Claudia Putnam's Reviews > A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, literary-fiction

So much things to say about this one, and I've probably already forgotten half of them. FINALLY, a book about men that really illuminates relationships among men. Written by a woman, but I'll take it. So tired of books that purport to be about the Way Men Are, but don't unlock the door.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get why so many people are upset/frustrated/furious with or at this book or with or at awards committees. It's not a pretty read and it's borderline hyperbolic. And the NYT person, what a whiner--WHERE'S 9/11??? she wanted to know (I think it was a she--too lazy to go look it up again), what is this, ALLEGORY??? Well, yes, chides The Guardian, and all the better for it. (I have yet to read a 9/11 novel in which NYers have not incorporated the disaster into their list of things to be self-absorbed about, so I couldn't see how adding 9/11 would help the story in any way). As Yanagihara says in a Guardian interview, she wanted to keep everything highly tuned--perhaps a bit improbable, but always possible.

I'm giving it 5 stars because I can't stop thinking about it. Which is what I like fiction to do for me.

So, when I first learned of the book and saw a few stray lines of review passing through my GR feed, I thought, ah, so Jude the Obscure redux. I loved Jude the O, but had never wanted to read it again (had read it twice while younger). Hardy's view of fate unfortunately tends to raise up doubts in my own faith in the universe and I can get fairly depressed after reading any of his books, much as I admire his writing. Still I was curious about A Little Life. This was before I even realized that the main character actually IS called Jude.

However, every single review I've read so far, whether here on GR or in the larger world, ie, The NYer, the NYT, and The Guardian, has failed to mention Hardy. Even the interview with Yanagihara does not refer to J the O. Strange. Well, I still maintain that A Little Life works off of and depends on Hardy, whether HY did this on purpose or ever even read J the O or not--some classics are just in the air after a certain point.

Hardy's concern is whether strong, independently minded individuals can overcome economic circumstances, social mores, and religious norms so entrenched that even nonbelievers find their brains are wired to them.

HY inverts the examination to study whether a brilliant but extremely traumatized individual who lives in America during a time of relatively easy access to education and culture, and during a time where atheism also has more cultural support, when an individual of no economic means but through intellectual talent who CAN attend what is essentially Christminster in America--HY's question is, now that all this external gobbledygook has been removed, can an individual overcome his personal circumstances? With Hardy, it was the external circumstances that broke the individuals. With Yanagihara, it is the internal circumstances that break her Jude. Jude Fawley dies because the world does not fit *him*. Jude St. Francis (SPOILER) by contrast because he cannot fit the world. There is no question that although neither Jude is at fault and both are victims (and both have stubbornnesses, miss opportunities, and make silly decisions that make their lives harder), Hardy's characters are the nobler.

I am not at all saying I loved every moment of A Little Life, though it surely had me engrossed. I often wanted to throw it across the room and would have done so several times had I not been reading it on a device. I thought the friends' accident near the end was heavy-handed. How many of our friends and lovers really die in car accidents (this is a beef I have with literature in general...so many people seem to lose, for example, both parents in car wrecks. And yet I personally know NO ONE who has lost both parents this way. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, only that it doesn't happen with the statistical frequency it seems to occur in books and on TV...and for the record in case you're worried, it's not parents who die here). Though I know one and maybe both of these characters had to die or at least dramatically withdraw from Jude's life in order for the final screws to be placed, just as Jude the O (and Sue particularly) needed to lose those children. Still, I might have preferred a car accident for Malcolm and a stroke or a heart attack for the other character. Or a fluke allergic reaction. There was something totally graceless in the particular way they died. But as the Guardian noted, there were a lot of clunky moments in the writing. Yanagihara is more of a thinker's writer than a writer's writer.

There were a couple of elements I wished had been thought through a little better, too. I didn't feel the therapy parts were well done. For instance, Willem didn't have a very good therapist. Willem might have have, through his own work in therapy, been able to help Jude a lot more. HIS therapist might certainly have been able to guide him better, and it seemed to me that Willem had some kind of stereotypical useless therapist that reflected the author's extremely poor understanding of how therapy works.... she seemed to have a very narrow grasp of the range of therapeutic options available. A little more research would have gone a long way. Also, while I understood she wanted to push things hard and make Jude very resistant to abandoning his pathology and taking any responsibility for healing, the part where Jude is committed after his suicide attempt was not credible. I didn't for one second believe that the psychiatrist at the facility would allow his visits with Jude to be continually interrupted by visitors, would not push Jude much harder, would not require Andy to release his records, would not place him on meds, would not release him without a much firmer protocol and required checkins. All of these people, including the psychiatrist Jude does see for a while, are liable for malpractice. They would take much firmer steps.

Here is a very simple question Jude could have been asked. Do you see that little 6 year old kid over there on the playground? Imagine he steals a box of crackers. Do you think he should be beaten for that? Does he deserve a beating for that? Do you you think he should be raped? If he's raped, does that make him dirty? Does that make him a whore? Any decent therapist should have walked Jude through those questions again and again with a particular child in his sight.

Because this is where the premise of the novel breaks down. We don't actually KNOW if ,Jude couldn't overcome his trauma, because the appropriate measures were never taken. Hypnotherapy (which does not involve actual hypnosis, but a relaxed state in which a person inserts his adult awareness in between his child self and the traumatizer and speaks up for himself, with an adult perspective, as no adult ever did), for instance, was never tried. Hakomi therapy, which specializes in trauma, was never tried. Gestalt therapy was never tried. EMDR, which is considered a results-based therapy and therefore is covered by all insurances, including Medicare, was never tried. What EMDR does, among other things, is to help people relive trauma in a safe environment, where they can escape the memory at every time. What often happens is that they see that in cordoning off the memory they've often cordoned off other, helpful things, like evidence that they weren't entirely to blame, or that they did this or that other good thing at the time.

Another reason it all failed was because everyone involved was male. Men and their holy right to privacy. Everyone loved Jude and everyone felt protective of him in many ways, including of his desire to keep certain things deeply private. That's a thing with men, right? So, everyone only went so far, even those who were inclined to go deeper and should have. I was trying to think what might have happened if this were about Judith instead, and if all those roommates were female. I am not sure the outcome would have been better. There might have been different consequences, some of them quite ugly, if a Judith had confided in some friends, say, and in not others, or had confided in the wrong person. An entirely different novel. I think a Judith would also have carried a very deep sense of having been soiled to the core. I don't know if it's true, as HY said in the Guardian interview, that all women are prepared on some level for rape or at least some sexual intrusion and therefore can cope better. I do agree that most women are sexualized in some way before we are ready to be. But for men, the sexual violation--well, who am I to say what that's like. But I think the skating around it isolated Jude much more deeply than it would have isolated a woman among her friends.

Yet. I just would have thought that after the suicide attempt, one of the conditions of Jude's release from the hospital would have been get thee to a support group for molestees of priests. I mean, it's odd that there's never a mention of the news headlines ever once in the book. It never seems to dawn on Jude or at least Willem that Jude is not the only one. You don't have to talk at these groups, but it wouldn't have hurt that he listen.

I also wondered how Jude felt in, say the Alhambra or other sacred places he visited. Was it only a sense of beauty, or was there any remnant of the reverence he must have felt as a child before the sexual abuse began. Almost all young Catholic children feel a sense of the numinous at first. It must have been even more pronounced in a monastery. Some of his sadness and grief must stem from the destruction of that beauty/belief. It is sad that so few American novelists want to take that on today. The Alhambra is art and architecture and history? Really? It seems like HY is dancing around that with the Camino part, but no one wants to say what's missing when all these rich successful artists go off on all their spiritual trophy hunts.

I am not dinging HY for these failings in the book, because all of them gave me so much to think about. It was the same with Hardy. Jude the O MIGHT have attained Christminster (unlikely, but) if he hadn't been so silly with Arabella, and Sue was just neurotic, IMO about the marriage thing. But there you have it. It's these character peculiarities that make a novel. In insisting on duplicity with Brother Luke so as not to have been a victim, Jude St. Francis seals his victimhood, and fails to survive. He attaches, finally, not to his friends who love him, but to his pathology. Which is what so many of us do.

The question HY seemed most concerned with in the Guardian interview (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015...) --which was whether we should let friends who seem to be in intractable pain commit suicide--did not interest me or even seem to be raised by the novel, in my view. Instead I saw it as a story of missed opportunities driven by blind spots, which is the definition of a tragedy. We can't say for sure whether Jude's psychic pain was intractable. I think there was a way out of that, or at least a way for it not to define his life. I think there almost always is. I think he chose for it to define him, but only because he was unaware of other choices--unaware of what those choices might feel like. So, he made an uninformed choice. Are such choices freely made?

I'm reminded of the woman in Peter Kramer's Against Depression, who told him after she'd experienced Prozac that for all those years when he'd been her therapist and he'd been trying to support her, saying things like "you must be feeling awful right now," that he'd been sleeping with the enemy. She said all along she'd been POSSESSED by this demon-like force, this depression. Once on medication she saw that her REAL self was this un-depressed person. She was furious with Kramer for having allowed the other state of affairs to have gone on for so long, for having in any way have validated the depression as having been real.

So, was Jude's traumatized self actually real, or was it a state of affairs inflicted on him by evil people with evil agendas? Who might he have been without them, and is that potential self actually more real? Why shouldn't THAT self be considered at least as real? Jude, as we knew him in the novel, was never a survivor, but a victim. He had not survived but had endured. A survivor would have been someone who could remember his past but embrace those who loved him and feel they were worth living for and with. A survivor would have a sense of self, an I-ness, that was not defined by work, by friends, by damage, by pain. It would be a sense of an I looking out through his eyes independent of events. Jude, for all his immense strength, was not willing to grow into such a self. He did not find out who that self was, so he could not freely choose to become it.

So the question of whether it's possible to survive such an extreme background remains unanswered. Jude missed his opportunities, which actually, were quite rich given what happened to him--how many people with such a background happen to get into one of the most prestigious schools in the country, are befriended by privileged, loving, talented people, are adopted as adults by rich and successful couples, are supported by colleagues and friends of friends to such an extent, have a successful orthopod who sees him privately on his own time for free, etc? --and at a certain point he no longer had the strength. Any of us can run out of such strength, as willpower is not an infinite resource in anyone (see Willpower, by Baumeister and Tierney). And his friends missed many opportunities to help him, given their commitment to protecting male privacy.

As for whether we should let people in such extreme cases of existential suffering go... if it was Yanagihara's hope to suggest that we should, I'm not convinced. I'd say quit giving them so much privacy, for one thing. I'd say use more therapy modalities. I'd say stop being so male. I'd say the big brother program needs you, Jude.

And by stop being so male, what I mean is stop lying. Jude lies and lies and lies about his intentions and his real condition to everyone around him. This is a male thing, isn't it? A friend described a recent marriage counseling session in which her husband, who had awakened at 1 AM every morning for a month, when asked by the therapist how he was sleeping, looked her in the eye and said, Great! Straight out lie. He didn't even THINK about it, just reflexively lied. Interestingly, my friend instinctively *protected his precious male privacy* and called him out afterwards, not in the therapy session itself. I could assemble other anecdotes, but we all know what I mean. Stop it so we can get somewhere. My friend's husband needs some sleep so she can live with him, if for no other reason. It needs to come up in therapy so they can address the affect it's having. Anyway, if these guys wouldn't lie, half of them wouldn't wind up painting themselves into corners where they commit suicide.

But anyway, as Harold says, the tragedy wasn't what happened to Jude in the end, it was what he persisted in believing. So that's why you don't let go. You keep trying to help them see.
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Reading Progress

September 15, 2015 – Shelved
September 15, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
November 29, 2015 – Started Reading
December 12, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites
December 12, 2015 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
December 12, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Holly (new)

Holly I'm still not ready to have the A Little Life reading experience. But if and when, I will come back and read this review again carefully.


Claudia Putnam Thanks.


message 3: by c2 (new) - rated it 3 stars

c2 cole I'm still trying to formulate a response but I do believe I agree with Glenn Sumi's negative points in a review below and those points overwhelmed most of the positive. It seems to me that many books that purport to be about friendship end up being about relationships that involve sex/romance, and although the hint of that may always be present in friendships, to me true friendships normally don't encompass either, which isn't to say that a past relationship with sex or romance can't end up as a friendship. So for me a disappointment with the story was the drive toward the sexual and romance and away from friendship. The other two friends at some point seem almost an afterthought and not really part of the relationship. Of course this might reflect Millennial values and not those of generations prior.


Claudia Putnam interesting point. but I didn't think was about friendship or romance particularly. it was about whether various forms of affirmation, including financial and professional success, creative engagement (music, math), and deep personal relationships--friendship, love, parental love--could counter and redefine a sense of self developed in the first 15 years of life. traumatic life.


message 5: by c2 (new) - rated it 3 stars

c2 cole Yes, I think if looked at as a story of one man, the reading is different. I do think most of the summaries and reviews I read led one to believe it was about four friends. If read as one man's struggle, it is a little more interesting but the over the top elements still apply. Even as one man's struggle to overcome his childhood abuse, I find it less than satisfying, because so many things were given to him--the doctor, the scholarship, the friends, the great abilities, the job, the wealth, the eventual lover in the guise of the most handsome man on earth, etc.


Claudia Putnam Right.


Claudia Putnam Huh. Did GR just change the font?


message 8: by Len (new) - rated it 5 stars

Len Joy Very impressive review, Claudia.

In your opening you write:

"FINALLY, a book about men that really illuminates relationships among men. Written by a woman, but I'll take it. So tired of books that purport to be about the Way Men Are, but don't unlock the door. "

I have no reason to doubt that Yanighara has unlocked A door that illuminates relationships among men like those in her novel; I found the relationships / friendships very unusual. Certainly not something I would say is a universal experience.

I found the evolution of the friendship of Jude and Willem from friends to lovers hard to believe. Also the unbelievable devotion of his Dr. friend Andy - but that perhaps reflects my jaded experience with the doctor-patient relationship.

I think the novel book jacket blurbs where this novel is set up to be about four friends moving to NYC - is extremely misleading. It is 85% about Jude 12% about Willem; Malcolm and JB and the rest of the crew are just supporting characters. Other than JB, and Jude's adopted father, none of the characters other than Jude and Willem are really vividly portrayed.


message 9: by c2 (new) - rated it 3 stars

c2 cole Len, so glad to read your comments as the book didn't seem to be primarily about male friendships at all. I also thought some of the relationships pretty implausible.


Claudia Putnam Hi... I can't remember exactly why I thought this about men. I agree that the book was mainly about Jude, and believe that I made this clear in my review. I think that this was the point of contention between us earlier, right, C2? I said that the book was an inquiry into overcoming trauma, and an exploration of whether it might not be impossible to do so in some cases.

I think, regarding men, it was about the sacred silences around What Men Go Through. And the added damage those silences cause. Maybe. I can't remember exactly. :\ Also, the harboring, the endless nursing of the wound, which is the case with every fallen hero, ever, it seems. The cuckold, the athlete with the blown knee, the vet, the defeated politician, etc. The failure/blow becomes more defining than the triumph or the near-victory or the other successes. This magnification of the damage to the ego, which is no doubt worse for everyone, male or female, if it happens early in life, seems incredibly male to me.

So I suppose this could be what I meant, or part of it.


message 11: by c2 (new) - rated it 3 stars

c2 cole Claudia, rereading all this, it looks to me like I agreed with your points IF one thought of the book being about Jude, but I was mislead into thinking it was about friendship and I was reading it looking for that, but since it was a year ago, I'm lucky I remember the title of ANYTHING about it!!!


message 12: by Len (new) - rated it 5 stars

Len Joy Claudia - makes sense to me. I sometimes can't remember details of a book two weeks after I read it, so the fact that you are able to do so a year later is a good indication of your recall and the book's impact.


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