I disliked the novel A Little Life intensely, at times because of the subject matter and the sheer difficulty of imagining what was being presented, but also at times because of the writing, because of a sense that this novel should have been written otherwise, should have been better.
Everyone I know loves and loathes the novel in various proportion, with charges leveled at plausibility (how much abuse…; how does Jude’s work-life continue as pristinely as it does; how accomplished is he? why do we not find evidence of his accomplishments), gender bias (no women characters of note, no matter whose perspective we experience), style (dialogue, sentence-structure, description, heavy foreshadowing and cheap deployment of narrative hooks), manipulation (we are told what characters think and feel, unless what they think and feel is based on memories or perceptions that would ruin the suspense and surprise), the melodrama (no drama without melodrama, but at what point is the drama compromised? Or is one of the novel’s harrowing scenes of domestic violence, with Caleb and Jude, a modern version of Dickens’ Bill Sykes and Nancy?).
And I struggled with, resented, was angered by, dismissive of the novel on all of these grounds. But, emerging from it, I also wonder how many of these misgivings would be resolved if it were not for a deeper flaw, one that compromises a novel that I cannot but feel glad to have read on account of its ambitions.
To do justice to it, the ambitions need to be articulated: it is about friendship, or love, or about male friendship or queer friendship, but to describe it in those terms is insufficiently radical. I mentioned Dickens before, and the heightening of feelings and coincidence is Dickensian–but the subject matter feels akin to only one novelist I know, and that is the master reader of Dickens, Dostoevsky. For Yanagihara takes as her subject a life so debased, so inaccessible, so compromised by self-loathing as to be unable even to feel the gratification of justifiable self-pity: it is a novel about a person who, for all of his potential, cannot experience life as more than passive endurance.
Yanagihara recognizes the elements of the realist novel–the marriage plot, the picaresque wanderer, the travelogue, the detective story, a novel of ideas, the bildungsroman with its concern for waste, the historical epic–and she has set in motion a world and characters who might give us any: here are lives of potentially real consequence, with mysteries in their past, who have the luxury and time to wander the world and make discoveries for themselves; here are characters who marry or might marry; here are character who are capable of profound thoughts, of insights, of epiphanies; whose lives may be understood for the contributions they make, for the significance they hold, or fail to hold, or fail to realize.
But all of that is short-circuited, negated, by the central character, Jude. It is his novel, and his life is not a life for narrative at all; he resists any urge to tell his story; he hates the thought that others might tell his story; he loves by an instinct that he does not trust; he doubts the paths of self-reflection, frightened of where they might lead; being alive is too much for him much of the time, and his will is most actively self-aware when he brings about pain that obliterates all but its own present intensity. He is an impossible character, an impossible challenge, for a novelist; he refuses most of the novelists solicitations to breathe; and the old, even worn-out, puzzle of realist fiction, how difficult it is for one person to know another, is made irrelevant, since Jude denies there being anyone there to know, and because the reasons for his denial, the terrible abuse he has suffered, are so obvious to the reader that there is no puzzle. In a novel by Dostoevsky, the challenge of the character would be a challenge to and for God. Here, though, there is no god. We are perhaps meant to feel that the novel is a testimony to a godless ideal of unconditional love.
But I do not believe that the novel adequately becomes this, owing to its haphazard commitment to two of the essential tools of the novel. I should say that these do not seem even essential tools of the “realist novel” or the “European novel”–they are as essential to The Story of the Stone as they are to Absalom! Absalom!. They are “scene” on the one hand and “scheme” on the other.
By “scene,” I mean the clearly, vividly realized set-pieces, interactions between characters, in settings however built up, that express the essential conflicts, resolutions, or tensions of a novel; by “scheme” I mean the arrangement and selection of narrative attention–the allotment and limits of perspective and focus–throughout a novel. Scenes will emerge differently depending on a novel’s scheme; a scheme may be determined by the demands of scenes.
In the case of Absalom! for instance, despite the nearly incomprehensible narration, the scene of Col. Sutpen wrestling in the mud is clear, and the scene of a shot fired is clearly significant though never clearly displayed in the narrative.
Though what I have written perhaps suggests that scheme serves scene, the opposite might be true. In A Little Life, an inherent struggle for Yanagahira must have been finding and executing a scheme that makes space, and does justice to, the character of Jude, without making him into a character that he could not be. Within that scheme, if realized, scenes would flower.
But whatever the reason, scheme and scene do not align in A Little Life, and, one failing, the other fails too. It did not, I think, have to be this way. For the first three or four hundred pages, something seemed to be taking shape–even if it was concurrently weakening.
The novel promises a quatrain of characters: Jude, Malcom, Willem, and JB. A fifth, Harold, is added later. The beauty of the structure lies in the nature of the characters, their convergences and divergences with one another, their compensations and antagonisms.
Jude: no character at all; a stubborn refusal to be a character; discussed above; what I did not discuss much is Jude’s intellectual brilliance, which finds natural expression in language, law, and, most enticingly for the scheme, mathematics and music; mathematical axioms are flirted with as a motif, make an appearance at the end, but they are too little incorporated to move the novel.
Malcom: the architect, a confused sense of identity, and even a confusion as to whether his confusion of identity is real; as an architect, he is sensitive to space, and space matters to Jude because of Jude’s disabilities; Malcolm is articulately aware, as Jude refuses to be, of what living in space is like; his confused sense of identity forms part of a pattern with the other three.
