It’s impossible to discuss “A Little Life” without detracting from the sheer experience of reading it. The synopsis, misleadingly, suggests that this is a familiar, even cliched story: a quartet of college graduates move to New York in pursuit of their dreams. This all-male group of friends is a diverse if privileged group, and Yanagihara riffs on their aspirational existences with bountiful wit and energy.
This is not Yanagihara’s story, though, and as we are coaxed into a comfortable place- tedious parties, dead-end jobs, the coded language that exists between close friends- it becomes clear that the novel is headed for darker, uncharted territory. The reason for this is Jude, a quiet and considered lawyer, whom alone amongst his friends remains an enigma both to them and the reader. As Jude is brought into focus, both his present day struggles and long ago traumas, the reader is transported into a baroque, Gothic fairytale, a world as complex and confronting as Jude’s interior life.
The most striking feature of Yanagihara’s world is that it exists in an ahistorical space: though her New York is consistent with the idealised city seen in countless other novels, her decades-spanning narrative is set in a continual present day. The result is that the relationships depicted- platonic and romantic, predominantly between men- are allowed to fully develop, without relying on the tropes usually seen in queer-themed novels. This is a New York without a mayor, without even September 11: her characters inhabit the idea of the city, everything that it has promised them both as individuals and a group.
There will be many who will find the degree of misery depicted in “A Little Life” overwhelming. Yet this a novel of extremes, and its most horrific moments are juxtaposed with vignettes of pure freedom. The image of the crippled Jude walking aimlessly through New York’s open streets, simply because he is young and he can, will be revisited with heartbreaking poignancy as his condition later deteriorates: Yanagihara suggests that these moments are all the more perfect for their impermanence.
“A Little Life” does not offer salvation, even for those who inarguably deserve it. Instead, it depicts the capacity for grace, found only through human connection. There are no simple answers, or fixes: some wounds are too unspeakable to ever recover entirely. And though these wounds are depicted here in chilling, unsparing detail, they exist alongside moments of profound ordinariness, the irreducible matter of human life.
“A Little Life” is longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.