As I understand it, a specter hangs over the literary world—the specter of The Great American Novel. Like the messiah (for Jews), The Great American Novel is something we have been waiting for for a long time, and, although there are plenty of prime candidates—anything written by Jonathan Franzen being perhaps the most oft-cited—it has been years since we last had a novel that captured the American zeitgeist in a profound way. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, I think, is worthy of the title. At the very least, it is a prime contender. (Warning: this piece contains spoilers.)
What this book is about is what makes a life worthwhile. The characters in the novel are, by and large, extraordinary individuals, but each of them has only their own little life, full of its own joys and terrors, highs and lows, friendships and failed relationships. Each of the four main characters goes on to be enormously successful in his respective field—Willem in acting, JB in painting, Malcolm in architecture, and Jude in law. (One critique of this book might be that it is only a portrait of success; there are no professional failures, which leads to a particularly rarified set of professional challenges. I am not making this critique, though; not all books have to speak to every little life.)
Is what makes life worthwhile based on professional success? Despite their elite educations, Jude and Willem do not seem to notice that they are successful, and even then it feels secondary to their other concerns. Malcolm is constantly worried that he will not be working at a prestigious enough firm, which causes him to turn down more appealing career opportunities. JB is the most tortured character when it comes to trying to let go of the seductive allure of success: his paintings are well-received, but somehow his colleagues have career retrospectives before he does. He is afraid of failing, but he is even more afraid of succeeding and then stagnating. There is a beautiful passage in which he describes how his friends’ careers are taking off beyond his, but leaving behind people he doesn’t fully recognize:
The thing he hadn’t realized about success was that success made people boring. Failure also made people boring, but in a different way: failing people were constantly striving for one thing—success. But successful people were also only striving to maintain their success. It was the difference between running and running in place, and although running was boring no matter what, at least the person running was moving, through different scenery and past different vistas. And yet here again, it seemed that Jude and Willem had something he didn’t, something that was protecting them from the suffocating ennui of being successful, from the tedium of waking up and realizing that you were a success and that every day you had to keep doing whatever it was that made you a success, because once you stopped, you were no longer a success, you were becoming a failure. (302)
Of the four main characters, Willem throughout is the least concerned about professional success or failure. He maintains the most earnest—perhaps childlike—attachment to a vision of worthiness that goes beyond any of the metrics that we normally associate with success. He seems happy to hold fast to the unadulterated belief that what matters most in his work is whether he is proud of it, not how audiences reacted or whether the critics gave it a thumbs up. He doesn’t seem to worry about having kids or leaving a legacy, even as his professional stature grows. All he cares about it is caring about others—a positive, pure, possibly naive vision that is either enviable or pitiable in a tragic world.
This all comes to a head in one of my favorite scenes, in which their extended group of friends is having dinner and arguing about whether their lives have meaning. Willem declares that he thinks his life is meaningful, and JB retorts that of course Willem thinks his life is meaningful because he is a successful actor and people from around the world will pay to see his work. The other friends pile on, teasing each other about how many critics enjoy their work, and thus make them feel important and worthwhile. But Willem, ever the ingenue, is on a different page.
“No,” Willem said, after they’d all stopped laughing. “I know my life’s meaningful because”—and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued—”because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The room became quiet, and for a few seconds, he [Jude] and Willem had looked had looked at each other across the table, and the rest of the people, the apartment itself, fell away: they were two people, on two chairs, and around them was nothingness. “To Willem,” he finally said, and raised his glass, and so did everyone else. “To Willem!” they all echoed, and Willem smiled back at him.
