A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel is an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America.

In a 2013 essay for Salon, the culture writer Daniel D’Addario lamented the absence of a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today. While the number of LGBT characters in mainstream novels has increased, he argued, they’re too often relegated to subplots or “window dressing,” their lives left “sketchy and oblique.” D’Addario surveyed a number of prominent gay writers about his thesis, and the next day Tyler Coates summarized their views for Flavorwire in a piece titled “The Great Gay Novel is Never Going to Happen.”

But I think it’s possible that novel has happened, even if no one has quite realized it yet. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was released in March, is one of the most buzzed-about books of the season, hailed as a “tour de force,” “extraordinary,” “elemental and irreducible,” “astonishing,” and the work of “a major American novelist.” But no coverage of the book I’ve seen has discussed it as a novel fundamentally about gay lives—as the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.

The book follows a group of four men—Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm—over three decades of friendship, from their years as college roommates to the heights of professional success. Three of them form their primary physical and emotional bonds with other men, though sometimes in ways that challenge the usual nomenclatures. Of the novel’s main characters, only JB unambiguously embodies an immediately recognizable and unambivalent gay identity. Willem spends much of his adulthood pursuing sexual relationships with women, before he recognizes his desire for Jude and acknowledges their friendship as a life partnership. In college, JB calls Jude “the Postman” because he seems to entirely escape the usual categories: “We never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him … [He’s] post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.”

The complexity of the characters’ relationships to sexual identity is one way Yanagihara elevates them from mere “window dressing,” and I suspect it’s one reason A Little Life hasn’t been recognized as a book fundamentally about gay male experience. Another is that readers have come to expect such books to be written by gay men and to be at least plausibly confessional. From Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982) to Justin Torres’ We the Animals (2011), novels about gay men and their lives have often been more or less easily mappable onto the author’s biography. In essays and interviews, Yanagihara has spoken of her desire instead to write across difference, exploring what she sees as specifically male friendships and emotional communication.

Just as Yanagihara’s characters challenge conventional categories of gay identity, so A Little Life avoids the familiar narratives of gay fiction. Yanagihara approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped modern gay identity—sickness and discrimination—obliquely, avoiding the conventions of the coming-out narrative or the AIDS novel. Her characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities—only Malcolm will be tormented by coming out, before realizing that in fact he’s straight—and HIV is conspicuously absent from the book’s weirdly ahistorical New York City.

But queer suffering is at the heart of A Little Life. The novel centers on Jude, who’s 16 when he arrives at an affluent New England college with only a backpack of baggy clothes. Parentless and horribly scarred, with his legs disfigured in an incident whose details he guards as closely as everything else about his past, he’s profoundly aware of his “extreme otherness.” The book slowly discloses luridly gothic episodes from his life before college, among them abandonment, childhood in a monastery, horrifying physical and sexual abuse, prostitution, and abduction. “You were made for this, Jude,” he’s told by the only adult he loves, a monk who betrays his trust, and Jude comes to believe that his suffering is a consequence of what he is: “He had been born, and left, and found, and used as he had been intended to be used.”

Jude’s childhood is an extreme iteration of the abandonment, exploitation, and abuse that remain endemic in the experience of queer young people. Recent discussion of that experience has been dominated by an affirmative narrative—“It Gets Better”—that may be true for most. But it isn’t true for Jude. Even as he acquires wealth and power, Jude’s sense of the logic of his life never changes. His self-loathing is shocking from the start, and only grows more abject: he is “a nothing,” “rotten,” “useless,” “ugly,” “a piece of junk,” “inhuman … deficient … disgusting.” “Every year, his right to humanness diminished,” he reflects late in the novel; “every year, he became less and less of a person.” After the abuse he has suffered, he will never be able to able to enjoy sex, even as he craves the physical and emotional intimacy he finds in his partnership with Willem.

Both the intensity of pain Jude endures and other aspects of his and his friends’ lives—each is brilliant, each becomes not just successful but famous—strain credulity, and while Yanagihara has insisted that the novel’s plot is “not, technically, implausible,” it’s clear that the book is after something other than strict realism. This has annoyed some critics. In The New York Times Book Review, Carol Anshaw accused the novel both of being “allegorical” in its disregard for social and historical reality, and of placing the reader in a voyeuristic attitude toward suffering that’s so baroque as to seem like “a contrivance.”

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering. Again and again A Little Life conveys Jude’s sense of himself through elaborate metaphor: he is “a scrap of bloodied, muddied cloth,” “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled,” “a scooped out husk.” His memories are “hyenas,” his fear “a flock of flapping bats,” his self-hatred a “beast.” This language infects those closest to him, so that for Willem, learning about his childhood is “plunging an arm into the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.” In its sometimes grueling descriptions of Jude’s self-harm and his perceptions of his own body, the book reminds readers of the long filiation between gay art and the freakish, the abnormal, the extreme—those aspects of queer culture we’ve been encouraged to forget in an era that’s increasingly embracing gay marriage and homonormativity.

This is not a register of feeling or expression readers are accustomed to in American literary fiction. Yanagihara has described the experience of writing the novel as “a fever dream,” and reading it induces a similar effect. Part of this is due to the novel’s structural conceit: In nearly every section, a present-moment scene is interrupted for dozens of pages by elaborate flashbacks, mimicking the way Jude’s past irrupts into his present. Combined with the novel’s emotional extremity and the tightness of its focus on Jude’s consciousness, this nonlinear structure produces a feeling of immersion that’s almost unprecedented in my experience as a reader.

The novel’s darkness is leavened by its portrayal of Jude’s friends, whose attempts to care for him inevitably recall the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis. Each of Jude’s friends cares for him differently, uniquely: Malcolm by designing spaces that will accommodate his disability; JB by painting portraits “kinder than the eye alone would see”; Willem by being the one person to whom he can tell his entire history. They make innumerable accommodations to Jude’s daily needs; in periods of crisis, they monitor him, making sure he eats and doesn’t harm himself.

The book vigorously defends friendship as a primary relationship, as central as marriage to the making of lives and communities. “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship?” Willem thinks early in the novel. “Why wasn’t it even better?” For Jude, his friends “had imagined his life for him … they had allowed him to believe in possibilities that he would never have conceived.” Their relationships with one another challenge categorization. “They were inventing their own type of relationship,” Willem thinks of Jude, “one that wasn't officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

These passages recall similar defenses of friendship from queer writers before the age of marriage equality, especially Edmund White. “And friendship will be elevated into the supreme consolation for this continuing tragedy, human existence,” White wrote in 1983, as he was beginning to understand both the scope of the AIDS crisis and the need for novel social arrangements to sustain queer communities through it.

“It might have been mawkish,” one character thinks about his feeling for Jude, “but it was also true.” This is the claim that animates A Little Life: that by violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truths denied more modest means of expression. In this astonishing novel, Yanagihara achieves what great gay art from Proust to Almodóvar has so often sought: a grandeur of feeling adequate to “the terrifying largeness, the impossibility of the world.”