A Little Life

***TRIGGER WARNING*** for descriptions/discussion of child abuse and self-harm.
***SPOILER ALERT*** for discussion of all the major plot points of this book.

I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in early November last year, starting during my commute to work on a Friday, continuing Friday evening, and finishing Sunday evening of the same weekend. It is an emotionally disturbing book, it left me unable to eat or sleep properly, and I burst into tears several times during the reading (from other reviews, I am not the only person to be affected in this way); I was afraid it might be inducing some kind of emotional collapse. Re-reading small portions to fact-check an earlier draft of this review had a similar, although not so long-lived, effect.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of A Little Life was published in the December 3rd Issue of the New York Review of Books (see also, his exchange with Yanagihara’s ‘s editor in the NYRB’s letter’s page). I had read many other reviews since finishing A Little Life, wanting to see if I had been the only person so shaken up by it; Mendelsohn’s was the first actively negative review I read, and reading it was a huge relief. Although I don’t agree with every detail of the review, it helped put everything into perspective, and articulated doubts I had started forming about the book after I had finished reading it.

At the end of his review, Mendelsohn describes the reader as being ‘duped’ by A Little Life, and I think he is absolutely right, there is something completely fraudulent about this book. The reader (at least, this reader) is put through an emotional wringer by a story that is, upon reflection, completely unrealistic, both in terms of plot, and in terms of psychological realism. I feel I was manipulated into an unearned emotional response, and I am angry with myself over the fact that I was crying over this made-up suffering, at a time when real refugee children were drowning in the Mediterranean.

I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened, because not knowing would have been unbearable (and I accept full responsibility for starting and continuing this book, nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to read it). That makes it a compelling read, but does it make it good writing? I cannot understand why it has received such praise; the writing is nothing special (Mendelsohn describes it as “often atrocious”), the passages that get quoted in the reviews are good, but they faded from memory fast compared with the negative emotional effect.

So why write a review at all? It is important to me to show that this book is not ‘true’ or ‘real’. Of course, art is not ‘real’, but good art tells us truths about ourselves, about what it means to be human. A Little Life tells us nothing, morally, psychologically or philosophically, about what it means to be alive.

The main protagonist, Jude, is abandoned as a baby, and placed in a monastery (Franciscan, presumably, since Jude is given the last name St Francis), from a young age he is subjected to severe physical, then sexual abuse, until the age of nine when he is groomed, then (willingly) abducted by Brother Luke. To survive on the road, Brother Luke regularly pimps Jude out to other men, and teaches Jude how to cut himself as a release mechanism. This continues until Jude is thirteen when the police catch up with them, and he is rescued, while Brother Luke hangs himself in the motel bathroom. Jude is then placed into a group home, where some of the counsellors sexually abuse him. He is caught during his first attempt to escape, and beaten so severely that he ends up hospitalised, and permanently scarred on his back. His second attempt is successful, and he travels eastwards, engaging in survival prostitution [1]. Jude collapses at a service station, and is picked up by Dr. Traylor, who locks him in a dungeon he has built in his basement, rapes him repeatedly, then runs him over in his car in an attempt to kill him, mangling his legs and damaging his back. Jude wakes up in hospital, and back in the mainstream system, which is what allows him to then enrol in an unnamed liberal arts college in Boston, which is where the book actually starts.

At college, Jude is assigned a room with Willem, Malcolm, and JB, and they remain friends (mostly) for the rest of Jude’s life, but he never reveals his past abuse to them. After graduation, they all move to New York, and Jude becomes a corporate lawyer, Willem an actor, JB an artist and Malcolm an architect; all four become very successful in their fields. As a young man, Jude is adopted by his law professor, Harold, and his wife Julia. In spite of all this success, Jude is not happy or mentally well, and he continues to regularly and severely self-harm. Sometime in his early forties, he meets Caleb at a dinner party, with whom he has a brief and abusive relationship (his first sexual relationship in adulthood), culminating in Caleb beating and raping him so violently he almost kills him, which drives Jude to a suicide attempt. A few years after this, Willem, now a world famous Hollywood actor, declares his feelings for Jude, and they enter into a sexual relationship. The sex causes Jude so much psychological anguish that his cutting increases; when Willem discovers this, he asks him to stop, so Jude burns himself instead, setting it up to look like a cooking accident. After this, Willem stops having sex with Jude (he has affairs instead), and they have a brief, happy period, until Willem (along with Malcolm) is killed in a car crash. Not long after that, Jude succeeds in killing himself.