Jude, of course, is not convinced that his life is worthwhile—not because of success, but because of his own shame. Ultimately, despite what Willem, and Harold, and every other character tells him, he cannot be convinced. (In that way, he violates his one tenet of friendship—to trust your friends when they tell you something about yourself; more on friendship and relationships later.) But I read even more into that silence, the evaporation of all of the energy and joviality from the room in the moment indicates something larger. It is not just Jude that does not believe Willem; none of them truly believe Willem. No matter how much they all want to believe that what makes life meaningful is friendship, none of them except Willem truly believe. JB and the others still associate meaning with professional success; their first reaction when the topic of meaning arises is, of course, to point to professional accolades. And Jude’s mind is elsewhere, captured by the demons of his past. We all want to raise our glasses to Willem, a better man than the rest of us, but who among us would be able to look someone in the eye and say that meaning comes from the bonds of friendship, and nothing more?
This book is deeply tragic, and the core of this tragedy is that Willem’s beliefs—the beliefs of an optimist, of our better natures, of what we aspire to—are ultimately futile. We do not learn much of the internal lives of JB, Malcolm, or the extended friends toward the end of the book, but nothing indicates that they have channeled their self-worth into their friendship. (And even if they could do so, their belief in the power of friendship would certainly not be as pure as Willem’s.) Most importantly, no matter what his friends tell him, and no matter how good of a friend he is to others, Jude cannot come to believe that his life is worthwhile or meaningful. He tries, he comes close, but he is not convinced.
Does this book need to be so tragic? There is one moment of optimism in a book otherwise bereft of it, and the less gloomy part of me wishes the book ended at this moment, which comes at the end of the second-to-last section, a mere 20 pages before the book actually ends. If the book had been 20 pages shorter, and ended on this note, it would have been a different book: a tragic book, of course, but one whose tragedy is tempered by the perpetual presence of optimism in human nature. But this is not that book. It is instead a thoroughgoing tragedy through to the bitter end.
This moment is the one glimpse we have in which Jude possibly believes Willem, and possibly believes his life is meaningful. In the throes of his most violent depression, he visits Harold and Julia, his adoptive parents, and tries to drive them away. He acts out because he wants them to hate him, to push him away, so that he can confirm and fully realize the vision he has of himself of someone who is unworthy. But Harold and Julia refuse to play their assigned roles in his internal script; they love him unconditionally. They do not respond to his misbehavior with hate, but with love. He feels what it is like to be loved by people who can see past his behavior and love him at his core, and it upends him:
And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly and being forgiven, for the luxury of tendernesses, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent’s reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of his mistakes and hatefulness. (792)
He has realized that Harold and Julia, although not his biological parents, really are his parents, because they treat him like a parent treats their child. This changes Jude—temporarily. He imagines what it would be like to be a better person. He thinks about what his life would be like if it were different, and realizes that his little life has been the source of both incredible pain and incredible joy. If he hadn’t been abused his life would have been different; but if he hadn’t met Willem or Harold, it would be different as well. He realizes that he cannot change his life: “All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well” (794). And, for a moment, he commits himself to trying to make a commitment to being alive.
He does try, it seems—but he can’t keep it up. The final 20 pages are the descent from this momentary high as the will to live slips from his grasp. They are among the most devastating pages in a book full of devastating pages, because that moment of change, filled with optimism, was so close at hand. The forces overwhelm him, and Willem’s beautiful vision of meaning crumples in the reality of Jude’s life. Jude—and all of us—want to believe Willem’s perfect, innocent vision, but underneath it all there are few of us who can actually convince ourselves it is true. There is only tragedy.
One aspect I find notable about this book is the way that it blurs the lines of the most fundamental categories of how we understand our lives. The three categories whose lines I see blurred are: race, sexual orientation, and friendship. The last of these is slightly different, but I think it is of the same genus nonetheless.
We like to think that race and sexual orientation are two of the most essential and fundamental identity categories. Now, more than ever, these two identities are at the heart of the modern cultural zeitgeist. The diversification of authors in all genres means that more work focuses on the experiences of characters who fit into these various identity boxes, whose lives are inevitably channeled through the frameworks that come with the racialized and sexualized world in which we now live. After many generations of a dearth of multicultural writing—especially when it comes to works that aspire to being the Great American Novel—it is finally fashionable to focus on stories that highlight the experience of individuals within these categories who are forced to navigate the world of whiteness or straightness from the perspective of an outsider.
