A Little Life: Is it Fair to Call This Much Tragedy Over the Top?

A Little Life

You must understand, I have heard nothing but good, borderline great things about this novel for a few months now. I had yet to pull the trigger on actually ordering a copy of the novel when I saw it in Books-A-Million and said, “Why not?” The back cover appetizer seemed right up my alley. I love novels of friendship and trials, addiction and fighting, etc. that stuff is fodder for great writing. After two hundred pages I thought the novel was good, not great, but hey, it had 600 more pages to go. After four hundred I was waiting for it do something a bit different, wondering why two of the characters that seemed so prominent for 200 pages were now gone except in passing and wondering what the point of a couple more were. 600 pages in and I was disappointed and insulted. After finishing, I was insulted but somber, nonetheless (I am an empath).

Let’s walk through this in detail, keeping things as spoiler free as I can.

In the beginning (pages 1-200) we are introduced to four characters: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm. We are told that they are friends with a few other people, a couple of which (Black Henry Young and Asian Henry Young, those are not my words, those are the author’s) seem to be there, if I was guessing, to attempt diversity or humor, either way it didn’t work and I wondered what the point of their (lack of) presence was throughout the rest of the book. I was really gearing up for a great novel at this point. Four characters getting a lot of page time, each of them quite different than the others. It became apparent that the real focus of the novel was going to be Jude, but that was okay despite the fact that I really loved reading Malcolm.

So where does it go from there? For starters, it never once in the rest of the novel returns to Malcolm’s perspective. Likewise JB drops out completely except for a single chapter. Why give me their perspective at the beginning at all? If this is a novel about Willem and Jude (with Jude’s adoptive father Harold getting a chapter in first person every once in awhile) then make it that way. The other two characters are not gone, either, they are still quite prominent. I am puzzled by their lack of voice, though. If it is a symbol of their becoming any sort of distant from Jude and Willem then JB should not be getting any sort of chapter and Malcolm should get a couple at the least. The book’s structure just fails to make sense to me. I believe I had read the first Harold section by this point and it was one of my favorites. Regardless, the novel indeed turns here, making itself completely about Jude and Willem’s lives.

All the while the backstory of Jude is being given to the reader. This is what keeps the reader going. It is incredibly interesting and sad, and you begin to understand the mind of Jude and he does what he does. Yet, this next section (as I am splitting them, around page 400 to around page 600) is where the book begins to feel more like the author trying to make you as sad as she possibly can than it feels like a believably tragic story. Part of this, I believe, is Hanya Yanagihara’s style of writing, which very much calls into question the classic advice to writer’s of “show don’t tell.” There was a professor at my undergraduate who wrote a good paper that called this into question and I found it interesting, though new and borderline heretical. Yanagihara does a fantastic job, as she doesn’t lead you one place with her minute showing and then tell you another thing completely. The novel spends the majority of its time telling you how each character is feeling and why, not just letting you gather it. Yet, when the portion of the story arrives one thing happens that just pushes it too far for me. It is not Jude’s childhood that I can’t take seriously, as I understand and find it tragic and deeply upsetting. It is that this never ends for him. Yanagihara seems to take the notion too far that characters should be created and then thrown into their most difficult situation. Not to mention I did not like the turn she took with Willem and Jude. I felt that Willem became a totally different person to fit her goals with the novel’s themes. He began speaking different, acting different, etc. She seemed to throw in some backstory to justify these things, yet that had not been how the novel had worked once in the first 500 pages.

Then there was the final portion, which cemented in my mind that A Little Life is a below-average novel. It is not great. I don’t know if it is good. If it sounds like I hate it, then I would say that hate is a strong word. I will explain my thoughts in my final paragraph before “recommended to/avoid as if.” Once again, Jude becomes the subject of a horrible tragedy. There are six major trauma’s in Jude’s life: The Monastery, Brother Luke, Caleb, Dr. Traylor, Ana, and Willem. Only Ana and Brother Luke feel in any way organic. The rest feel as if Yanagihara is throwing Jude into the worst situations he could possibly be thrown into and then telling the reader to respect it and be sad about it. I’ve read sad books before. I’ve read books that have made me sob. But never have I been so insulted by an author who keeps hurting characters in a way I find completely and totally inorganic and ridiculous. This book made me incredibly sad, but maddeningly frustrated simultaneously. She seems to use her characters has my dad does spare twigs and leaves: to make fire. Her use of Jude goes from interesting and poignant to ridiculous and- dare I say- pornographic.

Now, as I mentioned, despite this, I did not hate this book, but I really was insulted by it. I disagreed with the author’s choices often, but that is simply expected (I disagree with Dostoevsky and Camus, but that doesn’t stop me from loving their work). How I do feel about the book is this: A Little Life is a National Book Award and Man Booker Prize finalist, and such I have nothing short of high expectations for it. To read a novel that was so… flawed is disappointing. To read a National Book Award Finalist that is so obviously short of great is bewildering and upsetting. When I factor in that the list of books that were not even mentioned for major awards includes The InstructionsKafka on the Shore, Mason & Dixon, Stoner, and Infinite Jest I am puzzled. If you disagree with me I would love to know what you saw in the novel that I didn’t. I understand that it is about trauma and tragedy and what it does to a person to make them a shell of their self, but I strongly feel that it was taken much too far, using Jude as an ostentatious concept, not a character.

Recommended to: Those looking for the saddest book they will ever read. Honestly, this could make you weep.

Avoid as if it’s interrupting me while I am trying so desperately to catch up on House of Cards: Those who do feel what I said would be insulting to them as readers, those who cannot stand a novel that breaks the “show don’t tell” rule, and those who understand that just because something is sad does not mean it is good.


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