Having won the 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction and shortlisted for several more — 2015 Man Booker Prize, 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award — I invested many hours into reading Hanya Yanagihara’s 700+ page ‘A Little Life’. I would be very surprised if the editor of this tomb had been shortlisted for their editorial contribution.
Four Decades of Dullness
The novel follows the lives of four college friends in New York City from their dorm days through to middle-age. Jude with his secret past, ambiguous ethnicity and unexplained physical ailments becomes one of New York’s most voracious litigators. Silver-spooned biracial Malcolm, without any discerning personality, becomes an architect of international repute. Gay, fat and often bitter JB, of Haitian descent, is such a successful painter that he is honoured with a four-floor retrospective at MOMA. Finally, Willem, orphaned and grieving his dead siblings from his emotionally stunted Scandinavian immigrant heritage, becomes a box office movie star. America really is the land of opportunity given the fame and fortune bestowed on the four friends who, with the exception of JB, seem to be endowed with very little ambition or drive.
We know Jude has had a rough start in life. We don’t know the particulars of his injuries but boy do we get a blow-by-blow of the physical pain he is in, complete with the updates from his weekly appointment with Dr. Andy. We are also not spared the many detailed scenes of his self-harming with razor blades in the bathroom. I know writers are supposed to ‘show, don’t tell’ but you can also stop showing too. I didn’t read the acknowledgments but I’d say Yanagihara did some exhaustive research to furnish the 700 pages with enough data for a medical intern.
Several characters — Black Henry Young, Asian Henry Young, Phaedra and Ali — appeared on the page at various scenes and locations (New York, London, Seville) to possibly boost the word count as we were not furnished with any other details about them only an inference that they were splendid company.
“One night shortly after he and Willem had become a couple, they had been at a dinner party in Richards’ a raucous, casual affair of just people they loved and people they like – JB and Malcolm and Black Henry Young and Asian Henry Young and Phaedra and Ali and all of their boyfriends and girlfriends, their husbands and wives.”
The Big Reveal
We finally hear Jude’s story which is as horrific as we have imagined the hundreds of pages leading up to it. He’s physically and emotionally scared but I suppose the twist is that he never really recovers from the shame and self-loathing despite his friendships, new family and success in life. A handful of the main characters die in a car crash towards the end. I always think ‘death by accident’ is a bit of a cheat in the narrative but I was also glad it brought the novel closer to the finish.
Anyhu, I got through it. A friend had given me a loan of it saying how much she’d enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end, another friend also loved it. I didn’t. I’m a big fan of ‘if you can say it in 100 words, then don’t use 1,000 or 10,000.’ The story, writing, and characters probably aren’t as bad as all that but it definitely could be told in half the word count. Caveat lector!
Theatre was my first love. It all started with the One-Act and 3-Act AmDram festivals in our local theatre to get out of the house to smoke cigarettes on school nights. It wasn’t long before I had graduated onto the Class As in the Abbey, Peacock, Project, Tivoli and even more fringe events and locations. It’s physical. Being present with the cast, the crew, the soundscape of mutters, coughs, and gasps from the audience; the dust, the set, the murmur murmur hum before curtain. Pure energy. I can forgive anything — set, direction, costumes, props, performance — except bad writing.
Latest posts by Phyllis Styne (see all)
- Review: Women Make Film, 14 Hours of Femmes in Film - 2nd March 2020
- Mamma mia, the Reina Sofía in Madrid! - 27th February 2020
- Movie Review: Parasite and that horror called Hope - 16th February 2020