Hello, dear reader!
Note: the book cover is an alternative one. the original features “the orgasmic man”
This 724-paged novel captivated me, chewed me up with its rawness, spit me back out, and came back swinging with fresh emotions and intense feels. Hanya Yanagihara’s work is akin to an MMA fighter: Once you’re in the cage, her characters punch, kick, and grab you in a merciless headlock and refuse to let go. It’s the saddest, most visceral book I’ve ever read as an adult–and yet there’s bright rays of humor, friendship, love, and hope.
The four main characters are the glue found in the massive heap of emotions A Little Life evokes for me. Because this novel spans several decades, you not only see these characters as scrappy youths fresh out of college and then grad school, but as middle-aged adults. You learn about their backgrounds, their parents, their ambitions, their hopes and dreams. As they come into adulthood, you come along with them always walking by their sides, for better or for worse.
JB (short for Jean-Baptiste) is an artist, working with paint and oftentimes creating portraiture of his friends and their lives. He’s sometimes the most hot-headed of the group, but also the most humorous. He’s gay, and of Haitian descent. He comes from a hard-working family. While his father is out of the picture, his mother is a professor, and his aunts and grandmother all are all strong and amazing women.
Malcolm (sometimes called Mal) is an architect. Despite having tack-sharp parents–a mother who is a literary agent, and his father is a lawyer–Mal seems to believe that they would rather have prefered his friend Jude for a son, mostly because his father tells him that Jude has “real intellectual heft and depth, unlike his other friends, who were essentially flibbertigibbets” (pg. 21). While seeking to eek out on his own, Mal struggles with the things he wants to resolve at 27: “his work (at a standstill), his love life (nonexistent), his sexuality (unresolved), his future (uncertain)” (pg. 23). Malcolm is biracial, and comes from a wealthy family. At one point, he comes out to his parents as gay, but then retreats back into the closet.
Willem is an aspiring actor. He’s left orphaned in grad school, for his parents die in the same year, several months apart. His mother and father were essentially cold people, the complete opposite of Willem. As a kind person, he was particularly good with his older brother Hemming, who had cerebral palsy. Despite Hemming’s disability, Willem was the one who stood up for him in high school, the one who read to him, pushed his stubbornly sedentary wheelchair around, and took him on walks. He made meals for him, and loved him. Willem’s parents, however, did not act one way or the other towards Hemming. Willem is a solid friend, a peacekeeper, and a caring person. What he lacks–or therefore feels he lacks–in intellect, he more than makes up for in his emotional depth.
Jude is the most gifted, as well as the most mysterious, of the group. He’s gifted at math, knows four languages–English, Latin, French, and German–and can play piano very well. (At one point, he plays Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17 in C major while extremely depressed, trying to escape the demons in his head.) He studies law and pure math. Despite all of Jude’s incredible talent, he is constantly plagued by his past, and cuts himself because of it. Jude has a beautiful tenor singing voice, and stuns his law professor in grad school with his a-Capella arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (or “I am Lost to the World”) when asked to sing something. It’s a slow and mournful but also extremely beautiful song. He works his way up at the law firm Rosen Prichard and Klein, eventually becoming a partner there.
For me, the friendships and the theme of coming of age are central to the novel, even if a few of the characters are set aside to delve into Jude’s personal life. I still feel drawn to Jude’s mysteriousness, his sharp mind, and his inner demons. As an aspiring writer, out of college myself, I understand what Malcolm’s going through for the most part–there’s pressure to make money, pressure to impress people not just on a resume, but also in daily life, and a sense of needing to come into your own as an adult. I, too, am living at home. Of course, I do not resent my parents! They’re quite friendly, loving people. (So no worries there.) In Willem’s case, I get the need to find someone to help guide you further along in your career, to further push you in the right direction.
I do not agree with everything that Yanagihara’s written, however. I will not be too negative here, but there are several topics that still deeply anger and bother me about her novel. For example, it bothers me that Jude suffered many forms of abuse as a child and as an adolescent. It bothers me how, for the most part, she treated Jude, making him suffer even when his life was full of happiness. I’m not saying that I hate these characters; quite the contrary. Because I spent so much time with Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcolm, I grew to love them. I wanted them to succeed in their dreams. I wanted them to have loving boyfriends (or girlfriends). I wanted Jude to realize that while his past was a living hell, his present and future didn’t have to be. I wanted everyone to be happy, truly happy.
What I’m trying to say is that I hate what Yanagihara did to her characters. I do not hate her as a person, but I do not like in the slightest what she’s done to these men. (I do understand that she, in my understanding, wanted to write a tragedy. She has certainly succeeded.)
While some reviews tend to have a much more negative slant towards Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I want to focus on all the good things this novel has taught me.
- While you are unable to choose your family members, you can certainly choose your friends
- Always laugh, even when you happen to live in a very shitty apartment (make stand-up like jokes about how utterly shitty your apartment is with your friends)
- Work hard, play hard
- Learn that you can love yourself, then go out & love others
- Pursue your passions. Take a canvas and splatter it with fresh paint–don’t be afraid to get your hands & arms dirty all the way up to the elbows
- The past is the past: Don’t subscribe to the philosophy that you’re doomed to repeat your mistakes, i.e. X = X, i.e. to every action there is a reaction
- While you cannot change your past, you can however change how you view it in the present
- Take pictures of your family and friends. Record their voices, your trips, remember their habits, their ticks, everything. Just stockpile
- It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to cry if you’re a man
- It’s OK to ask for help every now & again (& accept the help offered without protest)
Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcolm: I won’t forget you boys, the crew from Hood Hall. You’re all talented, funny, amazing people.
Ich liebe dich!