Musings on Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’


When I began writing this post, I didn’t know quite what it was I wanted to say about Yanagihara’s A Little Life. What I did know was that I wanted, if not needed, to say something. Anything. Anything that would encourage others to read it or open a discussion with those who had. Anything that would permit me a conversation about it so that I could live through it a little longer and keep it alive in my mind and heart. Based on the responses I’ve had by those who have read it, this is a feeling that attaches itself strongly to A Little Life. Yanagihara so perfectly equips the reader with a belief in humanity and all its good, while simultaneously reminding them of the horrors, sorrows, outrages and pains that lie in life for so many every day. As a result, you want to grieve, commemorate and celebrate the characters she paints endlessly, as though they were friends you’ve known intimately.

A Little Life had me sobbing repeatedly and while it devastated, within a few pages more it had given a glimpse once again of the joy, strength and resilience humanity affords. It’s neither cynical nor saccharine sweet; it doesn’t boast its intelligence nor hide away from it; it succeeds in creating an experience which really can only be likened to living itself. It is as though you’ve not only read the story of Jude’s little (though rich, complex and full) life, but as thought you’ve lived a little life yourself in the process. I devoured its 720-pages over a five-day period on holiday and I found myself the next day wishing I could go back to it again. Because Yanagihara cleverly affords the reader with the sense that, despite every detail, character development, revelation, intimate moment, tender word, letters read, written and found, memory told, that there is more to find. Despite its hopping between narrative voices and timelines, its artful, delicate addition of a new perspective on a conversation or interaction at the turn of each page, you feel that there is even more to this life.

We are reminded often by films like About Time or slow meditative texts like Call Me by Your Name how important the finest moments are to hold on to. Life is formed of all the smallest interactions and it is these that make it worthwhile. The precursory, excited emoji filled text is as valuable to me as the entire night out; cooking dinner and binge watching a trashy series holds as strong a place in my heart as the three-week holiday; my flatmates and I often struggle to make time to do something but our weekly late-night Tesco trips are hilarious, and so special as a result. What Yanagihara does is show those same mundanities of a friendship, a romance, and a life. She establishes all her characters in so delicate and detailed a light that you know the sound of their voice when they greet their loved one and you understand the reaction they will have to an incident before it has been described. I think it is that which leaves you longing for more. More intimacies, more late-night conversations, more exchanged looks over a party, more signs of a true and undeniable friendship. It allows you to read a scene, relate or recognise your own life in it, and then return back to the life of the characters to ponder them some more. It protects itself perfectly, encases itself in its binding so that, even despite its remaining open to interpretation, its characters remain safely untouched by the reader. Its human relatability to the reader’s own life does not detract from the story itself. It doesn’t need the external addition of meaning to make it powerful yet it openly permits it into its pages.

I put my time and energy, above all else, in to friendships. I work to maintain them, to strengthen them, to support them because I know how grand the reward is. Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for someone in my life or something that has happened as a result of them. A Little Life‘s central protagonist Jude finds himself surrounded by a wealth of people that support him so unquestioningly that even I at times found myself in awe of how much they give and even sacrifice to make him see how loved and cherished he is. Following a conversation about how meaningful life is – is meaning assigned by having children only? By a career which creates tangible reward? – Willem asserts his meaning in a way I adored: ‘“I know my life’s meaningful because” … “because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.” (688) And of course, they all agree. It is moments like this that Yanagihara presents as simultaneously simple yet complex. This passage on friendship further resonated:

‘Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day by day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honoured by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that could be dismal around him in return.” (225)

Her writing affords so much more weight to this idea than I think could be found elsewhere, because she so perfectly and thoughtfully depicts the miseries, boredoms and triumphs. Not one outweighs the other, or counteracts its validity. I wasn’t turning the pages eagerly of A Little Life because I was waiting for compensation over a wrongdoing or validation for a character’s choices. I didn’t need to understand further how the minds of the characters were working as I didn’t need that understanding to forgive them or sympathise with them. But I did want to understand further, simply because of the beauty and truth of the characters was compelling, and worthy of hearing.

In a moment of anger, Malcolm accuses Jude of ignorance and Jude comes to understand his personal absence of experience: ‘What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.’ (662) Yanagihara does not make life prettier though; she makes it more visceral, more human, more treacherous, less kind yet more kind, harder yet easier, bitterer yet sweeter. It is not always pretty, but it certainly holds prettiness within it, at every tender touch and kind word. I melted in to A Little Life and slotted in to the world and could see myself, understand myself within it because Yanagihara so fully fleshed out a city within a life and a life within a city. It is the kind of book you long to rewrite with your own story, yet holding on to all the morals and values that are deep within its core, because you want to remember for time and time to come that life should be treasured in the way Yanagihara treasures it in her writing. But of course, to recreate a work like this would be nigh on impossible, selfish and unnecessary. Instead take from it the lessons of love, friendship and the value of living and apply them to every aspect of your own existence. Leave A Little Life alone though, to sit on the shelf in its wide-spined, bold-fonted glory and to remind you each time you look at it just how exquisite it is to get to read a text like that once in a while, and just how rich a life that must mean you have.

Written by Katherine Warren.

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