Content warning: discussions of trauma, self-harm, suicide, sexual assault, spoilers.
Full disclosure: I have only read A Little Life once, a few years ago. I should have re-read it for the purposes of this article, but I couldn’t bring myself to. The novel’s 700 pages (a daunting enough quantity on their own) are populated with some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read, yet simultaneously some of the most relentless suffering I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. I devoured the first 600 pages in one week, and it took me months to work up the energy to read the last 100. Once I had, I was left with a question, which, truth be told, I still don’t know how to answer: is this a good book?
The edition that I own does not have a blurb on its back cover. Instead, it has a collection of glowing reviews, including “compelling” and “unforgettable.” These reviews, although flattering, seem placed there for convenience; summarising this novel is incredibly difficult. At its start, the novel follows the shenanigans of four friends sharing an apartment in their early twenties. It is at this point that Yanagihara’s prose captures you, investing you in the lives of these four men, delighting you in their successes and making your heart ache during their lows. The focus gradually shifts to one of the four: Jude. Jude is a law student who becomes a lawyer, walks with a limp, and has spinal damage he refuses to talk about.
The initial shift to focusing on Jude is not unpleasant. His reluctance to discuss his past whets a reader’s curiosity, and, after focusing so acutely on the joy of the group’s shared friendship, there is almost an expectation that the skeletons in Jude’s closet will be no match for the love of the group. This does not happen. Jude’s story is not a redemption arc or proof of the healing power of friendship. It is, in a word, suffering. Jude self harms, attempts suicide, experiences flashbacks to the ongoing sexual abuse he suffered as a child, faces new abuse by a romantic partner, relapses over and over into self-destructive behaviour, finds genuine love and loses it to a traffic accident, and, ultimately, kills himself. The novel’s initial tale of friendship is torn apart by addiction and petty conflict. The reader’s heart breaks over and over. Despite it all, the book continues.
This is not to say that stories of trauma cannot be well written. In many instances, fiction can be a powerful vessel for catharsis, reclaiming the hurt you feel by putting it into your own words. Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is a beautiful example of this. She explores the generational trauma that she and her ancestors share as black women in America. Despite containing vivid descriptions of true depravity and suffering, the novel regards its characters with relentless compassion. Their trauma is not being put on display for entertainment but, rather, for closure. Their suffering is profound, and it does not end within the pages of the book, but the readers get the distinct impression that the author wants it to.
This same compassion does not exist in A Little Life. Rather, Yanagihara falls into the category of authors who treat the suffering of their characters as art in itself. In a 2015 interview with The Guardian, Yanagihara reveals that her focus on Jude’s trauma was not born of catharsis but, rather, fascination. His story was not inspired by her own experiences but rather an exploration into how she thinks trauma affects men in adulthood. In this same interview, she explains her refusal to cut out the most brutal descriptions of Jude’s suffering: “I wanted everything turned up a little too high.” Trauma, undoubtedly, is uncomfortable. But Yanagihara’s unflinching and relentless subjugation of her characters to trauma lacks the hesitation of an author who regrets that their characters must suffer. Instead, A Little Life feels like an experiment in sadism, creating characters with humanity woven into them and then mocking the reader for wincing as they suffer, again and again.
While reading this book, I found myself feeling guilty for not wanting to finish it. The traumas Jude undergoes are real. How privileged was I to be able to put down the book, take a deep breath, and go on with my day? How dare I look away?
Happy endings don’t exist in real life – why should I crave them in the books that I read? Yanagihara’s work is unforgettable and compelling, just as the reviews on its back cover claimed, but not for the right reasons. It weaponises the shame the readers feel while witnessing Jude’s suffering by claiming to make a profound comment about life, while in reality, its central thesis is, simply, this: the suffering does not end. It offers no comfort, no catharsis, no compassion.
Happy endings may not be realistic, but there is a reason that the fiction we consume as children, more often than not, ends with characters living happily ever after. By design, fiction is escapism. It transports us to a world that we are merely an observer of, one which asks us to care about the characters we encounter. These characters need not meet a happy ending, but just as Morrison lets us cry into her shoulder at the suffering of her characters, readers crave that the characters they meet are treated with humanity.
Yanagihara’s prose is excellent, but that does not override the utterly draining experience of watching her torture her characters. She seems to put her own fascination with trauma ahead of her regard for readers, breaching some unwritten contract of fiction. In this sense, this is a bad book and should not be consumed lightly.
While reading Yanagihara’s work, the conclusion that the suffering does not end seems inevitable. And yet, I want to conclude this article with a different sentiment. The suffering Jude undergoes is awful, and it is long, and it is hard. As a reader, it breaks your heart. But your own broken heart is proof that Yanagihara is wrong. Unlike the author, readers have compassion for Jude, compassion that transcends the 700 pages. Just like the book initially seems to posit, people really do care for each other. Your suffering may feel endless, but you are loved. You are loved. You do not have a sadistic writer controlling your choices; you are the author of your own story, and you have people around you who care enough for you to hold your hand while you write it. The suffering will end. It will.