A Little Life – by Hanya Yanagihara
When a book like A Little Life comes into my life, I stop and think about how incredible it is that people in this world have the capacity to write so masterfully and so engagingly. It’s a hard task to be able to draw readers in; identify with the characters, connect with them, even love them, especially when the topic is so disturbingly uncomfortable.
How did Haya Yanagihara do it? She wrote a piece of psychosocial human history—although you or I may not have lived the happenings of Jude’s life, his is a story that touches us all. A Little Life tells the tale of each one of us, in a world where connections are increasingly difficult to make and loving and being loved is growing ever more intangible.
Here’s what I mean:
Feeling connected to our friends and family doesn’t simply come from spending time with one another. A true connection is built on communicating, getting to know each other on a deep level, sharing our stories and understanding the context and effects thereof. Having said that, unfortunately, most people today are disengaged; disconnected from each other. We have friends, and we share our lives with them, but very few people, take the time to really get to know their friends. Ok, that sounds severely depressing. What I mean is we think we know our friends and our family, but there is so much in each one of our lives that remains outside of conversation, we can hardly say we know our friends as intimately as we could. Can you say for certain that you know your friends’ stories? Their whole story? Everything?
We all have that moment in our lives that we can say is the starting point of what shapes us; a defining moment. Can you say you know yours? Do you know your friends’? More than that, I think, is how a person is affected by his life’s happenings? So you can define your moment, but how have the successive moments shaped you? Have they made that defining moment even more emphatic? Or dulled it, so perhaps you might have a second defining moment?
It’s so hard to get to know each other, so much stands in the way—fear of how you will be judged, or rejected, or unrequited. Whatever the case may be, there is probably something, if not a lot of things, that remain untold in your life’s story…
That’s the beauty of literature. A story like A Little Life gives readers a chance to truly get to know people. From beginning to end, unbridled. You may be getting to know characters in a book, but they are created by the pen that wrote them. Once they were drawn into the pages of the story, they exist. A reader is then capable of forming a genuine connection with these characters, and with unlimited access into their world, you can really get to know how their minds work and what makes them who they are. Once you’ve read A Little Life, you will know Jude: the happenings of his life, the way thinks, how he feels and the affected, infected, lonely man he was. You can anticipate how something or someone might make him feel and you can share in his anxiety, pain, joy or whatever else he may be feeling.
Given a full-access pass to the inner workings of this man’s life offered me way more than a simple narrative in a 1000-page novel, my eyes opened to the people around me; I listened to them with the same intensity with which I read the book. I became so engrossed in the novel and the characters (mainly Jude) that it informed my way of thinking and looking at the world. The grey, gloomy and disturbing feeling that coloured the story was the same feeling I walked around with—the true sign of a successful novel. I remember feeling so consumed with anxiety and depression while reading Crime and Punishment, I knew without a doubt why the novel was a classic and would remain relevant across time and space. Same can be said for A Little Life.
An author who is able to not just draw, but grab a reader and take over his mind and body so wholly… there are just so few who can do so masterfully, and Yanagihara stands among them. A Little Life tells the story of one man who lives such a horrific life, I found myself bothered by how obsessed I was with the reading thereof. I questioned my motivation for wanting to know more when I could barely handle what was in front of me. My chin quivered, my heart ached, my stomach turned, I was morally stunned and emotionally drained. I felt compassion and sympathy for Jude at all times, but I also felt pity and sadness for him. I was even guilty of questioning whether Jude’s was a life worth living.
There are people in my life, in our lives, who have lived moments akin to Jude’s (not all of what he lived through, but bits and pieces) and we don’t know their stories… but they are all around us. That’s what brings me back to how lucky I think we all are to have literature. Literature allows us to share the depths of our thoughts with each other, covered up in textured stories told through invented characters—but impossible they are not. Although they remain creations of our minds, their stories are delimited by human experience. In some ways we’ve all lived Jude’s story. It’s scary, but true.
The way Jude’s story unfolds is unique, but while I was reading it, I felt I identified with so many moments. I connected with him so entirely, especially in his loneliness. He went through so many atrocities and although he was a brilliant man with close friends and an incredible and supportive lover, his life was tragic; solitude was his life sentence. No amount of love and connectivity would undo that for him. I felt that Yanagihara depicted this loneliness without ever having to speak it. He was both ashamed of his past and defined by it. Because of what he went through as a child and young man, his life was forever defined physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. He was irreversibly psychologically whipped and battered beyond repair… And I just sat there reading and reading and reading, incapable of putting the book down. Why did I need to read his story so intensely? Why did I hang onto every word? What is wrong with me that this is the book that grips me so intimately?
I think the answer for so many of us who have read this book, and for those who will hopefully go on to read it, is that it connected me to someone. Connected me to Jude in a way I can’t connect to people in the real world, because we shelter and guard ourselves from true intimacy. That is the beauty of a good piece of literature. Human connection. Ironic, but true.