The Agony and the Ecstasy

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel asks for a kind of immersion at odds with the practices of contemporary attention-deficit culture. A Little Life is epic in scope, riveting on every page, and frequently stomach-churning in its explorations of pain and loss. The novel takes up the stories of four college roommates, all of them young men of exceptional drive, talent, and personal attraction, as they live through three decades following their graduation at some unspecified point early in the twenty-first century. Jude and Willem are orphaned, JB and Malcolm come from loving families, but each one of the four is in his own way uncertain which quadrant of the straight-queer identity grid will feel most like home. The opening sections of A Little Life feel something like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. There’s an idealized quality to the characters—were ever four young men so beautiful, so gifted, so heartbreakingly worthy of our sympathetic identification?—and the New York in which they dwell partakes of a similar glow. The squalor of the cheap sublet south of Canal on Lispenard Street (evocative name!) where Jude and Willem first take up residence after graduation, for instance, commented on frequently in the narrative as well as by almost every character who visits it (“a shithole” is the most pungent verdict), is canceled out by the intangible allure of every word Yanagihara writes:

There was a small foyer, little larger than the size of a doormat, from which pronged the kitchen (a hot, greasy little cube) to the right and a dining area to the left that would accommodate perhaps a card table. A half wall separated this space from the living room, with its four windows, each striped with bars, looking south onto the litter-scattered street, and down a short hall to the right was the bathroom with its milk-glass sconces and worn-enamel tub, and across from it the bedroom, which had another window and was deep but narrow; here, two wooden twin-bed frames had been placed parallel to each other, each pressed against a wall. One of the frames was already topped with a futon, a bulky, graceless thing, as heavy as a dead horse.

The prose here astonishes. It is plain, understated, and yet full of magical details: that verb “pronged,” the application of the adjective “greasy” to the unexpected noun “cube,” the amazing hyphenations that pick out a tune in counterpoint (“milk-glass,” “worn-enamel,” “twin-bed”), the final image of the futon, so ordinary and yet, with the harsh invocation of the horse carcass, coming back to whack the reader like something out of Dostoyevsky. The subtlety and force of the effect here derive from the relationship between literal and figurative meaning; “doormat” and “worn” evoke the ways in which poverty grinds one down (ditto the claustrophobia induced by the prisonlike bars), and yet, because of the beauty of the lives lived in it, the apartment accrues a sort of halo that illuminates the entire novel.

As one might expect in a novel of life after graduation, the characters here achieve some success during their twenties and thirties, despite their struggles. Malcolm becomes an underling in a grand Manhattan architectural partnership before taking the plunge and striking out as a principal in a firm of his own; Willem waits tables until his acting career takes off; and JB wrestles with a meth addiction and produces a remarkable series of figurative paintings, “The Boys,” based on photographs of the four friends. But it’s the fourth member of the group, Jude, who proves the novel’s real subject. Jude goes to law school and almost without effort accumulates a sheaf of laurels (a federal clerkship, positions at the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and then as a litigator and partner at a prestigious New York law firm). And all the while, he’s grappling with the physical and emotional consequences of the unthinkable sexual abuse and violence he experienced in childhood and adolescence. Though his crippled legs and the scars on his arms and back give hints of this history, Jude’s friends know nothing for sure: He has never revealed any of the facts, fearing that if the others learn what really happened to him, they’ll never want to speak to him again.

The physical proximity of older men makes Jude flinch. When his beloved law professor and father figure Harold Stein touches him casually, Jude recoils, accidentally breaking a mug that is one of the few relics of Harold’s dead son. Jude writes an abjectly penitent letter of apology, readying himself for abandonment, but receives a reply of sublime love and generosity. If he were a different kind of person, Harold writes, he “might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.” But Harold’s vision of wonderful compensation may be too optimistic.

Arne Svenson, Neighbors #11, 2012, ink-jet print, 30 × 45". © Arne Svenson, courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York

Brutalized by the first man he takes as a lover in adulthood, Jude is rescued by Harold and by Willem, who realizes, belatedly, that Jude is the love of his life. They enter into a true romantic relationship with each other. But while Willem finds Jude’s damaged body extraordinarily beautiful, Jude continues to dread sex (“Not having sex: it was one of the best things about being an adult”). Willem, in the meantime, can’t bring himself to consider why Jude, when he actually does have sex, is so dexterous, given the life of celibacy he’s led throughout the entire time of their friendship, though he is lurkingly aware that if this were knowledge Jude acquired before their freshman year of college, “these would have been lessons learned in childhood.”

The novel is narrated mostly in a highly functional third-person past-tense mode that borders at times on melodrama (the specter of Love Story hovers over all tales of collegiate idylls and post-graduation loss) but that is capable of great beauty and horror, nowhere more than in Yanagihara’s deliberately repetitive descriptions of Jude’s attempts to control his pain through self-cutting (“He bought a set of X-ACTO blades and held three of them in his palm and made a fist around them and watched the blood drip from his hand into the sink as he screamed into the quiet apartment”). A Little Life offers glimpses of grace but no ultimate possibility of redemption: Jude’s history represents a living refutation of the pop-psychological twist on Nietzsche’s dictum “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” establishing that some experiences really are too brutal to survive without sustaining damage that harbors the seeds of one’s own ultimate self-dissolution.

Leslie Jamison is one of our current great archaeologists of female pain, encapsulating depths of agony within the smaller compass of the essay; Yanagihara offers a more expansive, indeed an encyclopedic account of pain in its literal and figurative forms. It matters, too, that this is male pain; we don’t expect this kind of fragility from beautiful masculine bodies. Jude’s physical pain, partly a consequence of his self-inflicted injuries but more seriously resulting from the damage done by a car running over his legs as a teenager, is described in excruciating detail, and the novel offers the best portrait I’ve ever encountered of the ways that physical and psychological pain can erode the will to live. A Little Life is texturally utterly different from Yanagihara’s stylized and unsettling first novel, The People in the Trees, which read at times like a mash-up of Pale Fire (the unreliable narrator, the unbalanced annotator) and Lolita (the pedophile’s point of view) and was based loosely on the story of Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who discovered the prion-based disease kuru in the South Fore people of Papua New Guinea, won the Nobel Prize for that work, and was later convicted of child molestation. But both books share a fascination with love, pain, complicity, and failures of memory; the need to speak one’s own history of violence (as subject or as perpetrator); and, most of all, the power differentials between father figures and the children they love and hurt.

In its breadth and insight, A Little Life calls to mind another epic American novel of siblings (Yanagihara’s characters are of course a brotherhood by choice rather than by blood): James Baldwin’s late, great, underrated Just Above My Head, which among other things contains one of literature’s most chilling depictions of a father’s sexual abuse of his daughter. Yanagihara also covers some of the same masochistic terrain as Heather Lewis’s House Rules and Jenny Diski’s Nothing Natural, but unlike those authors, she treats such forms of suffering in a mode of anthropological detachment rather than savage self-immolation. The paradox of intimacy coexisting with detachment is at the heart of the book’s lesson, and the intimacy of the twin beds in the apartment on Lispenard Street finally comes to seem greater than anything one might experience in a more conventional form of adult coupling. A Little Life brought me to tears more than once; it is a book that asks the reader to feel as fully as Jude does, with a deep aesthetic and ethical purpose of observing and witnessing the pain of others.

Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, is the author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences (Columbia University Press, 2014).