JB: the artist; he is black but early in his life distorts the truth of his history and life to meet expectations; his sense of self strengthens as he grows in years and success, but he suffers from a deep ennui that is fueled by a self-absorption and narcissism; unlike Jude, he looks in the mirror; unlike Willem, he cares about what he sees there; in his paintings, he decides to capture scenes from daily life with his three good friends, and these make his astonishingly successful career what it is; he has an eye for pose, for posture, for the outward appearances of things–which allows for yet another perspective on Jude that Jude would deny (which makes his cruel impersonation of Jude all the more devastating); his artwork also presents him with an ethical responsibility that Yanagihara shares: how to make art of a person who does not want to be set into view, aestheticized, and captured for that purpose, or at all?
Willem: the actor; naturally handsome but oblivious to his own good looks; he does not suffer from absorption of self or from confusion of identity; he doubts only that his self is worth either reaction; an actor, he is, as one of his instructors said great actors tended to be, without much of a personality; he is capable of caring and loving; but as an actor, he is himself constantly the focus of scenes; without self-loathing or self-love, he can be loved by the camera, placing him in contrast with Jude; I do not think the novel works out what his perspective affords, but perhaps it is the sense of being indifferent to recognition, to the gaze, to publicity, and perhaps it is a consciousness of how a single life can remain itself without anxiety, despite being asked to play many roles; perhaps also the inauthenticity of the roles is to stand in stark relief to the indelible trauma of Jude’s youth; Jude believes that Willem loves him because Willem sees in him a reflection of his (Willem’s) dead younger brother, and though the idea does not seem quite right, the novel does not present much of an alternative.
Harold: the law professor/philosopher; he is the voice to the novel’s wisdom; he loves Jude unconditionally, adopts him; he offers the possibility for an intellectual framework in which to make sense of what the novel is doing or showing; early on that framework seems about to emerge when Harold powerfully defends contract law as the essence of all laws; this is, I believed as I read those words, a novel about contracts, trust, bonds–but that thread is not taken up again; he speaks movingly about parenthood also; he has affinities with Willem in that they love Jude most deeply, without condition; his wife Julia is the strongest female presence in the novel.
There are other two other characters who live and breathe, Caleb and Andy, and a host who are named (Henry Young, Richard, Mr. Irvine, Sophie…) without really living.
It should be clear how the five characters of the book could work together–or rather, how Jude’s three friends plus father, Harold, could work together to find the meaning in Jude’s life that he cannot find for himself, and also to help us better understand how Jude’s self-loathing, shame, and guilt, and his desire to exhaust his selfhood entirely, are expressed in his life; they would be set against the unbudging refusal of Jude to be a full person, to be a character (it is not a denigration to equate “full person” with “character” in this or any other novel). And at the start of the book they seem to do so; JB especially provides Yanagihara with a consciousness that is lively, perceptive, and attuned to her own; and each of these characters, cherishing different memories of Jude, or experiencing Jude differently, would in turn animate his life and theirs by way of different scenes–scenes that Jude does not yield. Harold perhaps would remain a reflective consciousness, more wisdom than drama, but JB, Malcom, and Willem would do enough. When she writes within their perspectives, moreover, she grants herself a happy freedom to move beyond what they know, to alight in the thoughts or feelings of an interlocutor, before returning; they offer horizons for narrative movement, rather than confines; across those horizons, the best scenes of the book–the roof on Lispenard street, JB’s impersonation of Jude–play out.
But Malcom is very soon abandoned; I wonder if he was ever really adopted. And JB’s perspective is nearly forgotten after the first third of the novel. Willem and Jude dominate, but Willem, for all of the space he is granted, is an intractable problem himself–what does he offer besides love? Yanagihira does not settle on the vantage point his character affords, does not seem to find the opportunity for narrative that his character must possess; his reflections on the film sets are listless, nothing like the fantastic scenes in JB’s studio; the nature of acting is not brought to bear on Jude’s struggle to live. And Jude himself is allowed to dominate, most disastrously; we transcend his perspective only when he recalls or enters into traumatic relationships; the scenes the novel constructs around his consciousness are those of abuse and awful, usually passive, suffering; it is not that nothing happens to Jude, but the events of his life pass in a flux of telling and narration that does not include elements of dramaturgy, blocking, pacing, developed dialogues, or drama; what is worse of all for the novel is that the habitation in Jude’s and Willem’s perspectives, and the corresponding reluctance, refusal, or inability to offer scenes where the characters interact, breathe, and speak, is that we are never made to see what the other characters love so much in Jude–when we are told that he makes a joke, it is hard to fathom; when Willem causes Jude to crumple with laughter, we feel as if we have been excluded from what has mattered all along.
In his own mind, Jude is too ashamed to be a character or person; for his friends, Jude must be a character and person. For the novel to work, the novelist need not side with Jude’s friends, but she must give us their sense of Jude, and their sense of what Jude gives them and set that against Jude’s monolithic reluctance to be alive; that reluctance does not have to shift, but the beauty of their impossible love for Jude cannot be persuasively imagined from within the scheme that Jude imposes on his life, one dominated by scenes of abuse, torment, and self-hatred.