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A Little Life is a 2015 novel by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. The novel was written over the course of eighteen months.[1] Despite the length and difficult subject matter, it became a critically acclaimed bestseller.[2]

Plot summary[]

The novel follows the lives of four friends in New York City from college through to middle-age. It focuses particularly on Jude, a lawyer with a mysterious past, ambiguous ethnicity, and unexplained health issues. Jude walks with a limp and suffers from severe nerve damage in his spine, that causes him great pain, and which he blames on a car injury he sustained as a child. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, he also habitually self-harms. The rest of the group includes Malcolm, a struggling architect from a wealthy biracial family who still lives at home; JB, a painter of Haitian descent; and Willem, an aspiring actor with whom Jude is closest because both are orphans. After graduation, Jude and Willem share a one-bedroom apartment due to their relative poverty compared to their friends.

Despite this apparent closeness with his friends, Jude finds himself unable to divulge either detail of his past or current state of mind to his roommate. Nonetheless, he thrives in his law practice, and develops a close parent-child relationship with his former professor, Harold, and his wife Julia, which results in the pair adopting him when Jude turns thirty. While thankful, the time before the adoption is filled with further bouts of self-harm, as Jude believes he is inherently unworthy of affection. Meanwhile, the rest of the group finds success in their respective fields, with Willem becoming a star of theater and then film. JB finds success as an artist but also becomes addicted to crystal meth. The group stages an intervention, where JB mocks Jude by doing a crude imitation of his limp. In spite of successful treatment, and a great deal of apologizing, Jude finds it impossible to forgive JB. Willem refuses to forgive him too, causing the group to fragment, with only Malcolm remaining friends with all four members.

It becomes clear that Jude was sexually traumatized at a very young age, making it difficult for him to engage in romantic relationships. His friends and loved ones begin questioning this isolation as he enters his forties, with Willem especially being baffled with regards to Jude's sexuality. As his loneliness grows more intense, he enters an abusive relationship with fashion executive Caleb, who is disgusted by Jude's limp and his increasing use of a wheelchair. Jude finally breaks off the relationship after Caleb rapes him, and they meet a final time when Caleb follows him to dinner with Harold, humiliates him, and then follows Jude to his apartment, where he brutally beats and rapes him, leaving him for dead. Jude nonetheless refuses to report the incident to the police, believing he deserved it. Besides Harold, only Andy – Jude's doctor and ongoing confidante – know the truth of the failed relationship.

Although Jude's body manages to heal, the rapes cause him to flashback to his childhood, wherein he was raised in a monastery and repeatedly sexually assaulted by the brothers. He recalls a period when one of the brothers, Brother Luke, ran away with him, forcing him into years of child prostitution. After he was rescued by the police, Jude was placed in state care, where the abuse continued at the hands of the counselors there. After the break-up with Caleb brings back this childhood trauma, Jude finally decides to kill himself but survives the attempt. In the aftermath, Willem comes back home and begins to live with him. Jude continues to refuse therapy but begins to tell Willem the least traumatic stories about his childhood, which Willem finds disturbing and horrifying. The two soon begin a relationship, but Jude continues to struggle with opening up, and does not enjoy having sex with him.

In an attempt to curb his cutting, Jude decides to instead burn himself as a form of self-harm, but accidentally inflicts third-degree burns that require a skin graft. The wound is so severe that Andy tells him he has to tell Willem what happened, or else he will do it for him. Before Jude can tell Willem, Andy accidentally divulges the information. Willem is horrified but, after a difficult fight, Jude finally confesses that he does not enjoy sex, and tells Willem about the years of sexual and physical abuse he endured. Jude also reveals that he escaped state care at age 15 and hitchhiked, performing sexual acts as payment to drivers. He also explains to Willem that the damage to his legs was caused by a man called Dr. Traylor, who picked Jude up and held him captive while he cured him of venereal disease, assaulted him, and eventually ran him over with his car.

The relationship continues, with Willem sleeping with women (and not with Jude) for a while, until he eventually stops, due to a sense of guilt and uneasiness. The two settle into a comfortable life together, which is shaken when Jude's legs become worse, and he must reluctantly amputate. He manages to learn to walk again with his new prosthetics, and the pair enter a period of their life which Willem dubs "The Happy Years". However, while picking up Malcolm and his wife from the train station for a visit, Willem is involved in a car accident with a drunk driver, which kills all three occupants. With his close friend and lover dead, Jude descends once again into self-destructive habits, losing such an excessive amount of weight that his remaining loved ones stage another intervention. Though they are able to get him to gain weight and to attend therapy, years of depression and despair finally overtake Jude and he takes his own life.

Structure[]

A Little Life is divided into seven separate parts and follows a chronological narrative with flashbacks frequently interspersed throughout. The novel's narrative perspectives shift throughout the story's progression. During the beginning of the novel, a third-person omniscient perspective privileging the thoughts of Jude, Willem, JB, or Malcolm is employed. As the story gradually shifts its focus towards Jude, its perspective progressively molds entirely around each character's interactions with Jude and the experiences of Jude himself. This literary perspective is punctuated by first-person narratives told from an unspecified future by an older Harold.