Yanagihara has said that she wanted “everything turned up a little too high” and that Jude’s abuse was “extraordinary, [but] not, technically, implausible.”

There are certain things I can accept as plausible, and others I cannot, not only with regards to the plot, but also in its portrayal of human behaviour. The first and least plausible event is Jude’s abandonment in the monastery (Mendelsohn incorrectly describes it as an orphanage run by priests, which would actually make some sense), where local authorities forget him about, and his progress is never once checked on. The idea that a new-born baby would be placed into the care of a group of men who do not have the training, experience, resources or desire to care for him goes beyond the implausible to the near impossible. Are we supposed to believe that there was not one emergency foster carer available in the whole state? That the hospital would not have kept him in the neonatal unit until one became available? Perhaps if Jude had been born in the 1930’s, or the 19th Century, it would be plausible, but the monks have computers in their offices.

The violence in the monastery escalates after Jude is caught stealing, a brother sets his hand on fire, leaving him permanently scarred, and he is then regularly strip-searched, which develops into sexual abuse. The sexual abuse causes Jude to experience uncontrollable rages, which cause the brothers’ physical violence to escalate to the point where they are regularly beating him unconscious. He starts wetting the bed, and is forced to wear his urine soaked clothes all day. He is forced to eat his own vomit. Even before the theft, he is regularly beaten for minor infractions. If this is the way the brothers react to him as a child, how did they cope with a crying, shitting, pissing, puking baby, or a mobile, inquisitive toddler who is incapable of understanding the rules? How was he not battered or shaken to death in infanthood? Babies need responsive care, they need physical contact; if nobody ever cuddled Jude as a baby, he wouldn’t have grown up to be a maths prodigy, he would have grown up brain damaged. If there was an adult there taking care of him properly, what was he doing while Jude was being raped and beaten?

I would have been prepared to accept the original contrivance of the monastery for the sake of the story (there is no story without some contrivance), but I am not prepared to accept characters or scenarios that are completely irrational and do not conform to what we know about human nature.

There is a push-and-pull in writing, between what the author wants their characters to do and be, and what it is realistic for a well-defined character to do or be in a given situation. A writer who ignores the latter treats their characters like puppets, automatons to be manipulated and moved around to get the desired result [2]. Yanagihara sets Jude up; of course, all fictional characters are ‘set up’, but with good writing, you don’t see the strings. Yanagihara had Jude make every wrong choice, manipulates him into every bad situation, then finishes him off ruthlessly.

Jude himself is implausible. In adulthood he is just ‘black enough’ to cast doubt on his racial identity, and his friends describe him as ‘post-racial’; he has green eyes, multi-hued brown hair that is straight enough to grow long over his face, and skin that turns bronze in the sun. As a baby, he is, somehow, ‘too black’ to be adopted, even though newborn babies haven’t been exposed to the sun, and a green-eyed adult would have been a blue-eyed baby. US couples will travel to China to adopt malnourished babies from orphanages, the idea that no one would have wanted Jude makes no sense.

There are so many plot points that don’t add up. Why was Jude not given any psychiatric care after being rescued from Brother Luke? Why did the state school he attended while at the children’s home take enough of an interest in him to move him up four grades and arrange extra maths classes for him at the local community college, but then take no interest at all when he tried to run away, and was subsequently beaten so badly he ended up in hospital? Why did the police not become involved when a child was admitted with such injuries? Why did a doctor treating a raped and crippled child think it was appropriate to lecture him on the necessity of disclosing his STI status to future partners?

Jude thinks he’s ugly because some of the men who abused him at the children’s home called him ugly, but why does that have more weight than the years spent with Brother Luke, and all the men who paid to rape him? Why, when Jude thinks he is a terrible person underneath, does he then choose a career path that makes him a ‘bad guy’ (money alone doesn’t explain it)?

