A Little Life
At least four people warned me that they had put down this book because it was so depressing. But undaunted by a challenge, I persevered. The topic seemed interesting as the blurb foretold a story about the inner life of four male friends.So often authors dig deeply into thoughts and relationships of women, but a story concerning males will most times move outwards towards their professions, sports or activities rather than explore their longings, aspirations or reflections. Brigid Delaney in The Guardian reminds us that “characters’ friendships represent the type of love known as agape, described by CS Lewis in The Four Loves as the highest level of love known to humanity: “A selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other”…[ for example] Mark Twain’s bond between Huck and Tom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So in our society where it is fine for foot ball players to smack each other’s bums, and now for married gay men to openly kiss, a story of non- sexual love among men is a fresh exploration of how men communicate their emotions.
The novel did not disappoint as a portrayal of an enduring relationship among four young men who meet at a fancy New England College , develop a lifelong commitment while moving on to diverse life experiences in Manhattan. The author follows them for 30-40 years so the reader has a sense of the trajectory of boys who grow into men.
Early on, we have a sense of their strong personalities: JB is brought up in a loving adoring family where there is no father. He is a Haitian- American with avant- garde or unconventional leanings such as in his early work covering spoons with human hair. Malcom is the biracial scion of wealthy parents from the Upper East Side in New York. Like JB, he is a creative, continually fashioning intricate paper boxes ; he will be the architect. Both the thinking of these two men is fascinating because they are artistic souls who are not confined to societal perceptions usually associated with males; they think “ outside of the box”, and are not governed by the wolves of Wall Street stereotypes, competitive and ruthless. Willem is the kind and caring one whose stoic Swedish parents working an unproductive farm in Wyoming have all ready lost two children, the remaining one Hemming is unable to communicate, and is confined to his wheelchair. A compassionate brother, Willem responds to him, taking responsibility for his needs. At one point Willem works at a camp for disabled children, but he veers towards acting: and that becomes his life’s work where he excels.
Only snippets of the final fourth character, Jude, are grudgingly revealed although we discover almost from the start that he has been abandoned as a baby in a trash can in South Dakota, no record of him existing. It is Jude’s story that the author unwinds, the pivotal point of the friendships that sustain the novel.
This is a story of four men , complimented by two more enduring male characters who play essential roles in the story. There is Andy, a med student who becomes Jude’s long suffering physician never reporting nor insisting Jude’s emotional or physical injuries hospitalize him; and Harold Stein, Jude’s mentor, law professor and adoptive father: two incredibly supportive caring companions who come into Jude’s life. Women are peripheral, his social worker Ana dying almost at the outset, Julia, an extension of Harold, and a passel of women attaching themselves to the main players: some stay; others leave, none exerting any real impact on the narrative.
But it is Jude whose background is made mysterious, hints here and there and Jude himself forever deflecting attention when he is questioned about his origins. “Whenever Harold asked him questions about himself, he always felt something cold move across him, as if he were being iced from the inside, his organs and nerves being protected by a sheath of frost.” One critic refers to the process of revealing Jude’s background as a “ striptease”, as tantalizing fragments are suggestive and alluring, but only small pieces are reluctantly tossed towards the reader.
Jude is handsome, hard working and extremely intelligent, taking a masters in pure math while studying law. His interest is in the moral impact as well as in the philosophical and abstract in his studies. He is an attractive man, but never truly involves himself with other individuals . Even with his room mates, and another artist, Richard and the Henry Youngs, he seems to inhabit space much like a lamp or piece of furniture. We have no real sense of who Jude is, his like: only his overwhelming dislike: himself.
There is a quietness, a looming aloneness that sets Jude apart. We do not learn much about him, past or present in his interchanges or his activities, save for the fact that he swims and while his body permits him, he enjoys long walks in the neighbourhood, usually on Sundays. And almost from the outset, we discover when Willem must deliver Jude to Andy because there is excessive bleeding on the bathroom floor: that he cuts himself, his razors hidden in special places in the bathroom. Taught to assuage pain as a child by Brother Luke, one of the monks at the home where he spent his early years, the reader observes that “[Jude has] long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.” This revulsion and self loathing are evident from the outset and lend to the secrets that Jude hides, along with his limp,, suggesting a previous life of pain.
