Scar tissue: Is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara more than the sum of its parts?

Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted novel explores abuse but sheds little new light on her subject.

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Not quite a third of the way into A Little Life, one of this year’s most divisive novels and hotly tipped to win the Man Booker Prize, Jude St Francis is given a present by Harold Stein, once his law professor and now his great friend and protector. It’s a “small leather box, about the size of a baseball”, ­inside which is a watch that has until that moment belonged to Harold and, before that, to his father, changing hands when Harold turned 30. Harold might have given it to his own son but he died of a rare and horribly painful illness that incrementally robbed him of his faculties when he was a small child. Now, Harold is adopting Jude, who is himself 30, “so at least I haven’t messed up the symmetry of this”. But it is asymmetry and suffering that are A Little Life’s main tropes.

Such an overtly meaningful gift might throw anyone off course and Jude’s reaction is not an especially odd one: “He runs his thumbtip lightly over the initials. ‘I can’t accept this, Harold,’ he says, finally.” But that moment seemed to me a synecdoche of the book. It proceeds by the drip-drip distillation of intense emotion but it also veers dangerously into cliché. Does anyone ever actually say the words “I can’t accept this” in such circumstances? Or, rather, anyone who has ever seen a film?

But A Little Life’s central characters – Jude St Francis, the mysterious, infinitely damaged protagonist whose horrific past is gradually unfurled over the course of decades; his friends Willem, Malcolm, JB and Harold, along with various satellite figures – are not much given to self-consciousness. They think about their lives a great deal and about each other’s but there is something curiously inert about their mental processes. They are ruminative rather than reflective, resistant to contextualisation or, indeed, irony.

This might explain something of the extraordinary response that has greeted the book, which ranges from the short but highly emotional (for months before it was published, early readers swapped updates on social media about its immense impact, the weeping fits and sleepless nights it provoked) to the respectful but slightly bewildered (how does the novel manage to mesmerise its readers so?) to the more sceptical view, which deems its extensive and repetitive detailing of child sexual abuse and its aftermath, mainly expressed in Jude’s adult practice of serious self-harm, as voyeuristic and manipulative.

It is quite possible to read A Little Life and find that all of the above apply. The problem is not what the novel makes you feel but what it makes you think. In my case, I felt engaged, compelled to read further, caught up in something; I also felt dismay, disbelief, pity, horror. But at the end of 736 pages, many of which I suspect could have been edited out without compromising the novel’s directness or its power, my thoughts revolved around the creation and prosecution of the novel, why Yanagihara had written it in the way that she had.

I didn’t think anything very different about child abuse or about self-harm, about the irredeemable nature of suffering and the impossibility of erasing it. I thought as I had done previously: that the trauma of sexual abuse is deepened and lengthened by the insidious way in which abusers can make victims feel that they have been somehow complicit; that the existence of sympathetic and caring listeners does not guarantee that a victim will be able to voice their experiences, or that doing so will bring them significant relief; and that self-harm, carried out in search of some kind of psychic release, however temporary, further consolidates feelings of isolation and self-disgust.

Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.

What else might there be in A Little Life? Yanagihara has said in interviews that she was interested in exploring male friendship (there are women in the book but they are few and far between) and – despite the book’s determinedly ahistorical narrative, which allows years to pass without documenting any great changes in the political or cultural landscape – a social setting in which heterosexual marriage and child-rearing are not regarded as the norm.

The contemporary setting she chooses (and the source of one of the novel’s most striking asymmetries) is characterised by affluence and achievement. When Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm graduate from university, they pass through an accelerated version of poverty: dead-end jobs, crappy apartments, terrible cheap dinners. But as they mature, none of them encounters ­particularly daunting obstacles on their route to becoming, respectively, a high-profile litigator, a world-famous actor, an acclaimed artist and a globetrotting architect. Nobody is a librarian or an accountant. They eat in high-end restaurants, construct fabulous homes filled with light and marble and dress beautifully.

In fairness, there is a point to this highly aestheticised and conspicuous consumption. It contrasts with Jude’s upbringing, in which he was abandoned as a baby on the steps of a monastery, brought up by abusive monks, then befriended by a monk who appeared to be his saviour but went on to semi-abduct him, abuse him further and force him to prostitute himself. Finally free of that situation, he falls into the hands of a paedophile who imprisons him and then lets him go, only to run him over in a car, leaving him with severely impaired mobility and in acute, lifelong pain.

It also contrasts with Jude’s method of dealing with the shame and distress of his memories, which is to slice into himself so repeatedly and severely that his body is patterned and ridged with scars and he frequently almost bleeds to death. His friends – as benign and selfless as his tormentors were malign and egotistical – know some of this past but Jude keeps most of the details hidden from them. There is one interesting exception to the friends’ general goodness. JB is ostracised for momentarily losing his temper with Jude and mocking his disabilities. It is awful behaviour but not a single character seems to read it as a bit of acting out, a childlike, transgressive breaching of a taboo, or as a reaction to the conspiracy of silence that surrounds Jude.

How else to read this novel other than as a fable? On a literal level, it is near preposterous; while victims of child sexual abuse may well find themselves preyed upon repeatedly, the serial and unconnected nature of Jude’s experiences stretches credibility. (As an adult, he has a relationship with a man who swiftly proves to be a violent ­sadist, even though virtually nothing in his behaviour has signalled this, either to us or to Jude. Pretty unlucky.) Indeed, at points, I wondered if Jude’s memories might eventually be revealed to be the manifestation
of some form of mental illness. This thought process, of course, has an uncomfortable echo of the questioning of the testimony of abuse survivors.

A fable suggesting what, then? That all the friends in the world cannot offset certain kinds of trauma, certain levels of damage? That it is worth trying to be happy, even if it cannot last for ever? Who can say?

It’s invidious and fruitless to criticise books for not being about what you want them to be about; we should see them for what they are. As I read A Little Life, lots of other novels floated through my mind: for its portrait of metropolitan American youth, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children; for friendship depicted over decades, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. For depic­tions of art and bereavement, Siri Hust­vedt’s What I Loved; for a parable about not being able to escape your fate, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Even, for a depiction of charisma and the outsider and for the deployment of sentimentality, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. All of them, in different ways and to different degrees, are more successful books than A Little Life. None, perhaps, is so claustrophobic, so trammelling of the reader: both Yanagihara’s achievement and her limitation. 

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yangihara is published by Picador (736pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis