I’ve never contemplated jumping out a window while clutching an over 800 page book before reading Hanya Yanagihara’s distressing, bleaker than bleak novel A Little Life. Published in 2015, Yanagihara describes the writing of her book as “a fever dream.” And well, it’s not that much different to read–a bildungsroman filtered through extreme, seemingly unending sexual violence, gratuitous self-harm, suicide, copious death, depression and self-loathing (hence the copious reaction GIFs sprinkled through this essay).
Like one of the protagonist Jude St. Francis’ copious cutting throughout the book, which is described in vivid detail as the razor drags over his scarred arms (Yikes), the book feels a bit like an extended self-harm session. As a short summary, the novel follows four male friends, who graduated from the same swanky college in Boston, as they move to New York. A Little Life traces their lives and experiences from their twenties until their fifties, ranging from the four friends’ professional successes and copious personal tragedies. There’s Willem, the hunky actor, Malcolm, the privileged architect, JB, the exploitative artist, and then, Jude, a corporate lawyer. Oh Jude, what can we say about Jude.
Jude St. Francis is probably the most self-loathing character I’ve ever come across in literature. With a life full of abuse, torture, rape and endless trauma, it never goes well for poor Jude. Disabled with a murky past history that gets revealed in painful flashbacks throughout the text, Jude almost never gets a moment of respite with exception of his relationship with Willem. I don’t want to list all of Jude’s traumas to spoil the text for anyone but, at this point, I ended the novel feeling like I may have even sexually assaulted Jude.
And as for the plot, well, nothing good happens. And I mean nothing. Just when readers think there might be a positive turning point in the narrative. Nope–just more tragedy and sadness. Basically, everyone you love dies and people are awful. Oh yeah, there’s no possibility for redemption. It’s a recommended beach read!
In many ways, the novel is completely unrealistic, which would be a criticism if it didn’t bolster the almost claustrophobic focus on the character’s relationships. For example, all four characters achieve not just success in their careers, but meteoric levels of it. The book even ends with a scene during the installation of JB’s Whitney retrospective (JB culls from his friends’ lives as his subject. Move over Elizabeth Peyton!). As a New Yorker, I can tell you four friends having that level of success that fast is just not reality, but this narrative strategy does allow for a more interesting and close focus on other, more personal issues.
Similarly, there are no events in New York’s history that would place this narrative within a concrete time frame. The story feels almost completely out of time, while still cemented firmly in its place. This, in some respects, mirrors the mental state of Jude with the near constant flashbacks to childhood memories, making it an engrossing but ultimately unsettling narrative.
Despite all the disturbing moments I could delve into–more disturbing, I’d say, than a Dennis Cooper novel (at least, Cooper is clearly an exaggeration of horror), I was most struck by Yanagihara’s fluid treatment of sexual identity, redefining of kinship and the refusal to provide redemption for her characters.
Is A Little Life The “Definitive Gay Novel”? (No.)
Weirdly enough, The Atlantic’s Garth Greenwell bestowed A Little Life the title of “the great gay novel.” It’s a tough sell, considering only one of the main characters readily identifies as gay–JB, who is also possibly the most cruel and unlikable character in the text.
Although JB is the only “gay” man, the other three main characters all either tangle with their sexuality or have a more sexually amorphous identity. Malcolm, in his twenties, questions his sexuality before coming out as straight. “He often thought that being gay (as much as he also couldn’t stand the thought of it; somehow it, like race, seemed the province of college, an identity to inhabit for a period before maturing to more proper and practical realms) was attractive mostly for its accompanying accessories, its collection of political opinions and causes and its embrace of aesthetics.” For Malcolm, his questioning of his identity is mostly a means to find a place of belonging, feeling alienated as a biracial person.
Almost the opposite of Malcolm, Willem is with women throughout the book until he realizes that he’s deeply in love with his best friend Jude. Living with Jude after Jude’s suicide attempt, the text describes, “Lately, however, he had been feeling differently about Jude and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. They had been sitting on the sofa late one Friday night–he just home from the theater, Jude just home from the office–and talking, talking about nothing in particular, when he had almost leaned over and kissed him.”
Willem worries about these feelings, but “not because Jude was a man: he’s had sex with men before, everyone he knew had, and in college, he and JB had drunkenly made out one night out of boredom and curiosity…” (497). But for Willem, it seems his sexual identity is defined by his love for Jude, not a socially constructed gay identity, though it is placed onto him–a Hollywood actor–by the entertainment press.
And then there’s Jude, who is sort of just sexless, a product of his years and years of sexual violence and abuse. JB calls him in college: “The Postman,” standing for “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” (107). Later in the text after Jude’s mysterious backstory is revealed piece by piece, Willem asks Jude if he is “interested in having sex with women.” And Jude says, “No…it’s too late for me, Willem.”
