NB There are generalised spoilers in the post below. Sorry – unavoidable.
We recently had some friends over for dinner. (Since child, this is a rare, planned and notable event.) I sat next to a friend’s partner who I didn’t know. He was very nice. You did well to fill the shelves, he gestured at the bookshelves behind me. Well, I said, reading is kind of my thing. Oh, he said. I like it too. I don’t read much these days, don’t really have the time but … I found myself, idiotically, wanting to stop him. No, I wanted to say. You don’t understand. Reading is my THING. I mean, I didn’t. I already sounded like a tosser. (“I write a blog about the books I read…”) More potatoes, I asked? But it stuck in my mind. The language of ‘my thing’ sounded like I was claiming reading belonged to me and no one else – foolish. But it sort of gets me frustrated when I say I love books and people think I just read Girl on the Train and things by Sophie Kinsella, maybe while eating cupcakes. It’s like having your first boyfriend or girlfriend and people loftily telling you it’s a crush. It’s NOT a crush, you want to say to them. This is REAL, this will LAST. It’s LOVE.
Of course, they’re right, you’re wrong, they stamp on your heart and you eat only Haribo for six weeks. But me and reading – we’re serious. And just like you sometimes needed someone flirting with your errant partner at a party to remember the source of all of their attractions to you, sometimes you need a reminder as to why you’re in this gorgeous, messy, drawn-out thing in the first place. A Little Life was that to me.
This book is a rollercoaster, a brick, the whole bay of an ocean. It’s three books in one, or more. It’s compulsive, it’s beautiful, it’s painful, it’s repellent, it’s ridiculous, it’s exacting. I read that Yanighara wanted it to have the sense of things being ‘turned up’, and it is as if the volume is on too loud throughout.
The book begins with the friendship of four young men at college in America. A diverse, creative group, we learn their backgrounds and quirks and follow them into the working world. It’s upbeat, funny, energetic. The one exception to the group is the mysterious Jude – with a dark past, we’re sure, though quite what we don’t know. But when we begin finding out, the book turns. It takes a short while of getting irritated how little you’re being shown of the other characters before you realise that the ‘little life’ of the title is Jude’s life – in all its horror. We learn more about it oh-so-slowly, in between being shown the direction his older life takes – and his struggles to overcome the first fifteen years of his life.
Yanighara does – not- make – it – easy. Some passages I could barely read. There have been objections to the horrendous, drawn-out accounts of child abuse (which recalled me instantly, as it has other reviewers, to controversial 1990s “A Child Called It”) but I found the unflinching specifics of the self-harm that Jude depends on even worse. I’ve read that Yanighara had arguments with her editor about ‘how much the reader can stand’ – and she won, keeping Jude’s story intact. But – God. I’m on her editor’s side. It was too, too much. You resented the author for keeping piling it on and making you complicit in reading yet more horror. “I can’t bear it,” I muttered to myself throughout the book. “I can’t bear it.”
But I read on. For Yanighara does work to balance hysterically awful past with implausibly positive present – success, money, property, artistic acclaim, friends beyond the point of devotion – another element of the story’s “hyper-real” nature. Please don’t underestimate the sheer readability of this book. It’s an enormous, difficult, intriguing page turner that keeps you reading when you should be going to sleep. Quite why defies explanation – it’s a visceral thing. Yanighara reels you in, and you’re powerless to fight it.
I was adoring the book – its length, its intensity, its readability, its American-ness, took me straight back to Donna Tartt’s stunning The Goldfinch – but its challenging philosophy really starts to bite in the second half. Yanighara raises profound questions – Is it right to make someone live if they don’t want to? Can friendship and love save? Is profound trauma a one-way-sentence? Her answers are bleak, bleak, bleak.
Where is the hope, Yanagihara? I can’t bear it – and yet I couldn’t leave it. One of the most devastating things I’ve read.* It actually made me weep. This is what quality writing looks like.