The characters in A Little Life include people of diverse races and sexual orientations, and in that sense it is a very contemporary story. Yet these identities are almost entirely irrelevant to the story. The only way they matter is in how they relate to their friendships—which often means that the characters are pushing back against the externally imposed categories that would otherwise separate them. JB and Malcolm are from relatively wealthy Black families; Willem is from a poor white family; and Jude is, from start to finish, racially ambiguous. Malcolm’s family is the wealthiest, but he has the most strained relationship with his overachieving father; JB is constantly showered in familial support, yet he feels guilty about it; Willem’s family has always been poor, and now they are all dead. Life transcends all of the normal tensions and category distinctions, and Yanagihara’s austere prose captures this perfectly:
JB would ask them when Malcolm was anxious about something, but he knew: he was worried because to be alive was to worry. Life was scary; it was unknowable. Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all—Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razors—sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days. (567)
Jude’s racial ambiguity—a point that is repeatedly emphasized in passing—epitomizes the ways in which racial dynamics exist in the background yet never really matter. It would be impossible to put the four friends in primarily racial categories, and to try to frame their existences and relationships through that lens, because Jude—the glue that holds them all together—does not fit into any category. He is neither Black nor white; and since he doesn’t know his parents, nobody can possibly tell him where he fits.
Nor, for that matter, is he gay or straight, because he is, for all intents and purposes, asexual for most of his lifetime between college and his forties. In the period in which most people are at their most sexually active, Jude has completely divorced himself from anything even remotely sexual. The friends constantly speculate on Jude’s sexuality, yet that, too, remains ambiguous. This sexual ambiguity—like its racial counterpart—is always present, but it is never essential. It is mostly a topic of superficial conversation rather than heart-to-heart discussions. It is more of a pat on the back than a genuine hug.
It is Willem, though, that fully elaborates the rejection of categories of sexual orientation. Willem is the playboy of the group, and he seems to have garnered a reputation for being in semi-serious relationships with a rotating cast of women. None of them ever work out. Ultimately, he decides that he is in love with Jude, and wants to be in a long-term romantic relationship with his best friend, a man, from whom he has long been inseparable.
Willem is in a committed relationship with a man, yet he refuses to say that he is gay. Willem does not want to say this, not because he is lying to himself, but because he isn’t gay. Or, at least, he doesn’t see his relationship with Jude in the categories of relatively fixed sexual attraction that make sexual minority status legible to the outside world—and thus make it more feasible for people to be able to put their self and others into a category that makes sense in binary terms. But while such an understanding might be essential to a teenager trying to come to terms with feelings that seem different than those of all of his friends and classmates, it seems suffocating to Willem. When a director and gay rights advocate asks him to publicly come out of the closet, Willem refuses. Yanagihara writes, “He wouldn’t come out, because he didn’t believe there was anything to come out of: he wasn’t gay.”
“Willem,” Max said, “you’re in a relationship, a serious relationship, with a man. That is the very definition of gay.”
“I’m not in a relationship with a man,” he said, hearing how absurd the words were. “I’m in a relationship with Jude.”
Perhaps, as Yanagihara goes on to suggest, the gay identity meant something much more essential to an earlier generation of people who were coming out in a society less accepting of homosexuality. Max, the director, “had come of age in a time when identity politics were your very identity, and he [Willem] understood Max’s…arguments.” But that time is past; Willem is not looking for some external framework to make sense of his relationship with Jude or of the boundary between friendly and romantic relations. Applying the stark, legible categories to the fluid and complex relationship he had with Jude would be to cheapen it. The beauty of it comes, in part, from the ambiguity of it. And Willem isn’t gay: he generally prefers to sleep with women, except for with Jude.