Jude is passive when it suits the plot, and active when it suits the plot. He is active enough to run away twice from the children’s home, but while he is surviving through prostitution he is too passive to use the money he makes to buy a bus ticket. He is active enough to create an elaborate lock for his bedroom window, but when Andy gives him ointment to treat his scars, and he can’t reach his back on his own, he gives up (even though he is desperate to get rid of the scars).

Jude is in constant pain from the damage inflicted on his legs and back, but only because he refuses to take pain medication. He goes against medical advice to have his damaged lower legs removed, ends up wheelchair bound, and only has the amputations after a life-threatening bone infection. The reason’s given for these choices, that pain medication has negative side effects, that he wants to control what happens to his body, are valid, but the desire for control could equally be used as a motivation to find a pain-control regime that works, or to remove his failing lower limbs, undergo physiotherapy, and have more mobility with prosthetics.

Jude is pimped out by Brother Luke in the age of smart-phones and the internet [3], and we are told that he was photographed and filmed, yet the only evidence of this abuse to resurface is a grainy photo that may not even be him. In adulthood, despite being in a same-sex relationship with a Hollywood star, Jude is never chased by the paparazzi, and never has a reporter digging into his past.

Jude is infected with STIs that he feels morally obliged to disclose to Caleb, giving Caleb another opportunity to humiliate him, but he doesn’t contract anything as inconvenient as HIV, or anogenital warts, and he suffers no long-term physical after-effects from being repeatedly anally penetrated as a small child.

Why does Jude stay with Caleb? He is not financially or socially dependent on him, and the bullying and the physical and sexual abuse start almost immediately. Most abusers know when to turn on the charm in order to keep their victims bamboozled, but beyond their first meeting, Caleb is never even nice to Jude. Jude tells Harold he has to be happy with what he can get, but why, when so much else he does is about staying in control of what happens to him, does he put up with a relationship he gets nothing out of?

The answer to all these inconsistencies is easy, Jude is like that because Yanagihara wrote him that way. She needed to move him from A to B to C, so she did, never mind what the real world is like, or how humans behave in it.

Yanagihara is a cat, slowly torturing a mouse to death, sometimes the mouse may think it has escaped, but in fact, its death has just been prolonged a moment longer.

What look like compensations in Jude’s adult life are in fact just devices to prolong his suffering. As an undergraduate, he meets a doctor, Andy, who agrees to treat him, privately and for free, indefinitely (Andy does ‘retire’ from this role late in the book, causing a crisis). Jude never fully discloses his past abuse to him, but Andy is fully aware of his self-harming behaviour. In real life, Jude would have been committed after the first act of self-harm described in the book, when he cuts too deeply and needs emergency care. Under such circumstances there would have been a paper-thin chance of him actually getting the psychiatric care he needed (although in Yanagihara’s world, it would just have been another opportunity for men to rape and physically abuse him), instead, Andy enables his behaviour for decades.

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed the inhabitants of the desert world of Anarres have no word for ‘wallowing’, instead, they use “a compound, meaning literally ‘coating continually and thickly with excrement.'” This is what Yanagihara is doing to her protagonist, continually coating him in a thick layer of excrement.

Reading this book is also like being repeatedly coated in a thick layer of excrement; it is a relentless and punitive read. The self-harm and psychological distress is described repeatedly and explicitly, the exact details of the child sex abuse, thankfully, not in quite so much detail.

I don’t know why this book managed to sink its claws into me. I have not been physically or sexually abused, but I do know what it is like to feel unloved and unlovable, to fear that you are hollow inside, I think that may be the element that upset me so much. During the earlier sections of the book, I was jealous of Jude, and his amazing friends, but no one has such completely solipsistically dedicated friends like that in real life, it is just another unbelievable element.

Jude’s childhood physical and sexual abuse is discussed in all the reviews, but I don’t recall any reviewer mentioning the emotional abuse he also suffered. The monks make it very clear that they don’t like him, and resent him being there. This taps into a vein of Christianity that is all about punishment and burden, but a brother complaining about how much it costs them to look after him strikes a particularly false note, given that Franciscans are dedicated to a life of poverty (the monastery also appears to be a working farm, and Jude, even as a small child, does a share of the cooking and cleaning and gardening). They tell him he must have done something terrible to be abandoned as a newborn baby (but then Christianity has also given us the grotesque concept of ‘original sin’), and once the rages start they tell him they wish he was dead. The monks tell him very clearly, that he is unloved and unlovable.

