Review: A Little Life
After hitting a point of repulsion and disbelief at yet another layer of Jude’s sexual abuse around 600 pages in, I took a break. I was going to push myself through the remaining 200 pages, but I decided to look at some critical reviews to figure out whether this exercise was worth anything, and I came out the other side angry. I feel as though Yanagihara has taken advantage of me, and I think her writing is irresponsible.
A brief summary: the first part of this book genuinely enchanted me. It reminded me somewhat of ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt, a sparkling vision of academia and whip-smart students being clever together. Four young men, each focused on a different set of skills: one an artist, another an actor, a third an architect, and finally Jude, who studies law.
Jude becomes the focus of the story after part 1, and as he takes center stage, all of the joy of the book disappears. I was flummoxed as the book progressed and I couldn’t make sense of Yanagihara’s artistic intent: she’d spun up four reasonably compelling characters that had chemistry with one another, and then spent the subsequent 700 pages torturing the one with the least personality.
The abuse narrative is unwound slowly, peppered throughout the novel. Jude and his friends move through their life, and impersonal flashbacks to Jude’s trials and tribulations keep things spicy when narrating the improbable success stories of the four friends becomes monotonous.
Jude’s life is beyond absurd, a string of violence and sexual trauma that I can’t imagine sitting down and deciding to write. He’s abandoned in the garbage and adopted by some monastery, and the brothers promptly set about beating him and raping him. Then he escapes with Brother Luke, who of course turns out to be a Very Bad Man, promising visions of a cabin in the woods but instead selling Jude’s body to men in motels in the towns they pass through. This goes on for several years, with Brother Luke also raping Jude and, as he grows older, telling him stories about how they love each other and one day will be married. Somehow the police catch up to them and Brother Luke hangs himself in the bathroom, but of course this is not the end of Yanagihara’s extended sexual torture exercise. Jude ends up in a home where the counsellors rape him. He escapes, but instead of doing anything normal, he gives truck drivers sex in exchange for passage to Boston. He ends up a captive of Dr. Traylor, a psychiatrist who rapes him and jabs him with a fire poker, and then runs him over with a car.
All of this happens before Jude is 16 years old.
The other characters are always begging Jude to share his sordid past, but he doesn’t, and he refuses to see a psychiatrist, ostensibly because Dr. Traylor was a psychiatrist and was a Bad Man.
About halfway through the book, at which point Jude is a well-established lawyer, he enters into a relationship that becomes physically abusive almost immediately. This is the point where Yanagihara started to lose my trust as a reader–not because Jude falling into an abusive relationship as an adult was unbelievable, but because I no longer had faith that Yanagihara would develop Jude into anything more than a sieve through which abuses passed through.
Jude eventually ends up romantically involved with one of his original college compatriots, Willem (the actor). But Yanagihara had grown weary of developing any of her characters several hundred pages before, so Willem’s involvement with Jude mostly serves to torture both of them with guilt and toss up more of Jude’s ludicrous life story.
My distrust of Yanagihara as a steward for her characters reached the breaking point while Jude was finally opening up to Willem about his (ridiculously constructed) past. As readers we don’t get to see Jude narrate his own history, but are coyly taken to another scene directly from the past to observe without touching, like Scrooge transported to an unfeeling Christmas Future.
We’re in the part of Jude’s chronology where he’s escaping the group home, after the Brother Luke rape saga and before the Dr. Traylor rape saga. So, here’s Jude, escaping (right after being, you guessed it, raped for the umpeenth time):
“[Jude] had realized […] that there was only one way he would be able to get to Boston, and so he stood by the side of the road, and when the first truck stopped for him and he climbed aboard, he knew what he would have to do when the truck stopped, and he did it. He did it again and again and again, and sometimes the drivers gave him food or money, and sometimes they didn’t” (617)
I underlined this section and wrote in the margin, “this is getting preposterous.” And then I closed the book and picked up my phone and started looking for reviews. I’d lost faith in the world Yanagihara has created, and I was looking for someone to redeem her. Instead, I found an interview that infuriated me.
When asked if she’d done research on trauma and abuse to inform Jude’s character, Yanagihara responded, “No, I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed.” source
My hackles: raised. My teeth: gritted. I’ve endured my share of trauma, perhaps none of it as bombastic as Jude’s ridiculous abuse porn narrative, but then, my trauma is real.
The audacity required to write a character whose entire personality consists of being repeatedly traumatized and not doing any research? At all? I was livid.
In the same interview, Yanagihara goes on to say, of trigger warnings, “To try to preemptively shield yourself from an experience — to say, in essence, this book is about something that I fear is going to really upset me, so I’d better protect myself by not exposing myself to it at all — is not only limiting, but also means you might be preventing yourself from experiencing something else, something you thought you never would, or never have.” source
I haven’t yet mentioned Jude’s self-harm. He cuts himself and has drawn out fights with his loved ones about his cutting habit. For Willem, he makes an effort not to cut himself, but of course ends up failing. In an excruciatingly detailed episode, Yanagihara delights in describing bits of his flesh falling out of the wound he intentionally gives himself via a third degree burn. There are no graphic passages about any of the rapes he endures, but there are extended passages about his self-harm.
This is where I feel Yanagihara’s writing is particularly unforgivable. It isn’t that I think sexual trauma and self-harm shouldn’t be written about, but that writers should expect survivors to be among their readers and to be sensitive to that. The visceral descriptions of self harm were relentless, and Jude’s fate for suicide is sealed about halfway through the book. If I believed Yanagihara was really meditating on mental health or producing thought provoking art on depression, I might feel differently about this narrative arc. But I think, in fact, she’s using Jude’s depression and self harm cheaply and shallowly, just like JB.
JB is another of those original college characters that had chemistry in the first 50 pages, the artist. He’s the best character in the book: he’s well-rounded, his selfishness is realistic, his ambition and willingness to sacrifice the people who love him is believable. I would hazard a guess that JB has the most of Yanagihara in him, and that’s why he’s the most 3-dimensional.
JB reads as a confession of sorts: perhaps Yanagihara recognizes that her art isn’t good enough to stand up on its own, the same way that JB wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for his obsessive documentation of his friends. She doesn’t have the chops to write a believable trauma narrative, she couldn’t have written a story without Jude the abuse punching bag keeping things interesting every 50 or so pages with another scintillating snippet of trauma.
If you’ve felt compelled to read this albatross of a book because it’s (mysteriously) well-reviewed, I hope I’ve freed you up to read something else. You don’t have to be a bystander to Yanagihara’s self-indulgent trauma tripe.
Posted January 24, 2019