And Jude’s own sexual ambiguity flies even more directly in the face of how we have come to talk about sexual orientation and what we expect of people in our highly sexualized society. Everybody is supposed to want sex; yet, Jude, through sheer force of brainpower to deal with unspeakable tragedy, has shut down his whole sexual system. He knows that he is supposed to want sex, expected to enjoy sex with someone he loves, but he cannot do it. He has fenced himself off from sex because it has only been a source of tragedy for him. And what is his sexuality underneath all of this—assuming there is always something underneath all of it, something that must be discovered for him to be his “true” self? He simply doesn’t know. Jude tells Willem that he is unsure of who he is attracted to because he has never thought about sexual attraction as something to be discovered and embraced. For Jude, the equation is rudimentary: “He has always had sex with men, and so assumed he always would.” Whatever “truth” about himself that he might discover is buried under so many layers of fences and barricades that it is, for all intents and purposes, not a question that is worth answering.
I find this description of sex and sexuality extremely refreshing, and much more compelling than most narratives that try to make sense of the complexity of sexuality. There is no better way to explain the very simple idea that sexuality exists on a spectrum than to show the feelings that Willem has; and there is no better way to manifest the ways that sexual attraction is as much a product of our brains as our bodies than to observe how Jude semi-permanently shuts down all things sexual to avoid the traumas of his past. We all like to agree that sex is not a simple binary and that our experiences and mindset shape how we understand ourselves as sexual beings, yet rarely do we actually see the typical categories and boundaries of sex so elegantly and decisively disregarded.
It is here that the relationship between Willem and Jude further complicates our traditional definitions of friendship. Their relationship challenges the boundary between friendship and love; what, after all, is the difference? Early on in the novel, long before his relationship with Jude, Willem grapples with this in one of Yanagihara’s indelible descriptions of friendship:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return. (257)
We—and all of Willem’s myriad girlfriends—expect the romantic relationship, culminating in marriage, to supersede friendship. You stay friends for life, but your closest friends from college are just your friends from college; they should naturally shift from the center of your universe to the periphery as a more important relationship—a romantic partnership—squeezes everything else out. To want to have old friends be the central axis of your life is to be stuck in the past, refusing to acknowledge the present or the future.
But Willem rejects this. He does not want to have to push Jude to the sidelines; no woman can capture his attention like Jude does. So the boundaries blur. Where is the line between friendship and a romantic relationship—in terms of commitment, in terms of love, in terms of what it means to be a partner? The answer, ultimately, is that there does not need to be any distinction. The drawing of a hard and fast line between these two realms—friends on the left, lovers on the right—is just as much of an unhelpful categorization as putting people in racial or sexual boxes.
Take, for example, two mesmerizing passages—the first about friendship, the second about relationships. In the first, Jude is talking to a student he tutors who does not have friends; in the second, Willem is reflecting on relationships.
“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (240)
When he was in his thirties, he had looked at certain people’s relationships and asked the question that had (and continued to) fuel countless dinner-party conversations: What’s going on there? Now, though, as an almost-forty-eight-year-old, he saw people’s relationships as reflections of their keenest yet most inarticulate desires, their hopes and insecurities taking shape physically, in the form of another person. Now he looked at couples—in restaurants, on the street, at parties—and wondered: Why are you together? What did you identify as essential to you? What’s missing in you that you want someone else to provide? He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well. (643)
What Jude describes in the first quote is an encapsulation of what Willem describes in the second: recognizing the best of what another person has to offer and choosing to value it. Doing this requires, in turn, believing in what other people are choosing to value in you. No individual person will ever provide you with everything, which is why, hopefully, we have many friends. If a person wants to have a relationship—and get the benefits that come from that—he or she has to choose which elements of friendship are most important and prioritize them. There is no reason why sex has to be the most essential element of a relationship, friendly or otherwise; there are all kinds of other attributes that a person can offer, and that we can choose to value.
There are two criticisms I might lodge with this book. The first, which I discussed earlier, is the decision to end the book 20 pages too late. In those final 20 pages, the book slips back into the territory of unrestrained tragedy, eliminating any hope of redemption or optimism that might emerge. Although I find the description of Jude’s final descent into hopelessness utterly captivating, it still disappoints. It disappoints me as someone rooting for Jude’s embrace of his better impulses, and it disappoints me as a human being who believes that life, while mostly nasty, brutish, and short, still contains moments of possibility for optimism and redemption.