A Little Life isn’t actually about child abuse, or disability (how many disabled people in real life have their own architect?) or cutting – there is no ‘advocacy’ in this book on behalf of real-life victims, there is no interest in showing up the flaws in the system (because it is not about ‘the system’, it is not set in the real world at all). It is about (to use Mendelsohn ‘s choice of terminology) abjection, it is about dirt, and wallowing in it, both Jude and the author and the reader.

But, at the same time as wallowing in dirt, the horrific abuse in A Little Life is, in a strange way, ‘sanitised’. The monastery provides Jude with a classical education (Latin, literature, music) that gives him an inroad into the educated middle-class. The cutting is sanitary (he cleans and bandages himself afterwards), compared with a drug dependency (the control method of choice for most pimps) or alcoholism (no coming to after an alcohol induced black-out wondering what he’s done). The cutting is a method of self-control, that mostly works. Having Andy as a de facto private physician is sanitary, no sitting in the waiting areas of public hospitals, being exposed to the mess of other people’s lives, no strangers seeing his medical notes. His wealth is sanitary, it allows Caleb’s abuse to occur in private (no thin walls or neighbours who know you).

Jude’s crippling, even, is sanitising, it gives him a way back into the mainstream, and then into college; if he had been caught by law enforcement while engaging in survival prostitution, he would most likely have been treated as a criminal, not a victim, and ended up in the juvenile criminal system; his pseudo-middle class up-bringing, at the hands of the monks and Brother Luke, would have given him no skills for surviving that system.

Jude keeps himself inside an hermetically sealed world of wealth, work, and his close circle of friends and adopted family, he refuses to accept he is disabled, he does not accept the label of child sex abuse victim, he keeps himself ‘clean’, outwardly at least.

His choice to become a corporate lawyer, defending giant pharmaceutical companies from whistleblowers, makes him a ‘bad guy’, but no one in his sealed world seems bothered by this. His choice to do this makes a certain amount of sense, he wants money to keep himself safe and independent (there is a sub-plot point about saving up for some kind of experimental scar removal treatment, which is unconvincing, surely there are treatments available already in the real world?), but if he had become a public prosecutor or similar, bringing ‘bad guys’ to justice, maybe even changing the system (maybe going after child abusers), that might have been therapeutic in itself. Instead nothing he does changes the world for the better, he does charitable works, but only of the papering-over-the-cracks, not challenging the status quo variety.

These are not the choices of a real person in those situations, these are the choices of the author.

Many reviewers have stated their disbelief that anyone could have suffered as much abuse as Jude does, but I disagree. The exact details of his abuse, especially his placement in the monastery, is implausible, but the levels of abuse he suffers are not; children are physically and sexually abused by their parents, by their ‘carers’ all the time, abused children run away from home and survive on the streets through prostitution all the time, psychopaths and serial killers target on-street prostitutes because they are the most vulnerable and nobody misses them. The only implausible thing about Jude’s abuse is that he survived it in some form. Most permanent runaways end up in poverty or homeless and in and out of prison, they vary rarely get to go to prestigious Boston colleges.

Jude’s level of suffering occurs in the real world all the time, we just don’t want to know about it. Mostly, it doesn’t end in material wealth and luxury, it ends in poverty and grind, but those ‘little lives’ are not deemed worthy of 700+ page tomes.

It’s hard to work out what the extravagant wealth and luxury of Jude’s adulthood is actually for (it goes far beyond what Jude needs to materially survive). One reviewer suggested it was satire [4], and it can certainly be read as satire, but there is nothing the author has said to support that claim. It acts as an aesthetic counterpart to Jude’s previous squalor, but it adds nothing to the plot or characterisation. There is something distasteful about the extravagant luxury; I hope Yanagihara does not think that Jude’s unhappiness, even when in possession of excess amounts of stuff, somehow ‘proves’ he is broken, or that self-harm somehow becomes more poignant when it occurs in the bespoke marble bathrooms of Manhattan apartments.

