 2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlist
- 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, finalist
- 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist
- 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction, won
- 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, shortlist
- Yanagihara, Hanya (28 April 2015). "How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life". Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Maloney, Jennifer. "How 'A Little Life' Became a Sleeper Hit". Retrieved 13 October 2015.
- McCann, Sean. ""I'm So Sorry": A Little Life and the Socialism of the Rich". Post45. POST45. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
- Yanagihara, Hanya. "How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life". Vulture. New York Magazine. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
- Michaud, Jon. "The Subversive Brilliance of "A Little Life"". The New Yorker.
- Sacks, Sam (6 March 2015). "Fiction Chronicle: Jude the Obscure". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
- Anshaw, Carol (30 March 2015). "Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Powers, John (19 March 2015). "'A Little Life': An Unforgettable Novel About The Grace Of Friendship". NPR. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Cha, Steph (19 March 2015). "'A Little Life' a darkly beautiful tale of love and friendship". LA Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Greenwell, Garth. "A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here". The Atlantic.
- Lorentzen, Christian (24 September 2015) "Sessions with a Poker." London Review of Books. Page 32-33.
- Hollander, Sophia (16 July 2015). "Seth Meyers's 'Late Night' Literary Salon". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
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- "Pulitzer winner makes Booker Prize shortlist". BBC News. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
- "The Man Booker Prize 2015 | The Man Booker Prizes". themanbookerprize.com. Archived from the original on 2016-02-29. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "2015 National Book Awards". www.nationalbook.org. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "2016 Carnegie Medals Shortlist Announced". American Libraries Magazine. October 19, 2015. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
- "2015 Finalists: fiction | Kirkus Reviews". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "The 2017 Shortlist". International Dublin Literary Award. 12 April 2017.