Themes[]

Male relationships[]

A core focus of the novel is the evolution of the relationships between Jude, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude's adoptive father Harold. Jude's life in particular is populated by men who love and care about him, as well as men that exploit and abuse him, and those who fall in the liminal spaces between the two categories. The social and emotional lives of each male character are the fabric that weaves the novel together, creating an insular narrative bubble that provides few clues about the historical moment in which the story is situated.[3]

Yanagihara confines the reader's perspective and emphasizes the examination of the distinct interior lives of each character and the people that populate and influence their lives. There are few women dispersed throughout the story, as a result, the novel can be considered a rumination on the strengths and the limits of romantic love, friendship, and relationships among men.

Despite the various iterations of relationships and attempts to connect with Jude, his existence is often stagnated by isolation and loneliness in dealing with trauma and pain. His few attempts to reach out and connect with others during his adult life manifest in the repetition of yet another cycle of sexual abuse and trauma – his relationship with Caleb. The flashbacks to his abusive experiences with Dr. Traylor, Brother Luke, and boy's home counselors demonstrate the moral and affective extremes of abuse and exploitation that he experiences. Yet the novel invites juxtaposition by way of narration from Harold who shows a father's unconditional benevolent love to his adopted son.

Trauma, recovery, and support[]

In an article written for New York Magazine, Yanagihara states that "one of the things [she] wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never got better… [for him] to begin healthy (or appear so) and end sick – both the main character and the plot itself".[4] The first sixteen years of Jude's life, plagued by sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, continue to haunt him as he enters adulthood. His trauma directly affects his mental and physical health, relationships, beliefs, and the ways in which he navigates the world. He struggles to move beyond the damage the past has wrought upon his body and psyche.

Other than Ana, Jude's deceased case manager who predates the novel's beginning, and Willem later in the novel, he divulges almost none of his past to those close to him. The failure to understand Jude's trauma is a constant point of tension in the novel, as well as the subsequent frustration that stems from his inability to build mutual networks of support among his friends and family. Jude's friends, including Andy, are constantly plagued by doubts about the ethical choices such as allowing Jude to live independently while harboring the knowledge of his physically self-destructive behavior. Throughout the novel, Jude constantly apologizes for his actions and for the inability to take the help that would be given to him.

Chronic pain, disability, and self-harm[]

A Little Life depicts the everyday experience of living with trauma, chronic pain, and disability, demonstrating the inherent intersections with one another. As a direct result of Dr. Traylor running him over with a car, Jude's spinal injuries have long-term health effects that trouble him for the rest of his life. He is prone to episodes of intense pain due to severed nerves in his back, lesions forming on his legs, and has difficulty walking. His insistent inclination towards independence manifests in the ways he constantly resists and fights his body as it breaks down with age, despite numerous treatments and surgeries. Jude continually attempts to take control of his body and his emotions by self-harming. His life is structured around pain, and the anticipation of pain. As Jude grows older, he loathes the increasing dependence he must have on devices such as wheelchairs, canes, and on relying on the care of others.

Reception[]

A Little Life was met with widespread acclaim from critics. The novel received rave reviews from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.[5][6][7][8][9] Review aggregator website Book Marks reported only three negative and three mixed reviews among 48 total. 33 critics gave the book a rave review, while the remaining nine expressed positive impressions.[10]

In The Atlantic, Garth Greenwell suggested that A Little Life is "the long-awaited gay novel": "It engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. By violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truth denied more modest means of expression."[11] In addition to being critically praised, the book is popular: as of October 2021, it had more than 290,000 ratings on Goodreads, with an average of 4.3 out of five.[12]

One notable unfavorable opinion, however, appeared in The New York Review of Books: the reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn sharply critiqued A Little Life's technical execution, its depictions of violence, which he found ethically and aesthetically gratuitous, and its position with respect to the representation of queer life or issues by a presumed-heterosexual author.[13] Mendelsohn's review prompted a response from Gerald Howard, the book's editor, taking issue not with Mendelsohn's dislike of the book but "his implication that my author has somehow, to use his word, 'duped' readers into feeling the emotions of pity and terror and sadness and compassion," and his implication that the book only appeals to "college students and recent graduates who have been coddled by a permissive and endlessly solicitous university culture into 'see[ing] themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims'".[14]

Yanagihara appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers to discuss the book.[15] In July 2015, the book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize[16] and made the shortlist of six books in September 2015.[17] In 2019, A Little Life was ranked 96th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.[18]

Awards

  • 2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlist[19]
  • 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, finalist[20]
  • 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction, won[21]
  • 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist[22]
  • 2016 Women's Prize for Fiction, shortlist[23]
  • 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, shortlist[24]

Adaptations[]

The theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam debuted an adaptation of A Little Life on September 23, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Ivo van Hove directed the adaptation, which had a run time of over four hours.[25] Van Hove collaborated with Yanagihara on the script after being given copies of the novel by two friends.[26] Ramsey Nasr plays the lead Jude St. Francis in the adaptation, which received positive reviews. Theatre critic Matt Trueman wrote that, despite the play's sometime suffocating trauma and violence, it "is van Hove at his best, theatre that leaves an ineradicable mark."[27]

References[]

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