Even the sexual relationship with Willem starts out as abusive; the sex feels like a prison sentence to Jude, it causes him psychological anguish as it forces him to remember all the things from his childhood he had tried to forget, it makes him self-harm more, and he has to force himself not to disassociate while it happens, but somehow this is worth it for the hand-holding afterwards. Willem has supposedly been his best friend for decades, but he is too afraid to lose him to refuse him sex, ever.

It only ends after Jude inflicts third degree burns on himself (because he has promised Willem he will stop cutting – Willem is physically violent more that once in response to his cutting), and when Willem finds out, he forces him to tell him the truth about his abuse.

What this particular ordeal is supposed to ‘say’ I don’t know, is it supposed to be romantic? I could put together an argument that is satirises the idea of the empathetic ‘nice guy’ but there is zero evidence Yanagihara was trying to do that. Most likely it is just another opportunity to wallow in muck.

Willem knows he is hurting Jude, but he pretends he doesn’t – early on he coerces Jude into taking a shower with him (saying it will be good for him, because at that point he thinks Jude’s fear of sex is to do with self-consciousness over his scars), pushing him into a fugue state. Jude is impotent, he tells Willem it is a result of the injuries from the car accident. Brother Luke taught Jude how to behave ‘enthusiastically’ when penetrated, and Jude uses this to make the sex finish faster (he doesn’t like ‘foreplay’ any more than he likes being penetrated). Willem believes all this, in spite of already suspecting Jude may have been sexually abused as a child.

Willem doesn’t believe he could really be harming Jude, he loves him after all; he also wants to stick his dick in him, which might bias his judgement – a scene written from the point of view of Brother Luke could sound rather similar.

As a small child, Jude thinks he has ‘forced’ the monks to beat him, that there is something terribly wrong with him, some monster inside that needs to be kept in check; as an adult, he believes he ‘forced’ Caleb to abuse him as well. It is normal for abuse victims to blame themselves, but Yanagihara seems to believe it too; in an interview at Electric Literature, Yanagihara says:

“If you’re a writer, you must be able to summon empathy for all your characters, even and especially the despicable ones. You needn’t like them, but you must respect them – even if you don’t respect every aspect of them. If not, that character becomes simply a catalog of his pathologies, and that’s a hollow character. Actually, that’s not even a character: it’s just a pastiche of bad behavior. I tried to keep this in mind in A Little Life when I wrote the characters who make Jude’s life so awful – Caleb and Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor. They were always much more complicated people to me than they are to him; he sees them one way, of course, and so he should. But I tried to make all of them a little mysterious to the reader, to suggest that there were other lives they led, that they were someone else entirely to the other people in their life. Caleb, especially, should come across as someone with nuance, with an unseen but suggested other persona: Jude is meeting him as an adult, and so even he’s able to see that the way Caleb behaves with him might not be the way he behaves with other people: he has a sister he’s close to; he has a job where he’s clearly respected; he finds a boyfriend after Jude. This, of course, is exactly what he fears: that Caleb’s behavior towards him is indicative less of the core of Caleb’s identity, and more a set of responses that’ve been inspired by Jude himself.”

Reading the above, it’s difficult not to think that Yanagihara hates Jude as much as Caleb did.

In the same interview, Yanagihara also said: “Because Jude encounters Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor as a child, he’s much less able to see who else they might be besides his abusers – and so too, therefore, the reader; in Jude’s childhood sections, I tried to tilt the semi-omniscience that informs his adult chapters to something more intimately his point of view, which is by necessity narrow and childlike. But I always knew they were someone else, that they had other lives, other interests, other qualities, or I wouldn’t have been able to write them authoritatively. One hopes, as a writer, that your readers can sense as well some of what you’re not saying about your characters, that one senses the totality of their conception.”

This is quite breath taking, and disturbing; to create a character like Jude, who exists only to suffer, then tell us we need to understand the other ‘good qualities’ of his abusers. Given the obsessive nature of Brother Luke and Dr Traylor’s paedophilia, one going on the run for years with his child victim, the other building a dungeon in his basement then finding a victim to put in it, I don’t give a shit about their “other lives, other interests, other qualities”, they pale to meaningless beside that main obsession. (The ‘good qualities’ of child abusers was a major theme in Yanagihara’s previous book The People in the Trees as well [5].)