The second—the elephant in the room, of sorts—is about the graphic descriptions of Jude’s tormented past. It would not be an overstatement to say that A Little Life is the best novel I have read in years. It is also by far the most disturbing one. At every point in which we might think the worst of the trauma is in the rearview mirror, there is more, and worse. Yanagihara writes with a sort of detached beauty that makes the abuse even more bone-chilling. We know it is coming—we know the names of these figures that haunt him, so we know that we will eventually be told how they hurt Jude—yet when it arrives, it is always much more heartbreaking than we expect. That seems to be the nature of tragedy: even when it is inevitable, and when we are braced for impact, it still surprises us in how much it hurts.
Obviously, there is a purpose to all of this: since the whole story revolves around the lingering effects of the trauma on Jude and his inability to let go of the shame he has internalized, it makes sense to paint a full portrait of the depredations visited upon him as a child. It makes sense that Jude is as tormented as he is, that the visions that haunt him at night are rooted in a past that is even more horrifying than we could have ever imagined.
Yet, on the other hand, we know full well from the book—and from real life—that such acts of internalized shame do not require the most extreme horrors of human behavior. Jude’s difficulties are real and plausible even if he did not suffer at the hands of abusers again and again. On a personal level, I felt a deep sympathy with Jude’s struggles, although I have not experienced any of the horrors that Jude went through as a child—abuse, neglect, rape, violence, and more.
The way Jude feels when his fears and shames approach him like hyenas coming to feast—that is a feeling that I know all too well. Keeping yourself busy might keep these fears and shames at bay, but they are always lurking in the background, ready to sniff out moments of weakness or pain. I, like Jude, can often feel that I am a burden on others. No matter the actual situation, there exists a lingering feeling that the people around me will come to judge me in the way that I sometimes judge myself—just as Jude is always preparing for the moment when the people around him will see him as he sees himself—which is, at best, as a burden, and, at worst, as something indelibly shameful.
Part of why I loved this book is that Yanagihara captures this self-understanding so well. From the outside, it doesn’t make sense. Jude is intelligent enough to identify the obvious gap between his perception of himself and that of all of his friends. It cannot possibly be the case that all of his friends and mentors are just being nice to him as a case of pity charity. When they tell him that they love and respect him, that they appreciate him for all of his great qualities, that to spend time with him is a joy and not a burden—all of that makes logical sense, and he understands that. Why can’t he just believe them, for heaven’s sake?
Yet the irrational side—the fears, the shame, the judgment—is a challenging adversary to ordinary logic and simple explanations. It doesn’t matter how many times I think that, when all of the people who occupy my world tell me that I am worthy of their love and friendship, I should embrace Jude’s explanation of friendship and trust that they are telling me the truth. It doesn’t matter how much unrequited love Jude’s friends and family give to him, or how much he says he believes them. These doubts are operating on a level of feeling, not thinking, and no amount of thinking or rationalizing that Jude can do can lead him to actually believe what is so evident to anyone else. I do not know how common this is, but based on the sheer number of psychology-adjacent podcasts out there talking about similar issues, it seems that Jude is far from alone in grappling with such demons. It is precisely because such demons are not operating on the level of rationality that they can haunt anyone, regardless of the amount of trauma at their source.
I think Yanagihara writes beautifully, and there is some value in detailing the experiences that have come to haunt Jude. The descriptions of Jude’s childhood are works of art in their own right, no matter how troubling they are. But if my own experience (or that of the infinite number of podcasts) is any guide, we do not need this to understand the depth of Jude’s feelings. His self-perception is more than justified even without his tragic past. In that sense, some of the descriptions of trauma feel gratuitous and excessive. Yet when Yanagihara writes with such clarity and precision, and with such insight into the contemporary (elite) American condition, how could I possibly ask for fewer pages to read?