When a novel begins with four college friends moving to New York to make names for themselves in the big city, you brace yourself for things to go wrong. Professional differences, romantic rivalry, too many parties with too many drugs, the lure of more glamorous companions: the list of what might strain relationships formed in the shelter of a Massachusetts dorm room is endless. Some of this does happen to the characters in A Little Life, but far more striking is how much goes right for them. By the time we’re three hundred pages and fifteen years in (with another four hundred pages and thirteen years to go – this isn’t a quick read), the four uncertain young men at the novel’s start have become a famous artist, a famous architect, a famous film star and a famously ruthless litigator. JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude make enough money to buy lavish second and third homes and to fly to Paris for an evening to celebrate one another’s birthdays. Their wider social circle is similarly fortunate.
The worst that can happen seems safely behind them. Willem’s beloved, disabled brother died while he was at college, and his parents shortly after that. Harold, Jude’s professor at law school and later a father figure to all four friends, lost his son, aged five, to a rare neurodegenerative disease. All this pales in comparison to Jude’s childhood, which we discover through increasingly lurid flashbacks. Abandoned as a baby next to a rubbish bin and subsequently adopted by a monastery, he suffers a decade and a half of cruelty, violence and sexual abuse at the hands of first the monks and then a series of strangers and supposed caregivers, culminating in a horrific injury that leaves him with a limp and periods of pain so great he loses consciousness. When he is finally rescued, he finds it impossible to tell anyone what he has experienced. ‘You have to talk about these things while they’re fresh,’ says Ana, the social worker who helps him get into college. ‘It’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame.’ Within eighteen months, Ana is dead (the body count in A Little Life is high), but her words are a prophecy. With each year that passes it does become harder to speak of his past and Jude does think he’s to blame. Several times a week he shuts himself in his bathroom and cuts himself so deeply and repeatedly that the skin on his arms comes to resemble cartilage.
The question of the novel is whether a person’s past can be so terrible that no amount of love or success can repair its damage. Despite Jude’s extreme reserve, almost everyone in his life is devoted to him. Harold and his wife adopt him legally shortly after his thirtieth birthday, becoming the parents he never had. One of his close friends is a doctor who sees him informally every few days, thereby protecting his injuries, self-inflicted and otherwise, from official medical scrutiny. Malcolm designs beautiful apartments for him to live in. JB paints beautiful pictures of him. Willem, his dearest friend, arranges his filming schedule around caring for him. He’s a talented singer and cook as well as a hotshot lawyer. Still he sees himself as ‘a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated’.
Yanagihara strips away everything that might distract readers from her characters’ emotional lives. There are mobile phones, and a restaurant serves roasted cauliflower dusted with za’atar, so we can be pretty confident that this is the early 21st century, but political, technological and environmental developments are almost entirely absent. Nearly three decades unfold in an endless present reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch; as in The Goldfinch there’s a fairy-tale quality to this stasis, which suits the novel’s extremes of cruelty and kindness, and good and bad fortune. None of the main characters has children, enabling them to remain focused on the present, on their work and, above all, Jude.
The novel’s third-person narrative moves from character to character, loosely tracking the thoughts of whichever of them happens to be centre-stage. When A Little Life was published to acclaim in the United States earlier this year, it attracted attention for its graphic depictions of abuse and self-harm. But though Jude’s past and his adult self-loathing are painful to read, they are not much more so than the sections in which Yanagihara inhabits the minds of his friends: their worries, their helplessness, their collusion with Jude’s secrecy because of fear of what will happen if they don’t. As Willem says, ‘You let things slide that your instincts told you not to, you scooted around the edges of your suspicions. You understood that proof of your friendship lay in keeping your distance.’ There’s a real sweetness to the companionship the friends find in one another, but even when Jude does eventually tell his story to one person, the healing that confession provides is temporary and partial. It’s a brave novel that refuses both redemption and the redemptive power of storytelling, but as the focus narrows to Jude and his confidante, A Little Life loses some of its interest: Yanagihara finds less material in intimacy’s failure to overcome all ills than she does in the mental contortions her characters perform in order to avoid intimacy. Even so, in its simultaneous insistence on the intractability of suffering and acknowledgement of the pleasure of love and friendship, this is an impressive and moving novel.