The fact that Brother Luke is written as Jude’s carer as much as his abuser (he tells Jude he loves him, he never hits him, he doesn’t let the johns rough him up, he keeps up his education, even buying an electronic keyboard to continue his piano practice, and early in the book we are told he once cared for an injured wild bird) is disturbing, especially as it is only there to heighten Jude’s suffering. Jude sees Brother Luke as his first ‘relationship’ (Brother Luke promises to marry him when he’s older), and sees his cutting as a ‘solution’ Brother Luke gave to him, rather than a control mechanism he put in place. Jude’s inability to mentally escape Brother Luke dooms him from the start. It’s hard to know how realistic this is, it’s not explored enough to really elucidate it properly. Jude wants to forget his past, so he never properly examines the worldview he developed as a helpless child, when Brother Luke had complete control over him (remember, Jude does not see himself as a victim of child sex abuse, which means he feels culpable for what Brother Luke did, even if, as a groomed nine-year-old, he had no real agency to choose).

Also in the Electric Literature interview, Yanagihara says: “As for the limits of therapy: I can’t speak to them, only that therapy, like any medical treatment, is finite in its ability to save and correct. I think of psychology the way I think of religion: a school of belief or thought that offers many, many people solace and answers; an invention that defines the way we view our fellow man and how we create social infrastructure; one that has inspired some of our greatest works of art and philosophy. But I don’t believe in it – talk therapy, I should specify – myself. One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field is its insistence that life is always the answer.”

If Jude had received some therapy early on, his view of his ‘relationship’ with Brother Luke might not have calcified and slowly poisoned him. Since he told no one about it until he was in his forties, there was no opportunity to heal. But Yanagihara chooses not to give him that chance; she pulls his strings the way she wants him to go (she doesn’t actually prove her point about talk therapy not working by denying it to her character until he is in his fifties).

In the Women’s Prize for Fiction Q&A Yanagihara writes: “What I hope IS apparent on the page is how much I enjoyed creating them [the characters], how well I knew them, and how much I enjoyed spending time with them – all of them.”

The emphasis there has to mean Jude’s abusers – what does it mean, to create a character like Jude, torture him slowly to death, then tell us how much you enjoyed the exercise? Again this is actually disturbing.

In the Electric Literature interview Yanagihara says: “One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better. And, relatedly, to explore this idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. […] So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition – and Jude’s – that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.”

So, yes, she did create a character just to suffer (I can’t actually recall any of Jude’s attempts to ‘heal himself’, beyond the naive desire to fix the scars on his back; survive, yes, but not heal), but again, this book, in its extremeness, can’t tell us anything meaningful about human suffering – reading that interview, and Yanagihara ‘s claims about what she was trying to achieve, I can’t help thinking that her reach far exceeded her grasp; Jude cannot recover because Yanagihara doesn’t let him, not because Yanagihara has some great insight into the human condition.

It does seem that Yanagihara hates Jude, to create a character, then torture him slowly to death over 700+ pages, then say in interviews how much you enjoyed the process, suggests a certain level of sadism.

Also from the Electric Literature interview: “One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field [of psychology] is its insistence that life is always the answer. Every other medical specialty devoted to the care of the seriously ill recognizes that at some point, the doctor’s job is to help the patient die; that there are points at which death is preferable to life […] in the West, that’s exactly what we think: that suicidal thought is a symptom of a sick, or at least troubled mind. But I do think that that’s something of a cultural and religious construct. In America, we think there’s something shameful about it; we react to suicides with something approaching rage: What was he thinking?; It’s the coward’s way out. But in Asia, suicide isn’t viewed in the same way. Or it wasn’t, for many years. Here, we associate suicide with despair. There, you might say that the cause can be, sometimes, culturally sanctioned. This is not to say suicide isn’t just as devastating and often perplexing in the East as it is in the West – only that I don’t think there’s a single way to consider its meaning.”

If Yanagihara was attempting to write a philosophical treatise on the acceptability of suicide, she fails, because her example is too extreme; to create a character, torture him for decades, and then have him kill himself, tells us nothing about the permissibility and rationality, or not, of suicide, because it tells us nothing realistic about the human experience. What about the rest of us, with our normal, everyday sufferings? Do any of us have it bad enough, when compared to Jude St Francis, to justify suicide?

