A Little Life
The irony of titling a 720-page novel that focuses on one person A Little Life should be obvious, and yet the person about whom the story is told isn’t present for the end of it; never sees the way he is remembered.
The irony of the title and the story of the life give me hope in the same way the last line of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm” always gives me hope. Maybe I haven’t wasted my life. Maybe it isn’t such a little life.
I got my copy of A Little Life courtesy of Random House, I guess because I wrote about the author’s (Hanya Yanagihara) first novel, The People In the Trees. It was such a massive book I couldn’t resist picking it up, and once I started reading it, I had to go on. It also helped that our almost-sixteen-year-old cat, Sammy, has been sick, and I was providing a lap for him as long as I could.
At first I related to the characters, who meet in college, as a parent; when one of them, Malcolm, is 27 and still living with his parents, I sighed with that peculiar mixture of envy and trepidation that assails me whenever I see or hear of my friends’ adult children doing that.
“The next morning he’d wake determined: today he was going to move out and tell his parents to leave him alone. But when he’d get downstairs, there would be his mother, making him breakfast (his father long gone for work) and telling him that she was buying the tickets for their annual trip to St. Barts today, and could he let her know how many days he wanted to join them for? (His parents still paid for his vacations. He knew better than to ever mention this to his friends.)”
Increasingly, though, I found moments of sympathy with all four of the college friends: Malcolm, Jude, Willem, and JB—especially, with JB who is working on becoming an artist and sometimes looks at a piece of art and “found himself unexpectedly about to cry.” I like the way the novel isn’t afraid to reveal that, or to see, as Willem sees, that “to be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words!—it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.” And I thought of my college friends who had been raised mostly in countries outside the U.S. when I read about how Jude “knew French and German. He knew the periodic table. He knew…large parts of the Bible almost by memory. He knew how to help birth a calf and rewire a lamp and unclog a drain and the most efficient way to harvest a walnut tree and which mushrooms were poisonous and which were not and how to bale hay and how to test a watermelon, an apple, a squash, a muskmelon for freshness” but didn’t know anything about sitcoms or movies, summer camp or going on vacation. I loved watching as Jude “experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved” and I missed the pleasure of having all my college friends together when Jude thought about how they “thought so differently than he did and who made him think differently as well.”
As the college friends get older, I continue to sympathize and want to identify with JB, who maintains his college friendships and “had somehow managed to contextualize so many of them. Despite his collection of friends from long ago, there was an insistent present tenseness to how JB saw and experienced life, and around him, even the most dedicated nostalgists found themselves less inclined to pick over the chaff and glitter of the past, and instead made themselves contend with whoever the person standing before them had become.” But JB is the kind of friend who sometimes says uncomfortable things without meaning to be cruel, just being stupid (or at least that’s how I saw it) and then his friends draw away because they can’t forget one or another stupid thing he’s said.
As Malcolm and JB draw further away from their old friends, Willem and Jude become more dependent on each other until that’s all there is, for either of them. It looks like an “adult relationship,” but as you read, you see that it’s also an excavation of their childhoods, that they each want someone “to remember them as they’d been.” Their relationship teaches Willem “the sinister pedantry of therapy; its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it.” It teaches him that it’s “a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable” and that friendship is “its own miracle.” Their friendship takes them through the Alhambra together and into the realization that even though they’re mortal, “that doesn’t mean they weren’t happy years, that it wasn’t a happy life.”
Even the part of me that related to the characters as a parent has to be satisfied with JB’s final story about one of their escapades, told to a parent who thinks that love for a child is different from other kinds of love “because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear” and who has survived the death of both his children “…after that,” he says, “you have nothing to fear again.” The story is JB’s version of what his friends meant to each other, and the novel is a look at how people build up meaning in each others’ lives.
Jenny and Teresa didn’t enjoy this book the way I did, because they thought the gradually-revealed secrets of Jude’s childhood are overdone, and they’re right. But the meaning of Jude’s secrets is something he has built up in his imagination, and the meaning of the novel lies in his own and his friends’ attempts to assign meaning to his life. I think what this novel reveals, after so much detail about the lives of these four friends, is that whether in the end one life matters depends on who is left for that one life to matter to. You can make art out of your life, but you can’t control the meaning that other people will assign to it. If you want your story told, you have to accept that you won’t have the last word.