October 23, 2020

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Novel's suicide exploration defies convention

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2015 (1973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A Little Life is a 720-page cinder block of a novel that requires very little commitment to finish out to the end -- New York-based author Hanya Yanagihara's prose is deft, assured and has a breezy read-100-pages-at-a-time touch.

The prose, that is. The story revolves around unspeakable trauma. A Little Life starts out about four successful close friends in New York, but soon focuses on Jude St. Francis, a secretive man whose childhood was solely abuse and violence and terror.

As an adult, Jude is financially successful but both emotionally and physically self-destructive, and becomes increasingly more so over the decades as his loved ones slowly clue in to the depths of his pain.

The reader spends a lot of time with Jude as he both self-harms and tries to make some semblance of a normal life. Yanagihara, who also wrote 2013's critically acclaimed novel The People in the Trees, has no interest in zooming out of Jude's suffering once she has zoomed in. It is unflinching, raw and horrific and there is not an inch of melancholy or melodrama.

A Little Life is a good book. Sometimes it's an excellent book. Sometimes it's a mystifying one -- it's definitely written unlike other modern novels. Time is essentially frozen, for one thing -- the book encompasses about 30 years, all of which seem to take place in the mid-2000s.

For another thing, the circumstances of Jude's adulthood are dizzyingly wonderful, particularly his friends and adoptive law-professor father, who are so tirelessly faultless, loving and gracious it almost (but not quite) borders on fantasy.

It also appears all of this was quite intentional. In an interview with Slate, Yanagihara said "Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love. I wanted it to reach a level of truth by playing with the conventions of a fairy tale, and then veering those conventions off path. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel immersive by being slightly otherworldly, to not give the reader many contextual tethers to steady them."

Ah-ha, then.

The experience of reading A Little Life is difficult to describe -- it's gut-wrenching, yet quick and easy (again, the writing is masterfully assured). It's touching, yet not quite believable.

Put another way, A Little Life is the inverse of Miriam Toews' recent landmark novel All My Puny Sorrows. Toews' novel concerned itself with how the protagonist, Yoli, could take care of her sister, Elf, who only wanted to die. A Little Life asks how the suicidal person himself might attempt that. Yoli lashes out more than once, and her life is a step away from falling apart. Jude's loved ones are superhumanly successful and benevolent.

Toews' world grappled with history and generational change; the book is firmly grounded and set in Manitoba. Yanagihara's world is not only plucked out of time, but she takes New York City -- a place romanticized and drilled for meaning more than any other in western fiction -- and renders it incidental to A Little Life's plot.

In Sorrows, Elf had a loving birth family from childhood on; Jude had no such thing. The explanation for Elf's suicidal tendencies oscillated between chemical and mystery -- the explanation for Jude's is unambiguously tangible and clear.

Finally, while the protagonist of All My Puny Sorrows spilled over at the seams with her emotions, the protagonist of A Little Life wraps himself further and further inside his poisonous mind; even deep internal thought reads like it has been passed through defence filter after defence filter before it gets out of the subject's head. Where Toews' novel was hot, A Little Life can often feel cold.

A Little Life is perplexing. It will likely affect everyone differently, but will also stay with readers long after they are done. Which, perplexing or not, makes it a book worth everyone's time.


Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and wants to re-read A Little Life after she's had about five more years to think about it.


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