This is potentially offensive to abuse victims, Yanagihara ‘s message here is that some people are broken beyond repair, and any attempts to seek psychiatric help are on par with faith healing – so suicide is their best option. It’s lucky this message was not clearly communicated in the book, otherwise it might do some vulnerable readers harm.

Another disturbing factor is Yanagihara ‘s portrayal of homosexuality, and linking it to paedophilia. At one point in the book, Jude imagines starting his life over gain, as a normal child, with Harold and Julia as his parents; he imagines being fifteen years old, with a girlfriend.

Mendelsohn says in his review: “You wonder whether a novel written by a straight white man, one in which urban gay culture is at best sketchily described, in which male homosexuality is for the second time in that author’s work deeply entwined with pedophiliac abuse, in which the only traditional male-male relationship is relegated to a tertiary and semicomic stratum of the narrative, would be celebrated as “the great gay novel””

One of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, describes Yanagihara’s depiction of gay men in this way: “every gay character in it, they are drug addicts, they’re the victims of abuse […] their sexuality is formed that way, or they’re abusers, or even worse, they’re just sitting there, waiting for a beautiful, hansom straight man to come along and fall in love with them.”

Yanagihara’s recent piece in the Guardian comes across more than a little as her trying to justify A Little Life:

“I sometimes wonder if what we’re really trying to praise is not the subject matter or the politics or even the aesthetics of the book, but the author’s ability, or even just willingness, to be impolite, to be messy, to be extravagant on the page. A novel can be perfect in its structure, in its logic, in its composure, but the most memorable novels, the most electrifying, are the ones that understand the necessity of imperfection, of ragged edges, of being distasteful, of making mistakes, of being demanding of the reader. […] The violence of the book would, it seem, Upset the Reader. The wildness, the embarrassing bigness, the excessiveness, of emotion would Upset the Reader. The length would Upset the Reader. And yet, as readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset? A novel, in its truest form, is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is. But what makes it different from, say, a work of philosophical inquiry is, among other things, the way it uses (or misuses, or differently uses) language and, second, the particular sense of discomfiture it can provide.”

Well no, I don’t read to be Upset (condescendingly capitalised). I read to be moved (not the same as being upset, with a big or small U), to be exposed to new ideas, new ways of being in the world, to gain some kind of insight in to what it means to be human; if not that, then to just enjoy a good story.

Yanagihara is right about a novel’s need to question what it means to be human, but she does not achieve that feat in any respect. She does a lot of other things, particularly ‘Upset the Reader’ and her book is embarrassingly excessive – the whole thing is a mess. If Upsetting people were a meaningful pursuit, The Human Centipede would have won an Oscar.

Yanagihara also describes being praised as ‘brave’ for writing A Little Life, there’s nothing particularly ‘brave’ about making shit up.




[1] I am using the term ‘survival prostitution’ as the least worst way to describe Jude’s commercial sexual exploitation – even using the term ‘prostitution’ is problematic, as it implies some kind of choice on his part, but the term ‘commercial sexual exploitation of children’ is unwieldy.

[2] I am not the only reader to be of this opinion. One of the reviewers on the BBC Radio 4’s Front Row also calls Yanagihara a ‘puppet master’, and describes everything in the book, good and bad, as the author’s own ‘wish fulfilment’.

Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books, writes: “The answer, of course, is that it’s Yanagihara’s design. That’s why it’s good to know that Jude is entirely her concoction, not a figure based on testimony by survivors of child rape, clinical case studies or anything empirical. I found Jude an infuriating object of attention, but resisted blaming the victim. I blame the author.”

Mendelsohn writes: “But the wounds inflicted on Jude [as a child] are nothing compared to those inflicted by Yanagihara herself. […] Jude might better have been called “Job,” abandoned by his cruel creator. […] There is something punitive in the contrived and unredeemed quality of Jude’s endless sufferings; it sometimes feels as if the author is working off a private emotion of her own.”

[3] The whole novel is set out of time. For Jude to have been abused the way he was – Bother Luke has a lap-top, and the internet is advanced enough for nowhere motels to be connected, and for rural paedophile rings to be internet based – he must have been born in the mid-90’s at the earliest, so that his early adulthood in New York takes place post 9/11 and his middle-age in the future. Many reviewers commented on the lack of historical context to the novel, this didn’t particularly bother me, and some things, like not naming any social media, is a smart move, as nothing else risks aging a book like referencing soon-to-be-obsolete technology.

