“A Little Life”: A Torturous Novel You Won’t be Able to Put Down

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

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Last week, I spent every second of my free time reading Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life. 

Every second I spent with the hardbound cover on my lap, lying open for me to devour, was torturous.

The novel is centered around the friendships of four men: JB, Jude, Willem, and Malcolm. Readers are plunged headfirst into the timeless setting, New York City, but a New York that completely envelops the reader in its vacuum, with the four main characters as the sole air supply. I will say this now, this novel is a difficult read. And by that, I don’t mean that the language was difficult to comprehend, but rather that the subjects tackled are heart-wrenching. (For content/trigger warnings, scroll to the end of this post.)

“Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them all.”

In the beginning of the novel, readers meet the young men in their early twenties. The conflicts presented seem commonplace for their age: finding an apartment, waiting for their big break in their careers, maneuvering through relationships.

But just when one thinks that they’re following the characters closely, Yanagihara places the most curious, most intriguing sentence to completely disorient, like an offhanded allusion to Jude’s enigmatic childhood or a foreshadowing of what is to come for Willem.

And then it resumes back into the main narrative, as if tapping your shoulder and then quickly disappearing, leaving you clueless when you turn around. In this way, the author stirs up intrigue, tap by tap. Like the quote says, we are fed the characters’ intentions, histories, desires by a “slow drip.”

“But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”

And slow, it is. In just over 700 pages, readers follow the four men into middle age. This is what made the novel for me so difficult in the best way possible. In five days, I endured four decades of friendship, of hardship, of change between the close friends’ dynamics. By Friday night, when I finished it, I was in a stupor. When I slammed the back cover shut, I tossed the brick aside and wept.

At such a transitional period in my life, I find time’s passing difficult to grasp. I want to hold on to adolescent recklessness, but I know I have to consider my burgeoning adulthood. I have to mind my responsibilities, to myself, to my family, to my friends. I’m only in first year of university, but with A Little Life, I had the privilege of watching these friends grow up in the span of a week. I learned their mannerisms, their tendencies, their sufferings. I felt them age, page by page.

Yanagihara’s mournful, resonating tone only makes me wonder about my own friendships and my own life: where I’ll be when I’m thirty, where my friends will be when we’re fifty, if I’ll feel any regret when I’m eighty. In a way, this novel has excited me into thinking about my future and what it holds, and my hopes that my life won’t be as bleak, as trying.

What have you all been reading? Or, rather, should I ask: what have you been putting off (like me last week, haha!) in order to read?

[Trigger warnings: child abuse, rape, pedophilia, self harm]

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