The opening chapters of A Little Life introduce you to four talented young men on the cusp of adulthood – William, JB, Jude, and Malcolm. In these early passages we are given snippets of their past lives, the roots of some of their insecurities, and a glimpse of the concerns and preoccupations that they struggle with. There is a certain focus on the forming of identity and their uncertainty of who they are and what they want to become. It is clear that they have come through some difficult times but it is nonetheless jarring when Jude, who remains something of an enigma throughout, comes to Willem in the middle of the night, bleeding from a self inflicted wound.
The story then begins to focus in on Jude with Willem the main supporting character, JB and Malcolm melting away into the background. That night we are introduced to Andy, Jude’s long-term doctor and friend. Certain recurring issues make their first appearance in these scenes. One aspect of the novel deals with responsibility – Andy’s ongoing dilemma as to whether or not he should have Jude committed, Willem’s responsibility to Jude, an unspoken understanding between the group of friends that he is the one who can help him best, and Jude’s own responsibility to those who love him, even if beyond his comprehension.
As the novel progresses we witness flashbacks to Jude’s youth, slowly revealing the abuse he survived, and giving us an understanding of how he has been shaped. It borders on frustrating to begin with – his self-deprecation when he is clearly loved and admired by those who know him. This frustration quickly evaporates when we come to know what he has been through and how remarkable he is. We see him struggle to open up to people, to understand that he can be loved. We also see his desire for control informed by the feeling that he has never had much, the sense that life is something that happens to him without him playing an active role. His physical injuries add to this and he attempts to hide how much he suffers and the potential help he will need as his condition deteriorates. This need for control in part manifests itself in his self harm and reluctance to accept help.
Jude’s story is devastating but it is not without its positives. He is incredibly successful, he inspires great devotion from Willem and Harold, his once teacher who becomes personally close. In a fascinating interview with Yanagihara in the Guardian she claims this was intentional, that everything is heightened. Yes, there are many incredibly upsetting scenes and detailed violence, but this is balanced by an excess of love and success. This deliberate exaggeration is rare in contemporary novels, but while the novel holds you in its thrall the technique feels entirely appropriate.
The story of Jude’s endless struggle to cope with life and intimacy, to attempt to come to terms with what has happened to him, will break your heart several times over. It is a consuming tale that will stay with you long after the final page. The characters feel alive and the closeness forced upon the reader is brutal but important. It does not allow you to look away or expect a quick fix and this makes it very real. An utterly devastating, brilliant read.