A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


From gestation to publication A Little Life has had a controversial existence.  For this blog I am not going to analyse that discussion but, whilst referring to it, to give my own reaction to the novel.  The New Yorker, although the words are used positively, described the novel as subversive and graphic: I have read only about half of it and feel very uneasy.

At first A Little Life appears to be a paean to male friendship.  In an interview with Tim Adams, of the Guardian, Yanagihara states that she does not believe in marriage and sees friendship as ‘a purer relationship’.  This reminds me, oddly, of D.H.Lawrence’s interrogation of Rupert Birkin’s two relationships in Women in Love:  Ursula and Rupert alongside Rupert and Gerald.


As a young girl I was horrified to read Rupert’s mimicry of  Ursula, when he accuses of her of subconsciously yelling, ‘Do you love me? Yield knave or die’.  Ursula, as I did, insists on the supremacy of love over everything.  She wants to be everything to Rupert and for him to repeatedly tell her so.  But Rupert explains that she can never be enough for him; he needs an additional friendship with a man to be satisfied.  As in Rupert and Gerald’s relationship friendships in A Little Life contain, at times, homoerotic elements.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates as Gerald and Rupert in the film of Women in Love      MGM 1969

In choosing four male friends for her protagonists, Yanagihara initially probes close, loving, long-lasting friendships between men.  Unusually she relied on a set of photographic portraits (collected over a number of years), not only as inspiration, but also to construct the narrative arc of the novel.  Two of these can be seen below; the remainder are on her Pinterest page.

Vestigial Velasquez by Geoffrey Chadsey 2010: The Guardian

The portraits are disturbing and I think it is by studying them that a reader can best understand the novel.  Critics have likened it to Nabokov’s Lolita, or to something in the horror genre by Stephen King, or to Donna Tartt’s  The Secret History.  Yanagihara herself speaks of A Little Life as being like ‘certain fairy tales’ and, in agreeing with her, I see a similarity to the dramatic and horrifying abuse explored in Martin McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, which is also inspired by children’s stories.

The fact that there are no space breaks in the novel is important for Yanagihara as she wanted the reading experience to be immersive, and that may be why reading A Little Life makes me feel anxious and unhappy: resentful, perhaps, of being placed in the position of a voyeur.  Unsuprisingly Yanagihara found herself fighting with her editor about ‘how much a reader can take’ and seems to want the reader to feel complicit and ‘intrusive’.  It’s hard for the reader, exposed to such relentless pain, to bear it.  Before deciding to face the challenge of completing the novel I found it necessary to read reviews and research the writer.

The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room by Diane Arbus: icollection

‘I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. In the end you are really left on your own.’ Yanagihara’s credo cued me to think of W.C. Pilley’s reaction to the publication of Women in Love: ‘I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps – festering, putrid heaps which smell to high heaven.’ This is my response to A Little Life. I know that such abuses take place in the world, and are taking place at this moment but, in reading on, and being interested, I feel as if I am allowing or even encouraging the cruelty to continue.

Yanagihara is interested in the concept of ‘not getting better’ and states in an interview with David K. Wheeler that ‘if you are going to end a book without hope, then it has to be a hard-won without hope’ as she thinks ‘otherwise it’s just you showing how dark you are’.  So her aim seems to be that the reader buys into hope and that the hope will evaporate. In Women in Love Gerald finally finds the end to his suffering, ‘Yet why be afraid? It was bound to happen. To be murdered!  He was bound to be murdered, he could see it. This was the moment when the death was uplifted, and there was no escape.’

‘ He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.’

A Little Life is not over for me yet and I do not know what happens in the end other than, as for Gerald, friendship will not save Jude.  Jude is the patron saint of lost causes: sadly he proves to be a lost cause despite his friends.

Works cited

Adams, T. Hanya Yanagihara: ‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high‘.  London: The Observer. 26th July 2016. Interview.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. London: Thomas Seltzer. 1920

Pilley, W. C. John Bull 17th September 1921. Print.

Yanagihara, H. A Little Life. New York: Doubleday. 2015

Yanagihara, H., Wheeler, D.K. In Conversation. Youtube. January 26th 2016. Interview.