A tale of two novels
A Little Life starts out as a bildungsroman. Its milleu, of 4 highly educated, multiracial people more or less on the gay side of the Kinsey scale is witty and rings true. It’s a mélange of workplace struggles, fabulous soirees, bad apartments and sexual experimentation. Then, about 200 pages in, it turns into a Lemony Snicket-styled book for adults, full of abuse and suffering. The two modes of storytelling, however, don’t mesh. Yanagihara’s scene setting is so meticulous—down to describing what people eat and their apartments—that the intrusion of Dickensian (heading towards Grand Guginol) excessive suffering is odd.
Mind you, the writing about self-loathing and self-harm is powerful and ghastly and gorgeous. It just doesn’t seem to belong to the first conception of the novel. Furthermore, the history of the lead character, Jude, is downright surreal. I had a hard time believing that a pugilistic lawyer who made enough money to live in a Soho warehouse with a private swimming pool, who was also a master baker and sang lieder and had a post graduate degree in pure mathematics came from such ghoulish circumstances—a foundling raised by pedophilic monks, then a child sex slave, then a teenage hustler, and finally, a victim of a Silence of the Lambs styled sicko. Oh, he also suffers from blistering pain that requires him to use a wheelchair sometimes, and he cuts himself to ribbons with regular frequency. My problem wasn’t with the hopelessness of the story, which some people call “tragedy porn”. It was with the logistics. The problem is, in Yanagihira’s complex, detailed novel, there wasn’t a single scene of Jude learning how to bake or being a lawyer, so you don’t really see how he is supposed to pull off the Tough Lawyer by day/wounded self-destructive boy with the thorn in side by night balancing act. Also unbelievable was the patience his enabling friends had for Jude. I know real life people who are a whole lot less damaged than Jude who try people’s patience. Only his friend JB is strong enough not to put up with his crap—and JB is painted in a bad light.
Despite the flaws, A Little Life did keep me reading. The prose was great if a little overwrought sometimes, and was even suspenseful. I think that there is a great novel within this messy first draft.