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.