A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
A Little Life chronicles the postgraduate experiences of four college friends who ultimately become overwhelming successes in their respective careers: an actor, a litigator, an artist, and an architect. Two are gay, one is bisexual, and one is straight. One is white, one is black, one is of mixed race, and one is of unspecified ethnicity. All four men are extremely close and supportive of one another, and their friendship is probably the most beautiful thing in a book which some critics have denounced as “torture porn.” About 100 pages in, the reader begins to know the litigator Jude St. Francis better, and the rest of the book centers around his life which he is most reluctant to disclose even to the other three. Having been orphaned at a very young age, Jude is raised in a monastery where the sexual abuse, which will shape his psyche forever, begins. At eight he flees with one of the Brothers and is forced into prostitution. Eventually he escapes and finds refuge in the bathroom of a gas station where he is picked up by a sadistic psychiatrist, taken to a locked room, and raped repeatedly. He again escapes but not before the psychiatrist injures him to the point where he will suffer physically for the rest of his life. All these brutalities are related in flashbacks and only disclosed to one of his friends and only when the two have formed a relationship deeper than mere friendship, and even then under duress. Jude the child has grown into a very troubled, distrusting man who turns his shame inward and finds solace in cutting himself but refuses to seek help.
If this story seems like a relentless piling on, it is intentional, according to Yanagihara. Jude’s suffering seems never ending and needless, given the support of his friends, the money he makes, and the opportunities he has. The book is very structured however, regardless of the many flashbacks and Jude’s extensive inner reflections. Each of the seven chapters contains three sections, each subsection of which totals eighteen thousand words. According to Yanagihara, this scaffolding’s purpose was to organize, while not diluting, the corrosive emotions of the story. I found Jude to be an elegant character, despite his demons. He received an outstanding education at the monastery, he has impeccable taste in food and clothing, is described as very tall and quite good looking, and is probably the most intelligent of the four, all of which make his story more tragic and heart wrenching. He goes beyond being just a character in a very long book, and becomes a real person, thanks to Yanagihara’s detailed, intense, and emotional descriptions.
Read this book if you would like an introduction to Hanya Yanagihara. She was born in 1974 in Los Angeles and spent her early childhood in Honolulu. She is the editor-in-chief of T, the style supplement to the Times which publishes articles and photo essays about fashion, travel, art, and design. She has also written To Paradise: A Novel and The People in the Trees.