[4] Elif Batuman writes “I was interested to note that the scenes of cutting and child rape were intercut with another genre of writing that I normally don’t care for: “Sex and the City”-style lifestyle porn. Everyone in the book is or becomes famous or prestigious or powerful; they have Whitney retrospectives and win “major awards.” Conveniently, Malcolm becomes a famous architect and is able to outfit his friends’ SoHo lofts and upstate farmhouses with bathtubs made of “cypress sourced from Gifu”; Jude’s country house includes a barn modified in such a way that all the walls can rise up, letting in the smell of the tree peonies and wisteria. There are a lot of parties in A Little Life, where recherché foodstuffs (gougères, herbed shortbread, cornmeal gingersnaps) are consumed by interesting, accomplished friends and lovers.

“I was mystified at first as to how I was able to tolerate, let alone devour, a book so devoted to two of my least-favorite literary topoi (pedophilia, lifestyles of the rich and glamorous). Then it occurred to me that perhaps what was so compelling was precisely the combination of the two. It’s as if you get to see all the misery – the moral compromise, inequality, jealousy, and self-doubt – that we know lies behind every gorgeously finished brownstone floor – through, every “prestigious” career, every “major award,” every super-expensive sushi dinner at a New York City restaurant with only six seats (“all at a wide, velvety cypress counter”), displaced on to this one guy. That’s why his suffering has to be so far over the top.

“[…] when I read about all the great apartments and great parties and great meals, juxtaposed with the visceral and meticulous story of a child whose trust and body and soul are systematically and deliberately broken by sadists for their personal entertainment, I felt that I recognized something true, and I felt comforted.

“As I read, I felt no reproaches for the people who disliked A Little Life; I saw why they did. Jude’s tribulations do seem to have been gratuitously inflicted on him by a perverse intelligence. But I discovered that I was one of the many readers who found, in the gratuitousness, something recognizable and true. At a certain point, I had a mental picture of Yanagihara looking grimly at her computer, typing, over and over, certain kinds of sentences […] “You want ‘Sex and the City’?” I imagined her thinking. “Here’s your ‘Sex and the City.’” I was riveted.”

[5] “All this [the story] is framed and indeed spun by a preface, epilogue and copious lengthy footnotes throughout the narrative – some explanatory, others nakedly exculpatory – written by one of Perina’s former students, Ronald Kubodera. Yanagihara doesn’t play as many pale, fiery games with this conceit as she might have done, actually; except (in one of the book’s rare missteps, I thought) for a few pages editorially excised, and shunted to the back of the volume. These [spoiler] include a horribly vivid account of the rape of a child. If the idea was to try to raise narrative suspense of the did-he, didn’t-he abuse those children kind, it falls flat; Yanagihara does such a good job in ventriloquizing Perina’s voice that you don’t need to have his bad actions painstakingly spelled out to understand how bad a man he is. This is not a matter of ‘evil’. In many ways Perina is not only not evil, he is exemplary in his goodness: he is scrupulous, observant, considered, hard-working, dedicated to improving human existence on this planet. He is moreover conscious of moral obligations as obligations – in a slightly Sheldon Cooperish way, but palpably – and acts upon them, giving a home, educations and new lives to scores of underprivileged children as personal costs that are both financial, practical and emotional. He is not an absolute moral relativist, but Yanagihara carefully makes plain, in a shown-not-told way, that encountering the different social mores of ivu’viu, where for instance adolescent boys are sexually initiated by older tribal men as part of an honoured tradition, reinforces his own sexually predatory nature back in the USA, where such a context does not exist and where such sex is therefore inevitably abusive. I have seen comparisons with Lolita, but they don’t seem to me really to fit the novel. Humbert Humbert knows he is doing wrong; he simply prioritises his individual aesthetic-erotic ‘joy’ over social mores. But Perina gives the impression really of not knowing that what he is doing is wrong. The novel understands that it is; but one of the clevernesses of Yanagihara as a writer is that the novel knows this despite the fact that neither of its two narrators comprehend it.”