There has been an early 21st century tendency to return to the social sweep realist or naturalist novel of the 20th century, particularly in the United States, as if the clock need be rewinded, all the innovations of modernism and postmodernism be tossed out the window, and another path for aesthetic sublimity need be wandered upon. Like Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt, I consider Hanya Yanagihara’s novel one of the most worthy of this tendency, and perhaps even my favorite of the ones I have thus read.
A Little Life details the story of four friends who live in New York, who live the life of the rich and spoiled, who fit the spectrum of queerness, race, and disability in a way that reminded me of the individualization of the four Brothers Karamazov. It is a portrayal of self-destruction, in a time when life is becoming less materially difficult and more psychologically such. Abuse is a major theme of the book, as well as the subtle way friends back-stab each other. At the center of it is the incredibly rich and yet fully disabled Jude. Jude’s life from adolescence has been never-ending rape, trauma, and mutilation, and unlike in other books, he is still very much in the cycle of it. Due to my own multi-national origins, another character who captured my interest was the Haitian-American, JB, whose reflections on what it means to be of many cultures at once was something I could relate to. There are four or five other characters who are also fairly drawn. The melodrama of the novel has something of Wuthering Heights, something of Anna Karenina, but is a story that could only be told in the New York of the 2010s, a time of great post-racial and post-sexual strife.
Though, there is still something about this novel that makes me feel that it is not perfect. Like many social realist novels, whether from this century or from the last, a lot of it lags, and a lot of the reflections Yanagihara inserts into the minds of her characters seem a little too inserted into the novel and not in the state of their mind. A lot of it could have been better edited, a lot of it could have been cut out.
But, bravo, this is a novel to be proud of. Like any other bystander of our era of cultural confusion, I am curious to see how well it stands the test of time.