Monday, September 5, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that an sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

This. Book. I just loved this book. Hanya Yanagihara, who wrote The People in the Trees (which was very different, and almost as hauntingly excellent), chronicles the lives of four college friends as they move through college and adulthood. We follow them through the ups and downs of their (improbably successful) careers and (improbably unsuccessful) relationships and watch as they move in and out of each other's lives.

Yanagihara expertly lends depth and nuance to each of the four men, but her focus is on Jude, the most broken of the group. Just as each of the character's professional lives seems unbelievably impressive, Jude's life before he came to college is shockingly grim. The violence and abuse unleashed upon him is so brutal that was sometimes impossible for me to read. Yanagihara spreads the story out across the entire novel; you know his past is dark, but she unspools the saga over the entire span, so you don't have to wade through the despair all at once. That being said, the descriptions of Jude's past (and even some of the descriptions of the troubled parts of his adult life) are some of the more graphic and gruesome I have ever read. I'm not sure that these moments of extreme violence added much to the novel; they certainly were shocking--to the point of being physically affecting--but Yanagihara could have built a similarly fraught character with a few fewer unfathomable acts of cruelty.

That being said, one of the more beautiful parts of the book is the support system that Jude slowly and unwittingly builds up around himself as an adult. His friends, teachers and mentors form a foundation that Jude never wants to rely on, but slowly comes to realizes he has. He is not particularly good at using it, but it's existence--the pure and transparent love that all of these people feel for him--is enough to counter some of the gut wrenching aspects of his past (for the reader if not for Jude).

Yanagihara writes beautifully about adult friendship, especially abiding, lifelong relationships. I was struck by how accurately she hit on the things that I appreciate most about my longtime friendships with the people who have known me since long before I became the person I am now. In one passage, told from the point of view of Willem, now a famous actor, she writes:
"But to Jude, he wasn't an actor; he was his friend, and that identify supplanted everything else. It was a role he had inhabited for so long that it had become, indelibly, who he was. To Jude, he was no more primarily an actor than Jude was primarily a lawyer--it was never the first or second or third way that either of them would describe the other. It was Jude who remembered who he had been before he had made a life pretending to be other people: someone with a brother, someone with parents, someone to whom everyone seemed so impressive and beguiling [...] He wanted to be reminded of who he was; he wanted to be around someone for whom his career would never be the most interesting thing about him." 
There are many sweeping descriptions like this one, many of which burrowed its way into my consciousness to the point where I found myself rolling them over in the back of mind as I've spent time with friends in the last few weeks. One of my other favorites came from a scene where she describes a long, mundane phone conversation about small, day to day nuances: "It had seemed to him the ideal expression of an adult relationship, to have someone with whom you could discuss the mechanics of a shared existence."

This book is hard to read. It's long and gruesome and there aren't as many moments of redemption as I've gotten used to in my summer of reading fluff, but it's totally worth the effort. It's beautifully written (even in its more violent moments), and taught me more about my own relationships than a book has in a long time.

No comments: