A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. A review by John Cook

ALittle Life

There are ten copies of this novel in the BCC collection which is a good starting point for its inclusion as a group read. However, it is 720 paperback pages long which is an argument for not including it considering its length. Further, it is not an easy read, not being strongly narrative and divorced largely from the time frame in which it is written. The narrative is neither action-centred not particularly exciting. The prose is extremely carefully crafted in a number of senses, again not for purple prose nor strong action oriented purposes. It can be demanding forcing the reader to be careful and attentive, even to re-read some introductory paragraphs just to be sure of the context and persons being portrayed. It is at its strongest in two senses – interior consciousness and character inter-relatedness (sexual at times but largely concerned with degrees of friendship intimacy) – and its explicit dealing with topics usually avoided or muted in most communication, confrontation with sexual and physical abuse, paedophilia and self-harming in all its complexities.

At its heart, this is a book about a man whose past conspires within him to systematically attack any chance he has of translating deep physical friendship into its sexual consummation. In so doing, we are treated to a fearless examination of the nature of friendships and love in a contemporary society in which gay lives are achieving ‘homonormalcy’. There is a sense in which the deliberate paring away of many contemporary references (even AIDS) serves to create a sense of separateness that enables such a close focus on the life experiences of its four central characters (there are others of varying degrees of centrality) but especially Jude St Francis and Willem.

I don’t regard this as the great gay novel as some do, but it one of the best I have ever read that can be slotted into that candidacy. It could be too long, difficult, disengaged, non action-oriented for some, but for me it was utterly engaging, enthralling, at times surprisingly intimate and delightful yet deeply understanding and challenging. Self-harm is a topic most people find utterly incomprehensible until it is explained as part of the continuum of control and authority oriented developmental issues that we all experience; and our culture has been largely loath to air these issues with the exception of some narrowly-defined OCD characteristics. This novel takes you to the heart of this behaviour in a way that is sometimes harrowing and frustrating, tender yet unflinching. I know of nothing like it.

The story centres on the rise and rise of four somewhat typical young men in New York (this is an overwhelmingly male novel) finding their way forward in their chosen pathways. They are different in their ethnic backgrounds and professions but all want success, a good life, love and sex. They are conjoined by the uneven bonds of their enduring friendships and appreciation of the others’ industry.

Willem Ragnarsson, the handsome son of a Wyoming ranch hand, who works as a waiter but aspires to be an actor; Malcolm Irvine, the biracial scion of a wealthy Upper East Side family, who has landed an associate position with a European starchitect; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, the child of Haitian immigrants, who works as a receptionist at a downtown art magazine in whose pages he expects, one day soon, to be featured; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer and mathematician, whose provenance and ethnic origins are largely unknown, even by his trio of friends. Jude, we later learn, was a foundling, deposited in a bag by a dumpster and raised by monks.’

This could be an ordinary enough tale of these four finding their respective ways and fortunes at what some would see as the centre of the world for such wannabes. While their lives could be mildly interesting, it is the otherwise very successful Jude who is the touchstone of interest. We are drip-fed his differences and their causations along with their consequences for him physically, mentally and his relationships. It would be possible to analyse endlessly this logic loving mathematician lawyer and the author provides plenty of fodder for this process with lots of interior self-examination. Part of the wonder of this story is the way in which the reader is constantly prodded, provoked and cajoled into understanding, even sympathising with, behaviour that is objectively unacceptable.

This is not a detailed review and I cannot go into too much depth here. I can only suggest skimming some of the very strong positive reviews already in print to get a taste for potential interpretations and then making your decision to dive in.

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