The reader although interested in discovering some about Jude’s background and the reason for his behaviour and demeanour also intuits not to go too deeply in order to unravel the intricacies of Jude’s life. Perhaps like his roommates who do not push , we are relieved not to pry open Jude’s life, fearful that what we will learn will not rest easy with a lifestyle that is fun and fast and gratifying, that which the author has ushered us into at the outset of her novel. The roommates lead a glamourous life, fancy universities, parties, laughter, swish galleries, “ as a catalog of the incremental accumulations that, almost without [ them] noticing it, become the stuff of [ their] lives: the jobs and apartments, the one-night stands and friendships and grudges, the furniture and clothes, lovers and spouses and houses.”This is the good life, the promise of the American Dream, work hard and the future will unfold with all the blessings available to the best and the brightest.Jude appears to live the part. But it is Willem who continually attempts to dislodge some facts about Jude’s life prior to their college days. Yet , only after an almost fatal suicide attempt late in the novel ( of more than 700 pages!) does Jude confide some of the horrors of his forced sexual profligacy.
Jude’s background, especially, his self destructive cutting is a recurrent motif that underpins and does pique the reader’s desire to ferret out more about the central character. Besides Jude’s negative stance, occasionally the author reveals “…as an adult, Jude ‘became obsessed in spells with trying to identify the exact moment in which things had started going so wrong, . . . but really, he would know: It was when he walked into the greenhouse that afternoon. It was when he allowed himself to be escorted in, when he gave up everything to follow Brother Luke. That had been the moment. And after that, it had never been right again.'”
There is a foreboding that his story, although Jude has accomplished much to be in his present life, the successful litigator in a top firm , that the novel will not be a Cinderella one that promises more happy endings, forgiveness and resurrections. Much more a Grimm’s tale, the monsters will continue to roam in the garden of the protagonist.
At the best of times, the men are forever entrenched in one another’s lives. Malcolm designs Jude’s apartments and eventually his incredible dream house, opening windows that overlook forest and sand. And JB after searching for his art niche, follows his friends around, photographing them and painting their interconnectedness in a photorealistic style: these works catapult him to fame. At the centre of the paintings always is Jude, trying to obscure himself , erase himself from the picture, yet kept in play by the supportive loving web of these friendships that do not pry where Jude does not want them to go.
But as time goes on, Yanagihara writes, that Willem and Jude “knew why they kept attending ..these parties: because they had become one of the few opportunities the four of them had to be together, and at times they seemed to be their only opportunity to create memories the four of them could share, keeping their friendship alive by dropping bundles of kindling onto a barely smoldering black smudge of fire. It was their way of pretending everything was the same.” They hang together the way childhood friends sometimes do, for having enjoyed parallel experiences in the same locations, their sense of self with one another, having built endearing images that reassures them – even as time goes by, and their paths separating them- that they had had a real connection, that their last vest had had meaning.
At a dinner party where the friends discuss what their legacy will be, Malcolm ponders whether not having children was a mistake. Wide eyed Willem responds that making people happy and having been a friend is sufficient as a reason for existence, reinforcing that pact of friendship as enough, as a raison d’ Etre, a goal to be upheld and cherished. For Willem and Jude, that objective is fulfilled- if short lived. However, the author, dramatizes that the memory of that relationship once Willem disappears from the scene is not nearly enough to ensure her main character’s respite from his childhood demons.
