Variously called “a dark fairytale,” “a miserabilist epic,” and even “the great gay novel,” Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a wildcard in this year’s Man Booker prize competition. The relentlessly bleak 720-page novel has found a large audience in both the U.S. and the U.K., as well as on social media. No one anticipated such a surge of acclaim: Yanagihara’s editor worried that the book was too long and too gruesome. Yanagihara—whose first novel, The People in the Trees, was praised when it came out two years ago but sold poorly—hoped for a “few dozen readers.” But by the time A Little Life made it onto the Man Booker Prize longlist in July, there was next to no doubt: This book would claim a spot on the shortlist, too.
That meant I could get a head start as my colleagues and I geared up for the running commentary that we begin this week on the six contenders for the coveted prize, the winner of which will be announced on October 13. I needed all the time I could get. A Little Life is so intense that I found I could read it only in 50-page snippets—and preferably not while sitting by myself. The novel is revolting yet absorbing, psychologically unrealistic yet often emotionally compelling, and at turns completely predictable and shocking. Every dose left me reeling, as did the whole.
To judge by its external contours, A Little Life fits a popular literary niche. The book tracks the lives of four friends—dorm-mates at a prestigious New England college—full of promise, chasing their dreams in the big city. Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, the son of Haitian immigrants, starts out as a receptionist at an art magazine but hopes to make it as a painter. Malcolm Irvine, the biracial offspring of Upper East Side parents, serves as an associate at a prestigious architecture firm while dreaming of owning his own firm. Willem Ragnarsson, the attractive son of Icelandic-Danish parents, is a waiter and aspiring actor.
And then there’s Jude St. Francis, the mysterious logician and lawyer who is the novel’s pivotal figure. Jude is so secretive about his past and present that even his closest friends can’t categorize him. With Jude, Yanagihara’s book swerves into far less domesticated terrain. Jude walks with a limp, experiences sudden and unexplained seizures, and flinches when touched, but no one knows why. “We never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him,” says JB. He’s “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.” To add to the mystery, the diverse quartet inhabits a hermetic New York City—dotted with modern and recognizable restaurants, galleries, streets—but scrubbed of references to politics or major national events, and seemingly immune from their effects. Curious at first, such gaps in the narrative become discomfiting and even sinister as the book progresses.
Soon enough we’re in the landscape of an even more popular genre: the literature of trauma. The novel focuses in on Jude, whose coming-of-age tale is suffused with suffering, sexual abuse, and self-harm. Flashbacks from Jude’s childhood irrupt into the story and become progressively more horrifying. We learn Jude was abandoned as a child, taken into a monastery where he was abused and raped, and, later, kidnapped and prostituted by one of the brothers (the only consistently kind person in his life until then), who taught Jude to cut himself to alleviate his shame and guilt.
But Yanagihara doesn’t have redemption in mind. The gradual unveiling of Jude’s childhood coincides with the deterioration of his adult body. His halting gait is replaced by a wheelchair, and his arms become so laddered with scar tissue that the skin is “taut as a roasted duck’s.” And that’s just the start of the lurid litany of self-laceration. Jude had “long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: When the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows.” By the time we’ve reached the second section of the novel, it seems Jude is perpetually oozing, bleeding, bruised, or infected.
Yanagihara has said she was inspired by Diane Arbus—the American photographer fascinated by abnormal subjects like midgets, giants, nudists, transvestites, and identical twins—whose work negotiates ideas of bodily betrayal, normalcy, pity, shame, and pride. As gratuitous violence and grotesquerie quickly take over in A Little Life, the novel explores similar concepts. It becomes hard to know whether to stare or look away as the revolting descriptions mount—leg cuts likened to “a foetus’s mouth, that would appear burbling viscous, unidentifiable fluids,” a bloody arm that seemed to have “grown a mouth, and was vomiting blood from it, and with such avidity that it was forming frothy bubbles that popped and spat as if in excitement.”
Yanagihara probes Jude’s inner life with equally surreal and relentless imagery, almost as if to deflect humanizing sympathy for his struggles. In a dark twist on his surname (Saint Francis of Assisi communed with animals), Jude’s mental demons are figured as a cast of frightening creatures within. His fear stirs “lemur-like” inside him when he anticipates embarrassment or hurt; his self-hatred is a “beast” that escapes its “cage” and needs to be recaptured; his traumatic memories are circling “hyenas” that are “quieted only by his pain.” Surely by design, Jude himself becomes an alien other, haunting readers with his ordeals. Was I feeling sympathy, or pity, or incomprehension, or incredulity?
I often couldn’t tell, so I simply read on, confused—yet also, at times, comforted—by the way that Yanagihara surrounds Jude with an unwavering circle of intimates who are deeply connected to him. Jude’s entourage—his college friends, one of whom becomes a deeply patient partner; a devoted doctor; a professor and mentor—is more intensely preoccupied with Jude’s well-being (or lack of it) than he is. Thanks to their empathy, even when I couldn’t quite fathom it, these characters proved more affecting than Jude.
Yanagihara does introduce some discordant uplift into the darkness, granting Jude and his friends improbably glorious vocational trajectories—but here, too, she’s clearly intent on keeping readers off-balance. The triumphant fulfillment of their career dreams (Jude becomes a fearsome litigator and partner in one of the city’s most prestigious law firms; Malcolm founds a thriving architecture firm; JB overcomes drug addiction and hosts a solo show at MoMA; Willem becomes a rich and famous actor) is not to be confused with therapeutic closure. Refusing to end her saga of trauma with scenes of success, Yanagihara has a few horrific surprises waiting for the reader at the finish. And I was strangely relieved that she did, even—or especially—after all the torment. A happy ending would have felt much too tidy.
Tweets about A Little Life describe copious tears, heartbreak, and awe at the novel’s mastery. I’m not about to join in. A Little Life ultimately left me dazed and dry-eyed, still trying to put together the pieces of a lurid tale that confounds expectations. I’d like to say I’ll read it again (as the judges will be doing in the weeks ahead), but the truth is, I couldn’t possibly manage that.