How do you bring a person back from such pain, such horror, that that person can live a normal life? How do you convince a person who believes that he is the source of such disgust, of such self-loathing, that it is others who are the cause of that defilement and not that person himself? How do you convince a person with such dark fears that inflicting more pain on himself, that punishing himself, is not the appropriate cure or path toward improvement? These are some of the many questions in the netherworld, under the surface, of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a novel about a man who believes that he does not deserve life, even a little bit of it, because of actions that happened to him many years earlier when he was still a child. An abused child, which should be obvious, though the abuse here is much more horrific than I have ever read before—so vile that I fear that many readers will reach a point of repulsion and toss the book aside before the final sections which offer a kind of redemption, possibly even hope, though the getting there is such an arduous task.
There are four main characters—once college roommates—at the center of Yanagihara’s story, though one of them, Jude, is the most important. We follow these men from their early years after college, through their careers, their relationships with others, but especially with one another, until they are all in their early fifties. There’s JB, an artist; Malcolm, an architect; Willem, an actor; and Jude, who is a lawyer. By the end of the story, all have become successful in their careers, but not so much with other people. Ostensibly straight, they have also engaged in occasional sexual activities with other men (JB considers himself gay). Their closeness to each other becomes somewhat fluid down through the years, though it is the bonding of the group that is the deepest emotion most of them will ever feel. Interestingly, though the author is a woman, women play only minor roles in their lives, which tells you how strong their loyalties are to one another.
As undergraduates, they learned about each other’s idiosyncrasies and their pasts—except for Jude who, whenever asked about his childhood, would respond that it was too boring, too plain for elaboration. Nor did the others ever see him undressed. He always wore long-sleeves and trousers. The fact that Jude was a cutter, that he cut himself, was largely concealed and continued to be disguised because of Andy, his doctor of many years—who genuinely tried to help him but also enabled him to keep injuring himself.
The lengthy narrative, with multiple of time shifts, slowly reveals what happened to Jude as a child. He was a foundling, left at a monastery in Montana and raised by the brothers. The physical abuse started there, beatings especially, but later sexual. Jude would pick up objects he discovered unattended: pencils, buttons, and food, mostly items of no value. But one day he pocketed one of the brothers’
cigarette lighters, and when it was later discovered with his meager possessions, the worst of the physical abuse began. Father Gabriel rubbed olive oil on the back of one of Jude’s hands and then took the lighter and lit the oil. The Sharia-like mentality of the brothers at the monastery regarded punishment as one of its core preventive controls. The brother remarks, “This is what you get. You’ll never forget not to steal again.” If it were only that simple.
Things get much worse when Brother Luke—the one brother Jude believes he can trust—runs off with him and uses the ten-year-old boy as their source of income by prostituting him to hundreds of men. That is also when Jude begins to believe that he is the guilty party, that he is the source of his disgust. Brother Luke’s own sexual abuse of the boy further eliminates whatever iota of dignity Jude might have had. The result is that later in his life, as an adult, Jude can’t stand to be touched by anyone. Any sexual activity with people who actually care for him becomes impossible. And the cutting—and attempts at suicide—resurfaces in moments of tension throughout his life, even though his three college roommates do their best to protect him from the world.
Pedophilia is at the center of A Little Life, as it was in Yanagihara’s earlier novel The People in the Trees (2012). I thought that novel was extraordinary when I reviewed it two years ago, but also rough going because of decisions that characters make that are ethically questionable. My hunch is that A Little Life was written before People in the Trees and that no publisher would tackle the current book until the other one became such a success. One wonders what has provoked Yanagihara to write about pedophilia in both of these novels, and one can’t help being curious about the absence of females in both stories. I doubt that there will be answers to these questions.
A Little Life contains some of the tenderest depictions of platonic love between men that I have ever read. These are the relationships in the novel that redeem the horrific incidents of Jude’s childhood. But I can’t imagine any subject that is more unsettling than children who are abused by predatory men, emotionally crippled for life, and then—as the coup de grace—these children, once they become adults, believe that they are responsible for what has happened to them. It’s a terrifying result.
Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life
Doubleday, 736 pp., $30
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.