Trauma, tragedy and the interior epic: A Little Life, a Review

So I’ve just finished reading A Little Life, and BOY was that a time. So here’s a short stream-of-consciousness review, while the book is still fairly fresh in my mind. (Also I’m excited to be reviewing something new, for once!)

[spoilers ahead] 

So I have a lot of Thoughts about this book, I’ll try and address them in an orderly fashion.

One of the first things I thought upon starting A Little Life was “Oh god, not another New York Story” (you know the stories I mean. As a reader for a literary magazine I encounter them daily), but I came to love this about A Little Life. Its characters are as ambitious and hardworking as the cliché suggests, but not in a melodramatic way. The cast of characters, too, is almost jarringly diverse. As I was reading I at first found it odd that nearly no one the four protagonists know is white, straight or male (and I’m not even straight myself!), until it occurred to me that, rather than showing a special subsection of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet, Yanagihara’s portrayal is of in some sense the “real” New York (as clichéd as this sounds to me typing it), and the blonde-haired blue-eyed New Yorkers I’d been reading about all my life (I’ve never actually visited the city) were in fact the minority. I think Yanagihara does sometimes take this to the extreme, (and tops it off by giving everyone cool-sounding, space-age names like Citizen, Contractor, Phaedra, etc), but I would much rather read about a New York skewed in this direction than in the other.

I’ve seen a lot of posts and articles talking about how painful a book this is, how at times it’s basically torture porn. And while I agree with this view, at least to the extent that reading certain of the chapters was like pulling off bandaids: Jude’s story–especially his early life–is almost unbelievable in how difficult, how painful, how horrible it is. However this pain and horror have an important purpose; to my mind they are essential in making his character believable, to the construction of a character who has undergone such trauma that trust (and trust is especially important to this book, a book whose major theme is friendship) is nearly impossible. Yanagihara has explored the hypothetical relationships of a hypothetical person who spent the entire first decade and a half of his life being told or shown by various people that he was undeserving of love, of friendship, of success. And then she turns the story around, and gives those things to the character, and shows us–with in my opinion very believable, genuine words–how this character handles them.

Jude’s story is I think classically tragic, he has huge obstacles to overcome and, in the end, he is unable to overcome his own self-loathing, his own self-destructive tendencies. But neither is his story entirely unhopeful. For a time (in the section not unfittingly called “The Happy Years”) he is on the mend, and it seems that it is only the unexpected, random tragedy of Willem’s death that sets Jude back on his deadly trajectory. I have yet to decide ultimately what I think of this, though at the time, I found it cheap; I remember saying to a friend “he’s been through enough!”, but now I think that one of the ultimate tests of Jude’s character, not only who he was as a child or who he’s become as an adult now that he’s got “the things he deserves”, i.e. family, friends, unconditional love and trust, but also what he does (as tragic and upsetting to the reader as it may be) when those things are once again taken away.

Overall this book may be difficult (even impossible, for some people) to read, but it does not seek to shock or make the reader uncomfortable to no purpose. I think Yanagihara’s “interior epic” is a beautiful, sincere piece of writing that deserves the praise it’s received.

[note: this is a slightly old post that has been transferred from my original book blog,, which I will delete soon]

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