First off, it's hard to believe that this book was written in just eighteen months. And
while the author was holding down a full-time job as the editor of a major magazine. That's astounding to me.
Tee, I cosign 100% the last paragraph of your post. "Soul-engrossing" is a very on-point description of the experience of reading this book.
To continue on a couple interesting points raised by Tee and to put forth a few others (some of these thoughts are very random):
So, while I was reading, I was like, "Well, of course this is who Jude ends up with in his first adult relationship." Yes. I can totally believe that there are men like Caleb out there. Very realistic. So, Tee, I totally get what you're saying when you state that Caleb is a "wonderful character." He's just very wonderfully true
, especially in that moment for a character like Jude. I also think that his appearance in the story is a major turning point for the novel. For, it's after Caleb that Jude's full past with Brother Luke is finally revealed as well as the subsequent suicide attempt (which Yanagihara, of course, haunts the character - and the reader - with for the rest of the novel until he finally succumbs). I've also definitely never read about a fictional gay male domestic violence situation and this one is just so brutal, it's difficult to read - one of my first moments of having to seriously put the book down and summon the will to go on, fearful of what I was going to read next. I also don't think I've read a book where a single character is raped this many times. I simply lost count at a certain point.
Mister Tee wrote:But I do think Malcolm was given somewhat short shrift by the narrative. All other characters get major attention at some point – Willem for his career and his many feelings about Jude, JB for his family history and drug issues (and for being an unusual presence in the lives of the others: a friend, by longevity, but someone you can never really trust won’t turn on you and wound you grievously, as he does to Jude in the moment flipp highlights).
In my mind, Yanagihara pulls a bait-and-switch in the first quarter or so of A Little Life
, luring you into thinking it's a certain kind of novel: four young men making it on their own in NYC, sort of an all-male version of Mary McCarthy's The Group
, a comparison I had thought about before reading it in a couple reviews. But then she reveals that she has a larger, darker project in mind. But, yes, Malcom definitely gets short-shrifted, a choice that Yanagihara seems to have made and completely stuck with for the duration of the novel. What I thought was interesting though was that after Mal's death, Jude revisits the Irvine family and we get some details about Malcom and his life during the years that we haven't really been treated to in real-time, including that wonderful detail about the time when Malcom says to Jude that Jude doesn’t understand what it's like having parents or something and then is immediately regretful of saying it to him and apologizes again for it years later. That felt very "Malcom" to me. He seemed like a stabilizing force for Jude. And his parents were also very important to him. I was interested that Malcom had a crush on Willem that was described early on in the novel in his (one) section. I had thought the author might revisit that later when Willem and Jude become a couple, but it almost seems like any angst he might've had over that union is grafted onto the character of JB.
I thought the section after Willem died was a very true exploration of someone experiencing profound grief. I had a feeling that Jude wouldn't last too long without Willem, but he lasted longer than I thought he would. As soon as Andy said that he was giving up his practice, I knew Jude wouldn't make it.
I loved the slow reveal of Jude and Willem's relationship and how, like Tee mentioned, we're reading about it almost in post at times. I didn't see it coming that they'd become romantically involved. (And, as an aside, I was so scared during the part where it seemed like Willem might hit Jude. That would've been devastating for me to read at that point.) And how the issue of sex is handled between the two is just incredibly (and respectfully) explored by the author, you mentioned. It was interesting to hear about sex from Jude's point of view and then to learn from Willem that Jude is very dexterous in bed. There's such a strange feeling we have as readers because we know the sad truth of why he's such an old pro in the bed even though Willem does not and enjoys being with him so much physically.
I found it pretty thrilling how utterly real the art described in the book felt to me. JB's paintings seemed especially realized
on the page. I could very much picture them especially, "Willem Listening to Jude Tell a Story" which I loved the description of. Also, "Jude with a Cigarette." Yanagihara posted a painting on Instagram that she says mimics the style of JB's work (in her mind) on that feed.
Some of Willem's films seemed really good! I was particularly interested in "The Dancer and the Stage" (or, "The Happy Years" as it's originally titled) as well as "Henry and Edith" about the friendship between Henry James and Edith Wharton. Yanagihara's ability to fill out a world with particularly just felt utterly seamless to me throughout the novel. I could really picture Jude's Greene Street condo (as well as the Lispenard Street apartment, Jude and Willem's country home, Harold and Julia's dusty, professorial cozy warren in Truro, etc.) because of the descriptions of characters doing things
inside of them. So many times in reading stories during my MFA years, it would feel like the writer had characters living in a boundless, immaterial void with no specificity. In this book, that was just never the case.
There is an interesting lack of redemption in the book. I listened to this great podcast recently with Yanagihara discussing what she was going for in that regard and it was really illuminating. She was questioning this idea that people should always pick themselves up by their boot-straps and soldier on through life no matter what. She was like, "Sometimes they just shouldn't. Sometimes they can't." I thought this was incredibly astute commentary. I can understand how even with the amazing successes in Jude's life and fortifying relationships of his adulthood that he couldn't shake his past. I think Yanagihara builds a past for him throughout the novel (painstakingly and brutally) that would be almost impossible to
shake. In the same podcast, she talks about how she wanted to know what happens to these young victims after their trauma. Such an interesting jumping off point.
During the same podcast, Yanagihara described some of her childhood which sounded very transient. She mentioned spending a lot of time in motel rooms across the country which is something that obviously found its way into this novel. And passing by the motels on highways and wondering what was happening in them and realizing that there were so many stories that no one got to hear. If I can find a link to the podcast, I'll post it in this thread because I really got a ton out of it.
I loved that moment when Willem recognized that he was a simple person who'd somehow ended up with the most complicated of people. That made perfect sense.
I think the extreme wealth of the characters is a way of going over-the-top in order to heighten the fable-like, fairy tale nature of what the author is trying to achieve. They really all are fantastically successful though! And, Tee, I thought the award Willem won was actually the Oscar (who would really care who he'd "brought" with him to the SAG awards where they're all seated at those tables?) Winning the Oscar also seemed to fit in with the "extreme success" theme of the book.
The Harold sections were just beautifully written. And what a good choice to end the book on one.
Mister Tee wrote:As to flipp’s structural question about Jude’s backstory: in general I was fine with how the details evolved; from the throwaway references, I got to know the cast of characters, and I presumed we’d eventually get to the worst stuff. But I have to say it petered out for me by the later chapters. Insensitive as this may sound, after a certain point of reading piled-up atrocities, there comes a narrative need for each to top the previous one, and I didn’t feel that last sequence, with Dr. Traylor, quite did the job. I’d long figured the “car injury” meant someone had run him over, so there was no surprise there, and the fact of his being imprisoned for a few weeks didn’t feel that much worse than the apparent non-stop barrage of sexual abuse he’d been experiencing in the monastery, with Brother Luke, and in wherever he’d been placed afterward. I hate to think in these terms, but that thread of the story could have used a bigger finish. (Tangential issue: though I approved of most ellipses in the book, I was frustrated at never hearing how Dr. Traylor was caught. Jude refers to Ana having told him what the doctor confessed, but I can’t see, from the story as presented, how he’d have been tracked down. I was also a bit unclear how Jude made the leap from there to getting into college.)
I absolutely agree with you that Jude's backstory needed a "bigger finish." By the time I got to the Dr. Traylor section, I (like you, I think) was expecting something on the level of the Marquis de Sade, especially with the previous descriptions of how mottled and damaged the skin on Jude's back is. Are we supposed to believe that he got those from beatings in the barn at the home? Because that just didn't seem enough. Dr. Traylor was beyond creepy (and I couldn't help but think that his basement had been home to several other young men before Jude), but there were plot-holes there too. How did Jude go from getting run over by Traylor in a remote, icy field to being rescued and then placed into Ana's care? How was Traylor caught? For a novel that trafficks (poor choice of words, perhaps) so much in Jude's backstory, it did feel like she had possibly run out of steam at the end OR
felt like she needed to ease the pedal off of the atrocities that Jude had suffered up until that point (which, to - I think - both of us, was not the right choice.)
So, not to brag or anything, but I just had to share this: Hanya Yanagihara sent me a custom-made tote bag with "Jude&JB&Willem&Malcom" printed on it. It arrived in the mail this week. She gifted it to me as a thank you for my support of her novel. (She found me on Instagram and sought out my mailing address.) I consider A Little Life
to be a watershed book in my extensive reading life thus far and getting something like that directly from the author herself was beyond thrilling.
"The mantle of spinsterhood was definitely in her shoulders. She was twenty five and looked it."
-Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell