A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Disclaimer: I don't think reading this review would ruin the book for you, but please note that it is not spoiler-free, and I am a person for whom spoilers don't ruin books.
Content warning: suicide, abuse.
It ended how it always was going to. I am frustrated by it, and deeply saddened, of course. And also, somehow, essentially unaffected and I think this is because I feel this story is one I’ve played out before in my own head. Its prose even felt like how I talk (or at least how my thoughts feel to me) – so many words and adjectives spooling and spilling, rambling and yet with such a vibrant steel thread within it, all sewn through with meaning, each word imbued and glowing with it – essentially, rich. It was a book about in some ways the intimacies of life, between people, and so this vacation week with Lumberjack has not only been blanketed with languor but also all those small comforts between us have been stained by the pain of thinking of Jude and Willem and JB and Malcolm. And I’ve woken every night the past few nights soaking wet from their world, clutching my husband and feeling the sadness of A Little Life. It was a truly beautiful book, and an expansive and extraordinary one.
(I think one of the knives in the back by this book is that I know I am JB. Self-involved and essentially insecure and a hardship poser. I like to hope I am also a bit of Willem.)
(Digression: for the medicine people, note that there’s a really fun surgeon character in this book that I really appreciated.)
I was uncomfortable with how comfortable with the topic of suicide I have become. Line of work casualty, I guess, as a psychiatrist. Suicide looms early and colossal in the story and I knew it was there even though I hoped it would slunk away somewhere along the line. It feels sometimes inevitable, both in real life and in the book. After a major tragic blow in the novel, I was dejected but not sobbing, not surprised. Ultimately I guess my feelings about these things was resignation. I’m at a point in my life and career where resignation takes up too much space in me and indignation not enough and I hated that this book reinforced that with its litany of terrors. (Early in my intern year I took care of a patient about whom my attending, on her discharge day, said, “She’ll suicide one day. There’s just no way around it.”) I felt, resigned, like the grainy grey of the cover, staticky - the pain from this book was like sandpaper rubbing over an old lingering open wound and not like a hand plunged Indiana Jones-style into my chest to take out my heart. (Though that’s not to say there weren’t times when, sitting next to my husband, I gasped in horror, I clapped my hand over my mouth, I squeezed my eyes shut against sudden tears and felt the deep sadness.)
This book has been criticized for almost fetishizing abuse, for overdoing it. Not for describing a life with too much of it, but for describing the details too liberally – at a certain point it becomes fascination with the abomination, it becomes voyeuristic, sensationalist. And I think, but I’m not sure, but I think I agree with this. I’m reluctant to say that there was too much terror for my poor privileged heart, and so I’m careful with this criticism. Especially because maybe too many privileged hearts spend too little time considering the terrors that this world – and the people in it, and privileged people especially – put humans through.
But there’s something to this criticism. Because I wanted to know Jude better. I think we were meant by the author to understand that Jude was wrong in his understanding that he was made up just of his sufferings, but the book showed clearly and best the peripheral indications and only murkily and in small servings the direct evidence of Jude’s personhood-beyond-suffering. I just wish that the proportions were different. I wish I had read less about the exact details of Jude’s abuses and more about Jude making Willem laugh, Jude intimidating associates at the firm, Jude’s way of thinking about math. We got to know so much about the personhoods of Jude’s posse through the stories of how they cared for (and didn’t) Jude, and in this we knew them better than Jude, because not only did this clarify their characters but it also obscured Jude’s by reinforcing the archetype of the long-suffering, the cared-for, the lost soul. And this was the archetype Jude was fighting his whole life, so in this way this obfuscation by the novel is meta – and a mistake, in my opinion. I wanted to know Jude.
And through Jude weren’t we supposed to know better the rest of the lost souls in the world? Weren’t we meant to have better aching hearts like Willem did? And for this reason I resented not just the obfuscation of Jude’s character but also the caricature of it – he was remarkable, written somehow to be loved. He was brilliant and pliant and loving and extraordinary, with hurting hands turned only towards himself. I resented him and the author for this, for how deliberately lovable he was when that’s not often the characters a long-suffering life creates (but my patients still deserve love).
And then the book ended, and not only that but it ended with Jude apologizing, with him not having learned he was loved. With Jude not at his core moved by Willem and Harold and Andy and etc, etc, etc. How awful. What an awful rebuke of my career. He was a great steel ball we hoped to melt into warmth and yet we only got the outer few layers, coming off onto our hands, pretty, sweet and beautiful, we fooled ourselves, where he stood cold and unhappy still.
And actually I realize that I got that last feeling/image from my own experience with rewarming cold balls of pie dough. Pie dough is finicky, so finicky. It can be really good, just perfect, a few days after you’ve made it and put it in the fridge. But the tricky thing is that it can never get too warm before you shut the oven door on it, because you want the butter to be rubbed into the flour but never really married to it, and that’s what gives you those glorious flakes interwoven with lovely flavors. So there’s this moment when you’ve taken the dough ball out of the fridge and you have to warm it enough to roll it out but not too much to ruin it. So you roll it in your hands. And if your dough ball got too cold in the fridge, you’ll find that the outer half inch or so will get nice and soft and probably too warm far before the center of that dough ball isn’t a rock. You might think you’ve got it just about warmed and ready because the outer layers are squishy and pliable in your palms. But you’d be fooling yourself.
Ultimately, I realized that the story this book told was one I had learned to stop telling myself years ago. So I spent all the week I was reading this book under a dark cloud, yes – but I think I will come out from under it easily. Because I’ve been coming out from under that cloud my whole life, and I’ve succeeded.
I think the real triumph of the story was that nobody else ever turned away from him. To the very end, Harold and Andy and presumably Willem and JB and Malcolm were still there figuring out how to love Jude.
And you know what? If you work that ball of pie dough just right, it’ll soften and stretch and come together into itself so you can roll it out. You can even ruin the outside by getting it too warm and still make something work. There’s never an irrevocably frozen center.
I don’t know what to say about how A Little Life should have ended. It was an incredibly beautiful book. It was aching and the prose rolled the narrative out bleeding all the way. Its characters – Jude as mentioned above aside – grew life-size before me in perfectly described moments, in many small imagined acts witnessed by the others. It really shows us that humans are found in the spaces between us – we hold each other. And so the book was excellent and I know that it was never going to be written to end any other way than the way it did, and also it was awful. I don’t think it wasn’t true to the story or the characters. But I think the story itself as it was conceived was inherently flawed. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. What does it mean to have a saint of lost causes? What has the Catholic church decided is a lost cause? Because fuck that. We have to reject that narrative. That’s not a way to live in this world, so fuck it.
(My patient, by the way, is still alive. And I think she can find some love for herself in this world. I really think that’s possible.)