A Little Life: reflections on a novel of remarkable power

These reflections on the book A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara give much of the plot away so don’t read this if you can plan to read the book—and I strongly advise you to do so.

 A Little Life engaged me greatly, perhaps the best thing you can say about a novel. As I write this approaching Cuba on my way to Cancun, I see Chicken reading it beside me. She too is engaged.

(In fact Chicken became so engaged that she became so shocked and angry with what the book described that she had to stop reading it. This reflects its brilliance She is determined to return and finish the book.)

It’s a story of friendship and love, but the book also gave me an understanding that I’ve never gained elsewhere of the effects of childhood sexual abuse and the need for self-harm it can give rise to.

Jude, the central character in the novel, is one of four friends who roomed together in college and became lifelong friends, a common occurrence that has happened in my life. I still see my three friends regularly, at least every year, but we don’t live together in same city and meet almost every week as Jude and his friends did.

Jude was horribly abused as a child. Pimped by Brother Luke he had sex with hundreds of men, night after night. Sex is central to the book, but Hanya Yanagihara, the author, wisely never attempts an account of the sexual act.

(Here I must confess something. I didn’t know the gender of the author, but I assumed he must be a man. The four friends are all male, and the two other characters in the book who are fully developed are male. Indeed, it occurs to me now that there are no developed female characters in the book. They are there but have walk on parts. Yet Yanagihara is a woman, a young one. I didn’t learn this until I’d finished the book, and I was both stunned and ashamed. I was ashamed by the sexism of my assumption, but it’s an almost natural assumption. Can anybody think of a novel by a man in which all the developed characters are women or vice verse? Although three of the friends are gay, I never doubted the maleness of any of the six developed male characters.)

We don’t know at the beginning about the abuse that Jude suffered as a child, but we soon guess at it — and the full story emerges slowly through the book, with the account of the climax of the abuse becoming clear near the end. We soon learn that Jude was brilliant, at maths, the piano, everything. Yet he becomes a corporate lawyer, earning huge sums of money defending, it is made clear, villainous and corrupt corporations. Yet Jude’s job is the most stable thing in his life. The long hours and intensity of the work give him a relief he rarely finds elsewhere.

Willem is the second of the friends, an actor who works as a waiter when we first encounter him but who becomes a film star. All of the four friends are hugely successful, three of them in the creative arts, something that stretched credulity too far–but didn’t spoil the novel. Willem grew up in rural Montana with emotionally cold parents and a severely disabled brother to whom he was devoted. The brother died in early adulthood. Willem is the closest to Jude and eventually becomes his lover. We are left wondering, as is Jude, how much Willem’s love for Jude, who is sick from the beginning and progresses to a wheelchair and amputation of his legs, has its roots in his love for his disabled brother.

Jude and Willem are white, but the other two friends are black. JB is an unstable, attention seeking, neurotic highly successful painter. Although fatherless, he had a rich, loving childhood with his mother and aunts. His paintings are all about the friendship of the four, becoming so personal that at times they are offensive, particularly to Jude.

Malcolm is an architect. His father was a successful lawyer, and Malcolm struggled to emerge from his father’s success and charisma. He is the only one of the four friends to get married, and he’s the most lightly drawn.

The novel is set almost entirely in New York, and you feel Yanagihara’s love for New York. I can remember no descriptions of cityscapes, but many street names are given, buildings are closely described, and scenes are set in restaurants and galleries. There are many descriptions of food and cooking.

The two other central characters are Harold, an academic lawyer, and Andy, a doctor. Andy was at college with the four friends and is the only doctor whom Jude trusts. Jude sees Andy almost every week, and they have a remarkable doctor patient relationship fuelled by love in which a “bad” patient, Jude, who won’t give a full history and ignores advice, turns an arrogant doctor into a good one. (I’ve blogged about this http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2015/12/14/richard-smith-does-it-take-a-bad-patient-to-make-a-good-doctor/ .)

Harold teaches Jude, and he and his wife, Julia, become devoted to him, so much so that they adopt him. Harold and Julia had a son who died when a boy. This, we all know, has something, probably much, to do with the adoption. Jude brings them joy but also much pain.

Many of the characters major and minor love Jude intensely, particularly Willem, Harold, and Andy. As he’s secretive, incommunicative, and moody, you wonder why Jude is so lovable and conclude that it must be something to do with his vulnerability. I found mildly implausible the number of people who loved Jude, but again it didn’t spoil my appreciation of the novel. (I also found implausible the fact that although the characters aged from their early 20s to their 50s their surroundings, particularly New York, never changed. This reflects that although many geographies were mentioned briefly, including London, this was essentially an internal drama of six, even three, characters.)

For most of the book Jude is the narrator, but in some chapters Willem and Harold are the narrators.

The four friends are very supportive of each other, but from the beginning the strongest relationship is that of Jude and Willem. As Malcolm marries and JB takes to drugs they fade from the scene.

Jude cuts himself all the time. We understand why he has to do it and how it brings great relief. In the beginning only Andy knows about his cutting. Jude always wears long sleeves and doesn’t swim or undress on the beach. Eventually Willem and Harold discover the cutting and try to stop him doing it, not understanding, as we readers do, just how essential it is to Jude. Trying to stick with a promise to Willem not to cut himself Jude tries burning himself and does serious damage. That episode causes a break down in his relationship with Willem, a breakdown that is healed.

Jude says nothing about his past, and we guess, as do his friends, that horrible things have happened. Eventually we learn them, but only Andy and Willem know the full story, and they learn it slowly. He was abused in a children’s home, then taken away and pimped by Brother Luke, who also had sex with him. Eventually Brother Luke was arrested, and he escaped from another children’s home. He made his way across America by having sex with lorry drivers, and eventually encounters the sadistic Dr Traylor who imprisons and abuses him. When he releases him Dr Traylor deliberately drives over his legs, perhaps intending to kill him.

Most of the sexual abuse was before Jude was 16, and there seemed to be an endless supply of men wanting to have sex with boys. Several of the characters, including Willem, have sex with men and women. Jude never really knows his sexuality, but only ever has sex with men. Understandably sex horrifies him, and he assumes as an adult that he can never have a successful sexual relationship. He does, however, attempt an affair with a man, but it turns severely abusive. Was the abuser attracted to him because of his vulnerability? Were all the abuser’s relationships abusive? It seemed not. Did the abuser discover a passion for abuse through detecting that Jude had been abused? We don’t know.

The friendship between Willem and Jude evolves into love. Willem feels this happening inside himself and takes time to acknowledge it even to himself. Eventually Willem declares his feelings. Jude responds positively but can’t imagine ever enjoying sex. He tries but never succeeds, but takes time to tell Willem that he can’t enjoy sex. Willem satisfies his sexual needs with women.

I imagine that few who are sexually abused as children ever get to enjoy sex, but I don’t know.

The other central relationship for Jude is with his adopted parents. They manage the unconditional relationship that is hallmark of parenthood, but Jude, although he loves them, can never recognise the unconditionality of their love.

Despite the failure of their sexual relationship and Jude needing bilateral amputations, these are described by Yanagihara as the happy years, but suddenly Willem is killed in a car crash. Malcolm and his wife die in the same crash. Harold, Julia, and his other friends rally round, but Jude never recovers. Work helps hugely, but his friends know he’s going to kill himself–and eventually he does.

The “Little Life” was his, but it was not really little, including the lowest and highest of points a life might have. It makes a great novel.

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