The books I read have a tendency to focus on clips from characters lives. Significant turning points that have a before and after that I don’t get to hear about because it’s not always relevant to the story of the Significant Point. I assume there’s more. With every book I’m left with at least one, “Well, what next?” A curiosity that, unless it’s a series, won’t be satisfied because it’s not really pertinent to the Significant Point. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara zooms out. It’s not about the one turning point in a person’s life, it’s about the collection of turning points, decisions, butterfly effect moments, and the day to day habits that accumulate into an entire life.
I got a fourth of the way through this book and felt like I had read an entire story, start to finish, and was emotionally drained. Then I set it down and realized that I was no where near the end of this particular “Little Life”. The story follows four friends that have all just finished school and moved to New York. It starts with all the angst and drama that comes with being in the trying phase of life. Willem is a waiter trying to be an actor, Malcolm is trying to be, well technically an architect but you get the distinct impression that he’ll settle for anything as long as he can BE it, JB is trying to be an artist, and Jude is trying to be a lawyer, although an argument could be made that he’s trying to be “normal” and pretty much has the lawyer thing locked down. At the beginning the stories fit this stage of life. Every little slight is big drama, corners are sharp, light is blinding, darkness envelops, and saying you won’t talk to some ever again is a threat that no one truly understands because the end of forever is too far away to see.
As they get older corners soften and friends fall away. The story looses sight of Malcom and JB focusing mostly on Jude, you get the sense we hear about Willem only because of Jude, as most of his time and thought is spent on Jude and Jude’s well being. Not that that isn’t justified, because, as we slowly learn, Jude has had some truly horrendous things happen to him in his childhood. This is where the story lost me a little. It was heart wrenching to learn about Jude’s past and see the effect it was still having on him despite his success in both his professional and his personal life. What bugged me is Jude just never caught a break. Ever. Even when he was happy he had a nagging feeling that he didn’t deserve the happiness because of how incredibly messed up his childhood was. As we learned more and more about his childhood it felt like Hanya Yanagihara had read ten different articles on various ways to abuse and ruin children then combined them all into one poor characters past.
I was enthralled, in a horrified and teary way, with Jude’s history at the same time as I was distancing myself from the idea that it’s even possible. I am very aware that children are abused and treated poorly. The things described are not out of the realm of possibility, but I kept coming back to, “How can THIS much be happening to just one person?” I can’t decide if that’s willful ignorance or if I’m being realistic. The piling on of terribleness was exhausting. I oscillated between feeling so sad for present day Jude that he went through such horrible things and they were blinding him to his own value and greatness, and feeling a little annoyed that he was perpetuating his pain by not doing what his friends and doctor were telling him to do.
Through it all, whether I was suspending disbelief or feeling skeptical, I was always emotionally invested. The story, while sometimes frustrating, was captivating. In the moment of reading I was swept up in the current problems, joys (it wasn’t ALL doom and gloom…but there was a lot of doom and gloom), and dramas, but as the characters grew, their stories got more packed with things that used to matter. This is, I think, accurate to life. I suspect as we get older we’ll find the drama of our past that felt so significant at the time becomes just another point. Looking back there will be too many significant points for each of them to maintain their value of significance but put together they’ll create A Little Life.