Yet like the inevitable train wreck from which we are unable to avert our eyes, we continue on reading. In deed towards the end when Willem enumerates all of Jude’s fine points as a friend, a good listener, etc., I wondered if I had missed all that, and except for his obsessive cooking such as creating amazing cookies for Julia’s fete or a splendid conversation with Lawrence and Gillian at the Steins, we only experience his nervous shell, for Jude’s trepidation was that his life would unravel or someone near him would find out about his early life and disparage or even stop him. When JB imitates Jude’s lopsided walk and Jude sees this performance, we can comprehend his shame and resentment of the mockery. Although JB, strung out on drugs, apologizes and truly regrets his actions, this distorted mimicry cannot be forgiven by Jude. To Jude’s credit, he has struggled on to achieve that good life,however he has never been able to escape the terrible ghosts of victimhood.
The author Yanagihara’s question in the novel concerns the impact of damage of Jude’s youth. Abused, prostituted, betrayed, run over, lied to, can a person with all this baggage be saved?
Her answer resoundingly is No!
Jude’s early years have been the stuff of fairytale evil. And, even though she attempts to balances the rest of his life ( with the exception of Jude’s brutal relationship with Caleb- who hurlsJude along with his wheelchair down flights of stairs) with love, success, endearing friends and kind adoptive parents who only want to recreate Jude’s world and have him emerge as peaceful and happy, like Sysiphus, he is doomed, forever chased and tormented by his coyotes, threatening him with past and forgotten images that tear him asunder. Not surprisingly, his cutting attempts push him into suicidal episodes. He is so unable to trust that when Harold takes his head in his lap to console and comfort him, Jude surmises that even his father wants sexual favours.
Jude is aware of the crowding menaces in his head and even as he lashes out, impugns or rejects all those who have stood by him; he is a divided soul. However, after the final incident with Willem, Jude’s behaviour goes way way beyond the reader tolerance. Likely even the most compassionate reader will not condone Jude’s behaviour, no matter his childhood scarring. At age 51, and in spite of all the support afforded him, he gives into childish tantrums , hurling a cheese sandwich at Harold, and ranting. Yanagihara is showing us Jude is far beyond redemption and he will not or cannot rally.
Or perhaps, she teases us by showing us the behaviour of a child Jude has never been able to inhabit, taunting the reader to speculate that if he could regress and be that child, would he cast off that damaged persona and emerge again, a new Jude. However, Should the optimistic reader aspire for new beginnings, Yanagihara demonstrates that the traumas are irreparable and there is no possibility of repair. Love will not triumph.
Daniel Mendelssohn, New York review of books, writes “Jude is a pill, and one cannot get emotionally involved with him in the first place, let alone be affected by his demise Mendelssohn continues, ” Sometimes I wondered whether even Yanagihara liked him. There is something punitive in the contrived and unredeemed quality of Jude’s endless sufferings; it sometimes feels as if the author is working off a private emotion of her own.” And truthfully, the reader is not given much about J.B, Malcolm or even Willem to offset the dirge of pain, only the unrelentless telescoping on Jude.
Chris Lorentzen from the London Review of Books also describes Jude :”At college he was a maths whiz, and his readily provided assistance with calculus assignments [ which] may explain his friends’ loyalty, because he’s a vacuum of charisma.”
With conflicted debate about this book, Yanagihara told The Guardian: “One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take,” and you’ll find it hard to find another mainstream literary fiction that equals the most egregious ‘misery memoir’ for its plotlines.” As the New Yorker pointed out, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Emma Donoghue’s Room let the worst abuses appear off stage. Not so here. Not tantalizing or overly descriptive, the recollections are told matter of factly, with no emotion. “ Jude has taught himself how to detach himself from the sexual encounters he has had to endure. In deed, the title 0f the novel comes from Brother Luke responding to Jude’s distancing himself from the horrendous invasions of his body. He is told to show, “ a little life” to the truck drivers, salesman, disgustingly fat men who buy his body. Ironically, Jude even in his secure successful life is unable to show any life at all. So that by the completion of his tale, we are glad for the end of his little life.
In spite of its numerous short falls, Jude persisted in my head after I closed the final page. Maybe like his room mates, I too had been transfixed by the damaged beauty and promise -that like the butterfly secured by a pin -will never fly.