Lit fic as a category is pretty up its own ass, and many reviews for these books are also up their own asses, in a phlegmy, colonic matryoshka of sycophancy and intellectual pre-ejaculate. I don’t really care to participate in this shitfest, so instead, here’s a bulleted list of what worked and didn’t work about A Little Life.
There be spoilers.
This was fine
* Yanagihara: “One of the things I wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never gets better.” I’m with her here; this is interesting. Like if The Bell Jar ended with actual Sylvia Plath’s trajectory and not Esther Greenwood’s.
* The prose is very evocative. I’ll be very honest and say that a lot of the time, I get fatigued with writing that is less than straightforward, because I tend to read very quickly for the plot and need to re-train myself to slow down and absorb when a book isn’t necessarily about having a plot. Reading A Little Life, I didn’t mind doing so. It’s not free of self-indulgent nonsense, but for the most part, I found the metaphor in play to be credible.
* The four central characters were interesting and well-defined enough that I cared to read about them.
* The high tragedy aspect was executed very well, in that I was encouraged to keep reading by a feverish sense of dread. This is a disturbing, devastating book that knows how to keep you on the hook with an artful slow reveal.
* I did kind of like how the book made me feel intentionally uncomfortable in forcing me to examine what kind of friend I might be to a person like Jude, who is so deeply guarded, mistrustful, and sensitive. It’s straight-up unlikely that I would be saintly like Willem, who unconditionally supports Jude and defends him against any slight even while Jude remains so reserved with him. I’d like to think that I could be Malcolm, who clearly values Jude’s friendship and acts as necessary to preserve that friendship. And yet, in a fairly pivotal scene, wild-card JB — in the midst of abject cruelty — spits some undeniable, genuine truth, where (I’m paraphrasing) he says that he doesn’t really understand their friendship because it’s not mutual; Jude gives them nothing, and they’re all thinking it. The one thing they know about Jude is that he won’t tell them anything. The other two men console Jude and tell him they DON’T think that, but… wouldn’t they? At least occasionally? Friendship doesn’t have to be quid pro quo, but it’s hard to be a true friend to someone who is a complete black box, who you know is highly sensitive, but you don’t know to what or why, and you don’t know how to ride the fine line of backing off while still wanting to be more supportive than casual acquaintances. It sounds exhausting. I don’t know if I could.
What is this crap
* I have to start with the obvious, which is killing good-guy and savior Willem in a car wreck at the end of the section (which could not be any more ominously) called “The Happy Years”. I feel like this hand could not be more overplayed in dramatic fiction. I expect it out of schlocky stories that aspire mainly to be selected out of dozens of identically soft-focus covers at the airport, not from books that have been nominated for Booker prizes and which have critics across the land fellating its “subversive brilliance”. Gurl please. This isn’t new! I’ve read Greek tragedy. And I’ve read contemporary try-hard drama. What makes this different? That the prose is the right shade of purple?
* And going back to Yanagihara’s mission statement of portraying someone who won’t ever get better, OF COURSE the person in your fictional book whose life you are making relentlessly miserable by your own design won’t get better if you systematically strip them of everything that could possibly improve their well-being.
* From that, there is a very weird conflation that emerges between people who have mental illness/depression/suicidal tendencies with people who have endured tragedy after tragedy and who, therefore, feel that they are literally being told by life and fate, you really don’t have anything to life for, because even if you did, we’d find a way to take it from you. And that is not really how chronic depression actually works. Even though it’s valid in a creative sense to tell this story the way she did, it’s super lazy to insist that it’s poignant and representative of “life’s inevitable tragedies”, unless you’re trying to posit that it’s inevitable that every possible life’s tragedy happens to the same person regularly or that it’s super regular that pre-pubescent boys raised in monasteries and/or foster care are literally pimped out to pedophile men by their guardians. Real life!
* Speaking of absent verisimilitude, also that thing about how each of the four are strikingly successful in their chosen creative fields (+law), and I just don’t really get why? Was this another tip of the hat to clue the reader into how wildly fantastical the rabbit hole was going to get?
I’m just… I’m tired. I’m tired because I’m angry because I did actually like this book, despite the above, and would have probably four-starred it until the end happened. Because I don’t believe that a happy ending, or even a neutral ending, inherently cheapens a book, but I think that going out of your way to manufacture yet another tragedy just to drill the point home does. And that Yanagihara went there essentially made me retroactively question her taste throughout the rest of the book. So I’m mad. Two and a half stars, I GUESS.