The Dim-Post

April 19, 2016

Notes on ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanigahara

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:29 pm
  • Warning: contains spoilers for much of the novel’s big reveals. Just like this NYRB review, only they don’t have a spoiler warning and just blurt out all of the huge plot twists, out of malice presumably, because their reviewer didn’t like it. Here’s a positive review at The Atlantic, which reckons it is the ‘great gay American novel’. I’m not an expert on gay American literature, but I’m also pretty confident that reviewer is wrong.
  • I loved the first third of the book and actually went around recommending it to people based on the beginning, and then finished it and decided I didn’t actually like it that much.
  • Here’s my problem. Yanighara wants to Say Something with this book. She’s making a statement about physical and sexual child abuse, and how in a lot of memoirs and literature it is often depicted as a traumatic obstacle in people’s lives for them to recover from, or overcome and then find happiness and fulfilment. But that isn’t how it works, she argues. The evil of abuse is that many victims never recover. Their lives and their ability to find happiness can be forever diminished, and the damage inflicted upon them goes on to contaminate the lives of those who love them.
  • I think that’s an awesome premise for a book. I don’t hold with the idea that good literature should be complex and mysterious and nuanced. More novelists should call it like they see it.
  • The obvious problem with writing a book like that is that it would be unrelentingly grim and unreadable. And Yanigahara’s solution to this is to go for high gothic melodrama. The abuse suffered by Jude, the main character is appalling. And then it gets worse. And then it gets even worse. And then it gets worse still in an incident which, if it happened in the real world would be a global news story but in the world of A Little Life in which everyone is, seemingly either a paedophile rapist or a doting saint, is unremarkable.
  • And then Jude and his friends have to live successful lives, both to dazzle and uplift the reader – for a while – and also make the point that no level of wealth or success can heal Jude. So the four friends become super wealthy lawyers and artists and architects and actors, all beloved and famous and celebrated, and live in fabulous apartments surrounded by beautiful art and cook lavish meals for brilliant dinner parties and travel the world and build dream homes and do virtuous things with their vast wealth. For such a serious and celebrated literary novel there’s an awful lot of Sex and the City to the book.
  • So Yanigahara is trying to make a point about the reality of abuse, but doing so in a book in which almost none of the plot is remotely realistic.
  • And she’s also structured it like a mystery novel. What happened to Jude? How did he get those mysterious scars? Keep reading to find out! This means that a lot of the payoffs – the satisfaction – in reading the novel is reading about child abuse. She’s very careful not to exploit or sensationalise this: there’s nothing graphic. What she does do is give the reader enough detail to create a negative space in which we can imagine it all ourselves. I don’t know if even the very worthy theme of the book quite justifies that.
  • The book is an experience though. The plot is not realistic, but it does take you deep into the life and mind of a very damaged soul and it (mostly) seems compelling and real.
  • I am usually an advocate of populist, accessible literature but in this case it feels like the author undermined what could have been a great book in order to make it more popular and accessible.


  1. Sounds horrible – you should add a trigger warning along with the spoiler warning.

    Comment by Waonui — April 19, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

  2. Sounds like a cross between Atlas Shrugged and The Bone People. As the experience of attempting both of those was a bit like hitting oneself on the head with a hammer, i.e. it feels so great when you stop reading, thanks for the warning.

    Comment by Joe W — April 19, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

  3. “Trigger warning”- also happens to be the name of Neil Gaiman’s recent book of short stories.

    Comment by Corokia — April 20, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

  4. Sounds awfully like this bizarre little story

    Comment by Robert Singers — April 20, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

  5. I too enjoyed the first third of this book and then struggled my way to the 70% mark but then I could go no further. The annoyingly fairy tale nature of many of the characters and their situations in life, the ongoing abuse of Joel (most of it self inflicted) . . . Too much for this boy. The more I persevere with the book the more I hate it.

    Comment by Michael Nelson (bed — April 21, 2016 @ 11:35 am

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