The ecstatic response to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life meant I was excited from the moment an email arrived to tell me it had arrived for collection from my local bookshop until I was presented with a 720-page hardback monster weighing more than our family dog. At least this bombshell put me in mind of a most amusing Kingsley Amis review in which he commented that handling a similarly proportioned behemoth “so that it will lie open on desk or lap is impossible to one of normal muscular power. This might matter less if closing it on purpose were not such a constantly attractive option.” No such worries for A Little Life, which is overly ambitious, significantly overlong, at times irritating and unintentionally self-satirising, profoundly unfunny even when it tries to be the opposite — and at times almost hypnotically readable, relentlessly harrowing, and compelling in the extreme. Nevertheless, the question of what exactly we are left with except the voyeuristic and rather ghoulish intrusion into the misery of one of modern literature’s most unfortunate characters is not easily answered.
The flaws, to get them out of the way first, are numerous but somehow not sufficient to completely derail this current favorite for the Booker Prize. Its fifty-year span has a strangely ahistorical New York setting; no President or public figure is ever mentioned to give us a clue what year we might be in; neither Watergate, global warming hysteria, Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, nor Iraq come up, and we are left only with the occasional reference to the existence of email or mobile telephony. It surely cannot be that this is accidental, but even so its purpose is obscure. Likewise some of its minor characters’ names promise something of more portent, but this too is opaque. Perhaps there really was a time when parents named their children Caleb, Isodore, Rhodes, Phaedra or — worst of all — Citizen.
Every location the book mentions goes similarly unexplored. The peripatetic bunch who make up the four college friends at the novel’s centre travel, for various purposes and at various times, to, amongst others, Sri Lanka, London, Rome, Paris, Russia, Stockholm, Beijing, Morocco, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, and India. It is not until well after the six hundredth page that a building in Andalucía receives attention for a couple of sentences. Each of these locations is apparently worth mentioning, but not one is worth exploring. Several extremely serious and heady conversations key to the novel’s development occur in a boring New York apartment; wouldn’t it have been interesting to set at least one of them in an atmospheric Marrakesh bazaar or evocative Parisian café? New York does not fare much better. Early on, reference is made to a nine mile route the main character, Jude St Francis, ritually walks each Sunday.
Today he would walk to the Upper East Side: up West Broadway to Washington Square Park, to University and though Union Square, and up Broadway to Fifth, which he’d stay on until Eighty-sixth Street, and then back down Madison to Twenty-fourth street . . .
This continues for quite some time. Instead of what he imbibes on this walk, in what way it benefits him, for what reason it has become a habit, to what destinations his mind drifts, all we get is a pointless list of street names useful only for tracing the route on a map, should for some odd reason someone want to.
This is far from the only tautology this novel contains. Take, for instance:
And oh, he wanted to go, he wanted to get away, he wanted to go to college. He was tugged, in those days, between trying to resign himself to the fact that his life would forever more be what it was, and the hope, the small and stupid and stubborn as it was, that it could be something else. The balance — between resignation and hope — shifted by the day, by the hour, sometimes by the minute.
This works quite well up until the point that Yangaihara thinks it is necessary to tell us that what is being talked about is a conflict “between resignation and hope.” Well, we already know this because we have been told so a sentence earlier. Perhaps this could be forgiven as an understandable aberration in a long novel if similar tautologies were not so gleefully and prolifically recurrent. A perfect storm of needless detail, a silly name and leaden dialogue combined to present the one occasion on which this book was almost sent spiralling across the room in a spasm of irritation exactly here, on page 605:
. . . he sees it’s the anaesthesiologist, a friend of Andy’s named Ignatius Mba, whom he’s met before at one of Andy and Jane’s dinner parties.
“Hi, Ignatius,” he says.
