McFerron’s Authors of Revolution: Hanya Yanagihara

Welcome back, everyone! I hope you all had a great summer and are enjoying the weather as we transition into autumn. This summer I spent a lot of time, though not as much as I wish I could have, reading and re-reading some of my favorite texts. Some off-the-bat recommendations I have from my new reading list this summer include The Sun Also Rises by Hemmingway, The Stranger by Camus, Immortality by Milan Kundera, and Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky. Again, I hope you all had a wonderful summer, thank you for joining me again as I delve back into this blog. Without further ado, I’d like to talk about one of the novels I re-read this summer, why I chose to re-read it, and why I think everyone ought to read it. 

The novel in question is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I know I’m late to the party in my faux-criticism of this book, but I couldn’t bring myself to not write about this incredibly important novel. If you’ve read it and are seeing my opinion, chances are you disagree with me and are perhaps angry that I would recommend this book to anyone, and that’s understandable. The main negative criticism I’ve found for this novel is that for the most part, it’s just torture porn, I think this takeaway is a little laughable and ultimately insulting to this 800-page goliath of a coming-of-age story. Now, when I say coming-of-age story I mean coming of every single age. In the book, we follow four characters; Jude, Malcolm, Willem, and J.B. from the moment they meet in college to the very ends of their lives. We gain a lot of insight into the characters’ pasts, which prove crucial to their future development, but generally speaking, the plot follows these four best friends from college onward. Yanagihara’s attempt to make her audience care about these characters is perhaps the best execution I’ve read in my life. Their backstories aside, which I’ll try not to get into to avoid spoilers, these characters offer a deep emotional connection to the reader to the point where these characters feel real. I’ve never known a novel to make me pick it back up just to see how a character is doing, every time I picked up this book it felt like I was checking up on a friend. Yanagihara’s implementation of this connection is masterful and nothing less. If I can compare these characters to others in literature in terms of memorability, relatability, and deep concern I would say they have the relative impact of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze from Lolita. If you know that story, you know that these are wildly different characters who make readers feel terrible and incredible emotions, so my next point on the terror found in A Little Life may not come as a surprise.

Yanagihara spends roughly 200 pages establishing these characters through their actions as a group, hints at their backstories, and the deep love they feel for each other. This first section of the novel sees all of them directly after their college years struggling to find their places in the world. Willem works at a restaurant and takes small roles in plays and gradually makes a career out of acting. Jude lives with Willem for a while before he pursues graduate school, Malcolm lives with his affluent family, and J.B. takes on art project after art project hoping to make a name for himself. All of these characters struggle together and separately throughout the novel, but this section, I think, shows the best of all of them trying to hit the ground running. Yanagihara takes a lot of time to depict the daily struggles of all of them. Malcolm spends much of this time figuring out what it means to be Black, J.B. is struggling to create and showcase his work, Willem works a dead-end job, and Jude constantly struggles with seizures, back pain, and leg pain to the point where he can hardly walk up a flight of stairs. The section comes to a close with a scene of them right before they throw a party at Willem and Jude’s apartment in which they’ve all been locked out on the roof of their building. Jude, the most physically unable, is decided to be the only person who can dangle off the roof and crawl through their small window. This closing scene is nail-biting at the very least. All of this is to say that by the 200th page, every reader has witnessed these characters’ personalities, daily struggles, and responses to high-stakes situations. If that isn’t the same as getting to know our real-life friends then I don’t know what is. Yanagihara makes us feel like a part of the group, perhaps someone quietly observing their lives, but then she makes us feel like trespassers.

As stated before, we see these characters from college to the end of their lives, but what we learn throughout is that we really would have liked to just stop at the coming-of-age cliché. This is another negative criticism of this book. Many people share the opinion that they would’ve liked to see them strictly through their college years, but if that were the case there would be no point to this novel aside from a “feel-good” read. Yanagihara destroys her characters and thus, the reader. Scenes and topics in this novel range from self-harm, sexual assault, suicide, and drug addiction to brotherly love, chosen family, recovery, and free will. I have never read another author who seems to hate her characters with the passion that Yanigahara holds. I use that word, “seems”, deliberately, as I don’t think any author can intend every action their character will take from the beginning of their novel. But Yanigahara certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to the pain all of these characters feel, especially Jude, who eventually becomes the main focus. You’ve read what other critics have to say, some brutal scenes surrounding Jude read like torture porn, and for the sake of analogy, I’ll spoil one scene. Imagine your closest friend in the entire world, someone you’ve watched for years (because that’s how these characters feel) and throw them down a flight of stairs, kick them, strip them naked, and force them to stand in the street. If you can’t get past that small snippet, perhaps you shouldn’t read this novel, but again, I think everybody ought to.

So what are some takeaways from this novel? Well, most people hate it because they love the characters in it, which I find to be an oxymoron. It is baffling how many people hold this view that somehow it’s both their favorite and least favorite novel to ever exist. It reminds me of some of the early criticism of books like Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Awakening. All these novels were burned, shredded, or banned for their “dangerous” depictions of various issues, but have come to be the novels that helped shape America. I see A Little Life following this tradition. I think the conversations it brings to light are the very point of the novel, conversations about sexual assault, childhood trauma, dealing with mental illness as an adult, gaslighting, drug addiction, etc. are all part of a larger discourse that hangs over our heads but can’t be pointed out. I think the great sin of this novel is that it draws attention to these conversations. Whether it does so in an exaggerated way isn’t up for me to argue here, but I can say that this novel is incredibly realistic. This of course comes with some turmoil. When I first read this I had to put it down for weeks at multiple points and I was even tempted to do so in my re-reading. When I finished the novel for the first time I was floored and deeply sad for around a month until I desperately clawed my way through the first part of the novel to make these characters come back into my life. Yanagihara gave all of her readers at least four great friends. I recommend you see for yourself what happens to them. While the novel is painstakingly heartbreaking, the incredible joy found throughout the novel and the experience of reading it are nothing short of life-changing. 

-Samuel McFerron, Blog Editor.

Samuel McFerron – Blog Editor, Prose Editor & Poetry Editor: ​Samuel is a Junior at Lewis University. They are double majoring in English and Philosophy with a concentration in Literature. They aspire to become a professor of Ethics and spend most of their free time reading and writing. They hope to improve upon their writing skills as well as their literary analysis skills during their time here at Lewis and are seeking publication within this time frame. Some authors they recommend are David Foster Wallace, Milan Kundera, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Emma Goldman.

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