Stuck in Reverse

Let’s be frank: There’s a lot of shit in the world today. And 2020 alone is the largest dumpster fire imaginable. So with all the sadness, injustice, hypocrisy, and frustration in the world, I try to find joy wherever possible.

Let me be frank again. There isn’t an ounce of joy in A Little Life. So was this the greatest book for me to be reading or the smartest choice right now when I’ve consciously tried to avoid depressing books in this terrible year? No, no it was not.

But was it a good book? Definitely. It was beautiful and moving and insightful and heartbreaking and possessed all the qualities that make great literature so powerful. And yes, I am glad I read this book and so thankful for my coworker in Germany (yes, Germany — what a saint) who bought this book for me after our many, many discussions about how much he loved it.

Seriously, though, I could have done without 800+ pages of sadness.

If you’ve ever been broke, living in a shit-hole apartment in a terrifying new place yet surrounded by unimaginably amazing friends who push you every day, you’ll immediately connect with this book. I definitely did.

Malcolm, Willem, JB, and Jude meet in college and begin lifelong friendships that extend to their new lives in Manhattan after internships and graduate school. Their friendships are immaculately balanced by their varied personalities. Malcolm, a born Upper East Sider, has been given the world but constantly questions who he is and the decisions he makes. JB, a witty Brooklyn kid who is the center of his family, always believes he is right and has the raw end of the deal, and he turns to unhealthy habits to cope. Willem is the good-looking kid from a practical family; he always has everyone’s back and never asks for much despite never having much to begin with.

Then you have Jude.

Jude, whose friendship Malcom, JB, and Willem will always bond over. Jude, who is caring, sweet, and a complete enigma. Jude, whose mysterious life the boys know has been so shitty that he can’t even bear to expose it to his best friends.

Jude’s past becomes the focal point of this novel, and little by excruciatingly little, his demons and heartbreaking past are told to very few people around him after many decades. And even as his life blossoms (he becomes a powerful attorney with exceptional friends, a lot of money, and even love), he can never keep his past traumas at bay.

“But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice.”

A Little Life

Fair warning: Just when you think this book can’t get any sadder and that one person’s life can’t become anymore heartbreaking, it does.

But if sadness and trauma — and how we handle them — are overall themes of this book, author Hanya Yanagihara ties them together with sweet and touching moments. These are the small moments that we live for and appreciate.

It’s coffee with your lover and reading the paper together on a Sunday morning. It’s your favorite restaurant in Chinatown that isn’t very good, but it’s cheap enough to afford. It’s weekend getaways to the same house on the same island that never get old and bring you so much joy. It’s a piece of art that touches your soul. So for all the book’s charged and depressing moments, it’s smaller and happier moments are equally powerful.

Yanagihara writes an extremely strong narrative from a solid structure that enhances the power of both the sad and happy scenes. One of the smartest things she does is rarely write from Jude’s perspective. Although the entire novel is written in the third person, as readers, we almost always view Jude through someone else’s lens — or at least in the first half of the book before we start learning more about his past. This technique really emphasizes the lack of knowledge Malcolm, JB, and Willem possess about Jude. There’s constantly a wall dividing the Jude they see every day from the Jude who constantly hurt before college.

This structure also illustrates how the boys’ bond really is formed and maintained by their love and concern for Jude. Although they love and respect one another, Jude really is the glue of the group.

Yanahigara constantly intrigues you by dangling little bits of information about Jude’s past over an excruciating amount of time, which keeps you continuously wanting more. You know terrible things have happened to him, but what exactly that entails is foreshadowed on a nearly inconspicuous — yet expert — level. Yanagihara really does utilize 800 pages for it all to unfold. How she managed to patiently hide these secrets for that long must have taken serious skill.

“The thing he hadn’t realized about success was that success made people boring. Failure also made people boring, but in a different way: failing people were constantly striving for one thing — success. But successful people were also only striving to maintain their success.”

A Little Life

Furthermore, Yanagihara writes with beautiful personification and imagery to really grasp your attention and help you see the scenes play out in front of you. (Warning: A Little Life contains self-harm, and some of the language is very difficult to read, given its descriptions.)

But unless you’re completely squeamish (definitely no judgement), work through these scenes because they make a powerful statement about human suffering. There is such a stigma that comes from self-harm, and even if we don’t want to admit it, we feel some shame toward those who leave us by suicide. This is a very difficult subject to broach, but it’s an important one to better understand mental health and the trauma of past experiences.

Not that self-harm or suicide should ever be advocated for, but this book really does put you in someone’s shoes who has lived a very terrible life where those tragedies are constants. Who are we to dictate and judge someone’s life and their will to end it when their mere existence brings them nothing but sorrow and pain? It makes you reconcile with the fact that you hopefully will never truly understand how that person feels. It forces you to empathize and sympathize with pain so great that you quite literally can’t imagine it. This novel will force you to rethink mental health and how we support people. All of these factors breed compassion, and if a book can do that, that’s a statement in itself.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

A Little Life

That compassion carries over to the LGTBTQ themes in this novel. Garth Greenwell from The Atlantic proclaims A Little Life to be “the great gay novel” and says it is “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.”

And “queer suffering,” as Greenwell calls it, isn’t a theme we see enough in literature without hitting the main tropes or feeling stereotyped, such as the goofy and fun gay best friend. That fact alone elevates this novel.

So if the book makes so many powerful statements and is written so skillfully and brilliantly, why doesn’t it deserve the full five flames?

Because I’m not sure a novel really requires the level of tragedy that A Little Life provides. There’s enough crap in the world. Even though I’m glad I endured all of this novel’s painfully descriptive tragedy, I really didn’t want or need 800 pages of it. Think of it like it’s too much of a good thing except that good thing is really, really, really sad.

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