“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.”
I picked up Hanya Yanagiharas’s A Little Life in my local Waterstones a few days before I set off to visit Europe. It’s a great doorstop of a book – over 700 pages – and while it might seem a little ridiculous to have chosen such a heavy novel to lug around in my (already overpacked) backpack, my logic was that it would last me a good while and therefore I would need to take less books. It was not the kind of text that I’d usually choose – I tend to fall for crimes, or actions, or thrillers – but its front cover boasted of its literary prestige and I’ve been trying to be open-minded in terms of genre, so I plonked it down on the counter with great enthusiasm.
A Little Life has, not infrequently, been called a “modern day classic” since its publication last year. It is raw, unapologetic, and filled with a psychological complexity that encourages the reader to develop an understanding and tolerance of the difficult issues – including depression, self-harm and drug abuse – behind the characters’ turmoils.
The novel traces the maturation of four college friends as they attempt to navigate the challenges thrown up by adulthood. There is Malcolm, an architect from an extremely privileged family who worries that his wealth and heterosexuality means he is not an interesting enough figure for his friendship group. J.B., is a narcissistic but insecure artist spoiled by his family, while gentle and good-natured Willem is a handsome aspiring-actor-working-as-a-waiter. Finally, is Jude, a painfully private but devastatingly bright lawyer. The foursome reflects the all too familiar college union of conventionally incompatible people who, in any other circumstances, would not be friends.
The reader’s introduction to these protagonists reflect the haphazard nature of meeting people at university. Extremely personal information about each man is revealed almost immediately, but throughout the novel the reader is consistently surprised by information that was withheld, and reminded that they are far more complex than first anticipated. However, as the novel progresses, some characters do (disappointingly) fall by the wayside – including Malcolm, which seems an ironically sad acknowledgement of his college fear – and, as Jude’s devastating secrets slowly come to light, it becomes clear that he is the main protagonist.
For me, one of the most striking aspects of A Little Life was its stark, honest, and unapologetic insight into depression. It captures the hopelessness that is experienced, the total self-loathing that too often is mistaken for self-indulgence and narcissism and is instead a disbelief that they deserve happiness, or the help of friends. It also records frustration of the friends who can’t quite grasp why this person is so unhappy, why they can’t see themselves as their friends do, which is definitely an emotion triggered in the reader, too. However, the reader is repeatedly reprimanded for any impatience and dismissal, as it is shown that consistent kindness, consistent friendship – while it does not provide a cure – provides an anchor; a rope to hold on to when everything else falls beneath your feet.
In following with its unapologetic depiction of depression is A Little Life’s refusal to comply with the convention of a happy-ending. Love and friendship cannot ‘fix’ someone. An individual with depression does not wake up one day absolutely fine because someone told them they loved them. But it does make a difference. Sometimes it makes the most important difference.
It seems appropriate, then, that friendship is the pivotal axis around which the novel orbits. It is refreshing to a readership for whom relationships have become far more fluid, flexible and ill-defined that, rather than focusing on the traditional world of romance, of boy meets girl. A Little Life shuns sexual relationships in favour of those that tend to run deeper and last longer – those between friends. However, the focus does not merely rest at friendship. It also explores the personal conflicts experienced when loyalty is challenged by practicality and morality. It also documents the rewards, and uncomfortable tensions, of trying to maintain this friendship into adulthood, when some desire to look forward and others try to maintain the college bubble, in which they were a big fish in a small pond.
In keeping with its reflection of a modern era, A Little Life also explores the new wave of difficulties experienced by Generation Y: the anxieties and isolation found when communication and acquaintances are available by the thousands, yet meaningful relationships are scarce; when living in a city surrounded by so many people, yet never feeling more anonymous.
A Little Life is like nothing like I’ve read before. Throughout its duration I would butcher garbled synopsis’ of the plot to family and friends because I needed consolation – a chance to talk through – what I’d read with my friends. It is certainly difficult to read. It should be made clear that there are, not infrequently, graphic and traumatic scenes of child abuse throughout A Little Life. At no point do the details speak of gratuity, or indulgence, as each scene adds to the main narrative and develop the protagonists’ characterization, but they are very uncomfortable and distressing to read. My only complaint would be about the implausibility of the huge successes of each of the friends (in extremely competitive areas), but in a book of over 700 pages, this seems very minor.
Look out for Harold, who I would strongly argue is the hero of the book, and who genuinely touched me with his (fictional) kindness. And pick up the next copy you see.