“[H]e was worried because to be alive was to worry. Life was scary; it was unknowable… They all…sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, someone to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days.” This is Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”.
“A Little Life” is the tragic story of four college friends, JB, Willem, Jude and Malcolm. The book revolves around Jude, slowly revealing his violent and abusive childhood, his resultant demons and torment and the impact he has on the lives of his friends. This book answers the question of the meaning of life with a resounding NONE. In fact, in the view of one of the characters, even considering the meaning of life is a luxury. “It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not. He didn’t think his was.”
When we first meet the four friends, they have finished college and graduate school and are starting careers. Jude is a lawyer working in the US Attorney’s office, has physical challenges, suffers from intermittent severe leg and back pain and has difficulty walking. Willem is a struggling actor and part-time waiter, JB is an artist and Malcolm is an architect. As the story unfolds, all four become wildly successful in their chosen careers and the story focuses more and more on Jude.
Jude goes from the US attorney’s office to a large Manhattan law firm, where he is a successful litigator and becomes the head of litigation and a member of the Firm’s management committee. Jude’s law school professor, Harold, becomes a very important part of Jude’s life. The book involves a lot of discussion of the law, including the importance of law in society and the intellectual discipline needed to practice law. Although this part of the book may be the most positive and least depressing, Yanagihara finds a way to take the positive and make it a negative.
For instance, Harold, who loves the law, finds himself regretting that Jude has become a lawyer because of his perception of the intellectual restrictions the practice of law places on a person’s creativity. “But later, often, I was sad for him, and for me. I wished I had urged him to leave law school…I wish I had nudged him in a direction where his mind could have become as supple as it was, where he wouldn’t have had to harness himself to a dull way of thinking. I felt I had taken someone who once knew how to draw a dog and turned him into someone who instead knew only how to draw shapes.” This from someone who loves and values law about someone who is able to find pleasure (perhaps his only pleasure) in the practice of the law.
Jude spends the majority of the book trying to hide his past from everyone close to him. When asked about his childhood he would comment that it was too boring to even discuss and observes how easily people accepted this response. “He was astonished but relieved by how easily they accepted that, and grateful too for their self-absorption. None of them really wanted to listen to someone else’s story anyway; they only wanted to tell their own.”
The other college friends fade in and out of the story except for Willem. Willem becomes a wildly successful actor and Willem and Jude are very close. Willem spends a great deal of time trying to draw out Jude’s story and becomes an important part of Jude’s life.
For some inexplicable reason, Yanagihara feels the need to consistently torture her characters (and thereby tortures her reader). During the periods in their lives when they are happy and successful, the characters drop out of the novel, only to reappear when something is going wrong. Every reappearance is tinged with regret, tragedy and sadness.
Ultimately nothing good happens in this 720 page novel of utter hopelessness, regret, cruelty and despair. If you like books where the author consistently tortures her characters and punishes her readers, where utter hopelessness is the only theme and where you finish and ask yourself “what the hell was that?”, then by all means, read “A Little Life”. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11150051__Sa%20little%20life__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.