Nevertheless, Greenwell in The Atlantic coopts the four characters for gay identity since apparently they’re gay enough being in same-sex relationships. As he describes the novel as “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.” This simplistic reading foreclosing the notion of these relationships existing outside of the restrictive boxes of even gay identity. Does it all have to be labeled? For me, one of the successes of this supremely dark book is the opening up of kinship beyond labels.
Apparently, Yanagihara wrote these characters with an avoidance of cliched tropes of gay identity in mind. She explains her approach to the character’s sexuality in an interview with Adalena Kavanagh in Electric Literature: “I can’t stand it when I’m reading a book and in comes a character who’s gay and I know that that character is therefore going to be sassy and snappy and deliver bitchy-but-wise pieces of romantic advice (this still pops up in fiction more than you might think; sometimes as broadly as I’ve described it, other times more subtly). You have to ask yourself: why am I making this person someone other than who I am, and who else are they to me besides their otherness? If that’s the only thing you can see of them, and the only thing you have determined about them, then chances are they’re not a character: they’re a symbol of your own discomfort. And symbols are boring to read.”
Not So Little Kinship
All the friends’ relationships, on some level, transcend the simplistic definition of friendship. Instead, it’s something closer, more intimate and connected. At one point in the novel, Willem wonders about this distinction of friendship and relationships. “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”
Willem and Jude’s poetic relationship, traced through a section called “The Happy Years,” is probably the most obvious example of this alternative mode of kinship, They redefine the boundaries of friendship and relationship. It’s a failure of language to term Willem and Jude’s relationship as either a romantic relationship or a friendship–it’s almost a romantic friendship, based on love and closeness, but without sex. Willem considers, “The word ‘friend’ was so vague, so undescriptive and unsatisfying–how could he use the same term to describe what Jude was to him that he used for India or the Henry Youngs? And so they had chosen another, more familiar form of relationship, one that hadn’t worked. But now they were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”
In “Queer Belongings: Kinship Theory and Queer Theory,” Elizabeth Freeman poses the necessity for a combination of kinship theory and queer theory. As she writes, “Any responsible family policy, any meaningful ethnography of gendered and sexualized social life, and any comprehensive theory of kinship must therefore answer to the paradox that lesbians and gays both inhabit and exceed the matrix of couplehood and reproduction” (295). Similar to Freeman’s assertion, all the relationships in A Little Life exceed the normative forms of couplehood and reproduction. The characters literally redefine normal forms of kinship for themselves.
Freeman points out that we lack the language to describe these alternate forms of kinship, instead relegating these forms of relationality to community rather than the individual bonds created between two, three or four people. She explains, “When we imagine practitioners of non-reproductive sex extending their affinities over space, we tend to use the language of community or even nation, which does not distinguish the individual relationships within it. So for instance, lesbians can be “married” just like their straight counterparts, with participating parties understanding themselves as spouses, husband and white or partners. But we lack names that would individuate the participants within larger formations like affairs, ménages a trois, friendships, cliques or subcultures” (297).
She continues, “This lack of “extendability” has often meant that sexual minorities are stranded between individualist notions of identity on the one hand and on the other a romanticized notion of community as some amalgamation of individuals whose ties to smaller affective units ought to be subordinated to a more abstract collectivity, one often model on the liberal nation…I want to posit that the process by which small-scale relationships become thinkable, meaningful and/or the basis for larger social formations, and the non-procreative contributions of the body itself to such a process are of crucial interest to queers” (297).
This is what Yanagihara has achieved in A Little Life, beyond just traumatizing her readers. Through her stiflingly close focus on these four characters, Yanagihara refuses the focus on a community–whether of queers or others. Instead, the novel is about relationships on the small-scale and how these relationships can be both expansive, transcendent and life-altering even if its for a select few.
There Are No Happy Endings
And yet, even though the relationships are important, well, they just aren’t enough for redemption at the end of the text. Somehow even though this choice is extremely depressing, it’s also extremely refreshing. Rather than a sad sack, sappy “It Gets Better” narrative for the characters, or in particular Jude (so named for St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes), Yanagihara refuses. In her hands, it never gets better.
As the author explained on Electric Literature, “One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better. And, relatedly, to explore this idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. I do believe that really, we can sustain only a finite amount of suffering. That amount varies from person to person and is different, sometimes wildly so, in nature; what might destroy one person may not another. So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself, and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition — and Jude’s — that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.”
And particularly, when books about alternative forms of being often end happily in an attempt to spawn empathy or some sort of “pride,” Yanagihara’s “stubborn lack of redemption” reads as somehow more radical. This is not the gay narrative that everyone wants, instead, it makes you want to go back to bed and stay there.
Thank you for this! It’s a been a year since I finished this book and I still think about it often. You articulated everything I’ve wanted to about how frustratingly simplistic it is to label this a “gay novel” and how radically expressive its portrayals of kinship are rendered. The book really is A Series of Unfortunate Events but despite how devastating it is entirely, there is so much in it that radiates and kept me warm throughout my misery. It fucked me up, but I actually did personally feel enough redemption at the end. Would love to talk about it with you further if you’re interested. Thanks Emily!