Half A Little Life
Thoughts on Hanya Yanagihara’s novel
I know a lot of people have read “A Little Life” and love it and so if you feel you have an emotional connection to this book which is deep but at the same time fragile to criticism I’d suggest not reading further. What follows is just my personal reaction but I had real issues with the book and none of them are to do with the aspect which has perhaps been most often highlighted (at least to me in anticipation of reading the book) - the so-called trauma porn to do with the life of Jude St. Francis whose suffering and pain is detailed throughout and makes up the emotional core of the novel.
Hanya Yanagihara’s novel first presents as a book of four college friends finding their feet and careers in New York. It has a “Big Chill” vibe, with an inbuilt sense of lifetimes stretching ahead as well as behind. And yet this is one of the first mis-directions the book performs. Because the book is actually the story of Jude, the Hardy-esque unfortunate and to a lesser extent Willem, his arthouse to mainstream actor friend, whose name is likewise on the nose. JB and especially Malcolm, the two non-white characters drift into the background, occasionally re-emerging but unable to compete with the gravitational pull of the black hole of Jude’s backstory. This feels like something the writer hadn’t necessarily planned for but okay.
The demotion of JB and Malcolm is the beginning of a series of solipsism which goes on throughout the novel and is made possible by some fairly ichy moves on the writer’s part. Prior to reading the book many friends had commented on how harrowing the book is and the dripping of trauma throughout is very effective, its pacing of gradual revelation is akin to a thriller. Not a whodunnit but a what-was-done-to-him? Jude’s horrific past and his present behaviors (his self harm specifically) is detailed but in a way that feels oddly bodiless. I never felt the reality of Jude’s body other than as a site of harm and pain. This past is contrasted with a present in which Jude is imbued with a magical excellence. As a writer I recognize this as a trick. Jude isn’t excellent because he is but because it makes us interested in him and it tidies up certain difficulties a writer faces. It allows him to be unquestionably the center of attention, proceed in his career and be interesting to other people (as well as the readers). The Harry Potter effect or Jason Bourne who manages to be a trained spy and killer without memory of having to do push ups or join the military. Likewise he’s apparently handsome. And he isn’t the only one. All four friends are imbued with magic excellence. They’re not just good or middling they’re amazing, award-winning, wealthy with earnings and quasi or simply famous. And they remain quietly unaffected by it. Blasé. Willem realizes he’s famous with the insouciant of Byron waking up and finding himself famous. There’s no unseemly hungering after fame. Here this is a significant absence in saying something serious about fame. Willem is famous in a world without celebrity culture and yearning.
Yanagihara is aware of this problem to the extent she has a character comment on the oddness of the fact that they’re all at the top of their respective fields. It is a habit she has as a writer of folding criticism into her book. Likewise she makes a joke about Malcolm being named after Malcolm Muggeridge rather than Malcolm X to deflect the idea that the names are all too on the nose. JB is obviously based on Jean-Michel Basquiat. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It’s jokey perhaps. Like the writer intentionally left her placeholders from the first draft in the final novel.
More seriously though, the success of all her characters means that none of them have to deal with poverty or in fact any economic problems at all. This is another solipsism. There’s no other class but the upper middle class. This is Whit Stillman’s New York: Woody Allen’s, gentrified spaces. That changes how Jude’s trauma is dealt with. Putting it into a safely novelistic past rather than something that has practical (rather than exclusively psychological) consequences. As an example, the amount of healthcare Jude requires throughout the novel would bankrupt all but the most wealthy of US citizens, but Andy Contractor - Jude’s doctor - volunteers to treat him free of charge at the beginning of the book and continues for the rest of the novel. This neatens Jude’s predicament but - as with his body - makes it weightless and unreal. Pain without medical bills is just un-American. Andy also doesn’t seem to have any other patients. It beggars belief.
Jude’s racial ambiguity is likewise used in a way which is partial. That is to say JB cites it as forestalling criticism of him as one of the white characters, but then he isn’t the victim of racism and no one else seems to think his race is particularly ambiguous or important (i.e. he’s white). In a country as race-conscious as the USA for this to be left so glancingly referred to has to be a choice and but I have no idea what it is supposed to mean or do, except give Jude a way out of that argument.
So the poor are relegated to being drunken truck drivers who show like deus ex machinas or rapists. Likewise women are seen but never heard. The relationships are exclusively male on male throughout. There are names female characters but they get crumbs. Harold is the adopting father. Julia, his wife, gets nary an independent mention without the prefix of “Harold and”.
The invisibility of the poor and marginalized wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Jude works for a firm which specializes in protecting the status quo and the rich from the just demands of social justice. When Jude uses his legal prowess and power (magically acquired) he does so to support his own and even his pro bono work concentrates on the rights of a fairly privileged artistic community.
This also has to be seen in the context also of the lifestyle voyeurism. The living spaces in New York are effortlessly acquired and - via Malcolm - modified. Wine is named and food devoured; restaurants specified with an assiduous verve reminiscent of “American Psycho” but without the satirical intent (at least none I could detect). People have existential crises but first pick up a loaf of bread from that wonderful bakery on the corner of nth and nth. Again the criticism is anticipated and neutered by having Jude acquire a taste for interior design magazines. A postmodern wink of sorts, but it’s a wink in the intensive care unit.
Ultimately the problem is “A Little Life” portrays a partial Life, a part fantasy life, its claim to authenticity stuck with the superglue of pain and trauma. I don’t know if Yanagihara is basing Jude’s story on his own experiences or experiences of someone close to him. It shouldn’t but it does matter. The sheer extent of suffering has the effect of stifling criticism or sending it off in one direction only: the trauma porn jibe. I have no problem with the depiction of suffering. I was one of the few members of the audience to stay to the end of “The Painted Bird” directed by Václav Marhoul. And I admire the efficiency of the book - the sleight of hand which distracts from one of the soundest emotional blows delivered to the reader is an admirable piece of business. But “A Little Life” takes place in a fantasy world where suffering is bespoke, people effortlessly attain status and power; everyone reads newspaper with their brioche but no one seems to care about what they’re reading. Being an academic or screwing the system on behalf of billionaires is much of a muchness, something to tease about but not take too seriously. As Margaret Thatcher might have said: there is no society. All that matters is our personal pain. And so the more personal pain we have, the more it matters, right? Jude’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” of suffering encompasses every tabloid headline - oh, serial killer! - but just because it hurts, it doesn’t mean, it’s real.