Imagine a cloudless sky. Black out the sun: now it is night, completely dark. Allow your eye to follow a line across the sky. Now revel in the single point of light that appears as your eye moves. Revel in the next one and the next one and the next, these small, bright dots in a vast endless black, until you get to the end.
That trip across the sky — putting up with a bunch of black so you can see the stars — is a metaphor for life, at least according to Hanya Yanagihara’s latest epic, A Little Life. But here’s the thing about Hanya Yanagihara’s latest epic, A Little Life: it’s a little too black. But, man oh man, are the stars bright!
The book plays coy at first: as you read through the first section’s alternating third-person limited points of view, you believe this book is about four friends — Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude. But that first section ends in just a few dozen pages, and the book sloughs off the pretense: this book is about Jude and only Jude. So let’s talk about Jude.
I hate to go superlative here, but Jude is potentially the most well-developed, fully formed, pitiable, endearing, scarred, scarring, frustrating, mysterious, amazing character I’ve met in all of fiction — and certainly in real life. The book moves chronologically, starting with his years in college, and fills in his childhood through flashbacks, confessions, and nightmares. By the end, you know Jude, everything about him. I imagine Ms. Yanagihara must have a massive Excel spreadsheet somewhere, listing every day of Jude’s life, every event, every moment, no matter how small: “June 16th, 2 AM: Goes pee. Sneezes on the way out. Trips on a shoe.” That sort of thing.
I would be remiss if I neglect to mention the other characters you’ll meet as you read — Willem, the impossibly handsome, heterosexual male that begins as a chef and turns into an actor; Malcolm, the nervous, biracial architect; and JB, the gay black painter with the loud personality. There are others, too: Andy, Jude’s doctor; Harold, one of Jude’s professors, and Julia, Harold’s wife; and Richard, Willem’s friend and, later, Jude’s neighbor. Technically, these are secondary characters, but they burst off the page like a 3D pop-up book. We may not see as much of them in the novel, but I have no doubt that they have little lives of their own, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Ms. Yanagihara knows when they sneeze and trip and pee, too.
Ultimately, though, the key to these amazing characters is not knowing what they did and when they did it; after all, events are actions, externals, outsides. The key is the breathtaking grasp of what’s inside that Ms. Yanagihara has — and the gift she has for conveying that inside to us. People, as you may know, are complicated, contradictory clusterfucks of wants and needs and thoughts and fears and urges and habits and tics and tendencies. Characters are so often simplified in novels because it’s too difficult to convey true complexity, the push and pull of conflicting emotions and pressures and everything else. Complex personalities — the very thing that makes people people — get watered down for readers the same way quantum mechanics does for Chemistry 101 students. But not Ms. Yanagihara’s characters. Not Jude, not Willem, not Harold or Julia or even Richard. If Ms. Yanagihara taught Chemistry 101, she’d tell you all about eigenstates and bosons and fermions in that first lecture… and you’d understand it all, too.
But wait! She’s not good at just characters! That same detailed, nuanced treatment of the inner workings of her characters’ minds is applied to their surroundings and the events that happen to them. At one point, Jude is remembering one of his first crappy apartments years after he lived there, and we see “walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers.” Think about that for a second. It’s not exactly a pleasant thought — bugs, ew! — but think of the minuteness, the attention to detail, the vision (literally and figuratively) it takes to see something like that… and now imagine an entire novel, a complete life depicted with that specificity. It’s indescribable — which is probably why my writing is floundering so badly in this review.
But I digress. My point — and I am getting to it, I promise! — is that this book is the closest thing to the spontaneous creation of life as you’re going to get. You could almost call it an immaculate conception, if you weren’t afraid of getting struck down from on high for blasphemy. The farther I read, the harder time I had believing that this was fiction, that Jude and Willem weren’t real people that I knew, personally. And I don’t mean to imply that I felt as if I were reading a memoir — oh, no. I forgot I was reading at all. It’s been nearly a week since I finished, and I still think about them every night. I had trouble sleeping the first few nights after I finished, because I missed them. And if I’m being brutally honest, I still miss them.
So far, I’ve been pretty laudatory, I think, but there are problems with the book, though they are few and far between. Some of them — probably all of them — may be due in part to my own laziness as a reader, forgetting details and taking too long to finish the novel. (It took me almost a month to read, and I often felt that my piece-meal reading was doing a disservice to the book, that I should cloister myself in a faraway cave for a week and not leave until I finished. Clearly I never did.) Most of my gripes have to do with the sheer breadth of the book — it’s huge, 720 pages packed with small print — and it was easy to get lost in the chronologies and flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Same goes for the dozens of tertiary characters that flit through the pages so fast they barely register — until a hundred pages later, when someone recites a litany of best friends or attendees and you only recognize about three of them. (I still can’t figure out who Phaedra is.) But these problems are so small, so insignificant compared to the beauty of the writing and the power of the characters that I shouldn’t have even mentioned them. Plus, once I get my hands on those Excel spreadsheets locked away in Ms. Yanagihara’s computers, I won’t have this problem anymore!
I’m almost done, I promise. You may have noticed that I’ve shied away so far from any real details about the plot. What, you may be asking, is this book about? I can’t say, because so much of the book’s power comes from the surprises and reveals as you read. I will, however, give you a warning: this book is not easy to read. Bad things happen to good people in real life, and bad things happen to good people in this book, too. It is not a spoiler, I think, to say that Jude had a scarring childhood at the hands of the people in his life, and the passages that chronicle that time were so hard I had to read a little, put it down, pick it up, read a little, put it down, pick it up — which, coincidentally enough, two characters in the novel have to do near the end of the book while reading one of Jude’s confessional letters. Perhaps even more difficult than the events themselves, though, are the consequences of those events, seeing how that trauma affects Jude as he tries to live his life. He is just a character in a novel, and I have never wanted to help someone so badly, smack someone upside the head so badly, tell someone to just do it already! (in more ways than one) so badly as I have while reading this book. If I’m being frank — and when I’m not being Matt, I’m always being Frank — there were several times I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish the novel, several nights I couldn’t sleep because what I’d read had worked me up so strongly. Several twists at the end made me so angry and so devastated that I wondered if I’d ever be able to read again, ever be able to trust an author again. I wondered: Is this too much? Has she gone too far? Is every man from Montana to Philadelphia really a pedophile? Was this worth it? But I finished the book, I made it through all that dark — and let me tell you, those last few twists are pretty damn dark — and I decided: yes. Yes, it was.They say you only get one life to live… but now I can say I’ve lived two. So thanks for that, Hanya. But let me make one request: For the next one, can you do everything you did here — the beautiful prose, the touching romance, the breathtaking characters — but make it a little brighter, okay? And for God’s sake, none of those last-minute twists!!!