The next sentence comprises Ignatius Mba counting down from ten as Jude slips into unconsciousness. Ignatius Mba is never seen again. Why does he exist? Why couldn’t Jude simply have been anesthetised by any old doctor and a paragraph of pointless detail spared? Why is this worth valuable space when a month in Japan is not? And why, if he is to be named, must he be named Ignatius Mba? This is not, say, a Thomas Pynchon novel where one anticipates the arrival of the next character in the hope that they have the kind of jivey, cartoonish name which might induce mirth, like McClintic Sphere, Mike Fallopian, or Scarsdale Vibe. To call an incidental character Ignatius Mba should indicate that we are being told something about the author’s reality level, or their appreciation for the accidental humour of everyday life. Rather, it is one of this novel’s numerous instances of wasted space. Similarly this:
So he was grateful for the sudden presence of Sanjay, one of the very few colleagues of Jude’s he had met, and who had the year before joined him as co-chair of his department so that Jude could concentrate on bringing in new business while Sanjay handled the administrative and managerial details.
Everything from “department” onwards is superfluous, as, in actual fact, is Sanjay. Nor is it necessary to know the name of the twin sister of the hostess of a party, or the names of Jude’s friend’s co-workers, nor Willem’s dead siblings, nor Jude’s social worker’s girlfriends (ex and current), nor the wife of Jude’s professor’s best friend. These characters serve no purpose and do not re-appear. Had Yanagihara cut all this babble she might have achieved the shortening by a third that her editor reportedly initially demanded.
Ironic, then, that she is so obsessed by a different type of cutting. Jude is a compulsive self-harmer and the descriptions of his time spent carving his arms open and bleeding into the sink are compelling, at least the first two or three times:
He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and now he recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.
Each cutting scene is fairly well similar to this. Time and time again it’s off to the bathroom with Jude for another carving session exactly like the last one and exactly like the next one. The cutting, it emerges, is a result of the horrific abuse he suffers from childhood until his late teens. Once it becomes clear that the coming together after college of four friends making their way in New York is not the crux of this story but Jude himself is, Yangairhara takes the opportunity for what the novel does best, which is to drip feed his history over the course of several hundred pages. He is abandoned as a baby, abused at a monastery, then pimped out to several paedophiles a day by the man who “rescues” him. And it’s all downhill from there. He has a permanent disability as a result of “the injury” to his legs, the origin of which is eventually described in convincing and exhilarating fashion.
Nevertheless, as his childhood goes from horrendous to unspeakably appalling it is increasingly difficult for the introspective reader to conclude than they are doing anything other than the equivalent of slowing down to have a jolly good stare at the aftermath of a car crash. The pages of adulthood, which involve the wonderful Harold Stein, a professor who becomes Jude’s mentor and father figure, are filler in-between episodes of rape, abuse, and misery. It rather seems as if Yangairhara abandoned an intended Bright Young Things In Manhattan type bildungsroman as she too realized that Jude is the only reason to read this novel. The other three, we are told (as opposed to shown), become an Oscar-winning actor, an artist who is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art at the age of twenty-eight, and a prized architect. Their stories are so inconsequential, clichéd and devoid of interest, their characters so slapdash, that it is a damned good job Yanagihara has propelled the novel in the right direction by the end of the first few dozen pages. Only Jude counts, and his misery alone keeps the pages turning.
Evelyn Waugh said that his only concern as a reader was quality of prose; Edmund Wilson believed that anything in a novel was forgivable except the failure to live. Its flamboyant and extravagant imperfections mean it is hard to see how A Little Life would pass Waugh’s muster, though Wilson would be satisfied in spite of many of the things its author inflicts upon it. Whether or not it wins the Booker Prize, it will certainly appear on celebrity “What I Read On My Holiday” lists in gossip magazines and Sunday supplements. If someone like Susan Sarandon or — to indulge British readers — the panel of Loose Women were to select a Book Of The Year, this would probably be it. It could easily reach modern classic status amongst those who seek fiction rather than literature. It will surely be packed into many a suitcase, read on many a beach and provoke many a tear. On that basis at least it far overcomes the odds piled against it.