A Little Life was on my shelf longer than I care to think about. I was intimidated by both its length — a casual 720 pages — and its heavy subject matter. A Little Life follows four friends (Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude), who meet at college and converge in New York, where they pursue their individual careers and drift in-and-out of each other’s lives. At its heart, it’s the story of a boy with a history of unrelenting abuse, who wrestles with the darkness of his childhood into adulthood.
A confession: I only got around to reading A Little Life after I lent it to someone I met on Tinder. We’d been on exactly two very good dates when I thrust it into his hands and said, having never read it myself, here’s a challenge. Then, coincidently, he went on holiday to New York. On the day he left, he sent me a picture of the book from the airport lounge. While he was away we sent sparse, fragmented messages. A month later, in a coffee shop back home, we did the awkward conversational dance reserved for people testing the waters of attraction. He’d brought A Little Life with him. You should read it, he said.
When you tell anyone that you’re reading A Little Life, one of two things is likely to happen. The first is that they’ll wildly enthuse about the writing. They’ll tell you about how believable they found characters and about how they fell in love with them. They’ll tell you it’s heartbreaking. They’ll tell you that you must read it now and call them the moment you finish! The second thing that happens is that they’ll look at you, wide-eyed and reeling, before asking with concern, but why —?
It would be an understatement to say that A Little Life is painful as it explores themes of abuse, self-harm, and recurring trauma. The book shifts focus before homing in on Jude, a lawyer with chronic health issues. Gradually, we come to understand the extent of his suffering. There are moments of respite from despair in the form of love shown to Jude by his friends. But ultimately, he cannot escape the encroaching shadow of his past. Yanagihara’s refusal to offer Jude (and the reader) relief from his psychological pain is as truthful as it is horrible. A Little Life acknowledges the nonlinearity of trauma — how memories intensify and ebb but never leave altogether. As readers we crave a happy ending, yet, the story arc of our own lives is not always hopeful; life is permeated by sadness, and sometimes that sadness is oppressive.
The fact is, reading A Little Life is horrible; it’s a visceral gut-punch of a book that drags you up from the hottest depths to the crust of the earth and pulls you back down again. For me, it was a profoundly altering reading experience because I was so invested. The thing is, you do fall in love with the characters! I’ve never read contemporary fiction that so thoroughly imagines the shifting and flexible bonds of male friendship. Amidst the onslaught of misery (and there’s a lot), there are moments of tenderness. This tenderness comes in broad strokes, like Willem’s inherent kindness and his willingness to be patient. Other times, it’s in the finer details like when Jude cooks roast potatoes the way his adoptive father, Harold, likes them. My point is that the book does have joy especially in depicting ordinary, demonstrative acts of love. I think that to miss these small intimacies is to miss the intricacy of A Little Life.
But I can understand why, during this time of unease and uncertainty, a novel containing such abject misery mightn’t be appealing. I can also understand criticism which suggests Yanagihara’s uncompromising approach to the portrayal of abuse is manipulative, intended with the sole purpose of putting readers’ emotions through the wringer. I started A Little Life before lockdown measures were put in place and finished it three weeks into isolating alone. I raced through the final 120 pages until 2 am, breaking only to take gulps of water and sob. Tears came in a burning torrent of sadness which, whilst not unexpected, was overwhelming. I sent the man who’d carried my copy of A Little Life to New York and back again a message on Instagram: It’s devastating! He replied, pretty much straight-away: it’s a tough read.
It might seem strange but a week on, I’m feeling the absence of A Little Life. If days seemed long and lonely, and the news was too much to bear, I could turn to its pages. I lost myself in Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude most evenings, and despite its bleakness, the world of the book was familiar. I’m missing that familiarity now. After reading A Little Life, you become part of a club that knows the book’s secrets. Everyone wants to discuss it; it’s a way to connect. After I’d turned the last page and stopped crying, the first thing I did was go on social media. I shouted into the void and the void shouted back, omg we need to talk about this book.
Lauren Vevers is a writer from Newcastle upon Tyne. Her essays have featured in publications such as ‘She Found It at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema‘ (Red Press, 2020) and ‘On Relationships’ (3 of Cups Press, 2020). She also runs creative writing workshops for young people and community groups. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenVevers. www.laurenvevers.com