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Anything but Little

A Review of Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’

One thing’s for sure, nothing here is little. To the contrary, this 800-plus-page novel is about excess.

Much of this excess, by which I mean the irredeemable melancholia and violence it presents, comes from its extreme depictions of trauma that seem to justify all trigger warnings that have been said about the novel: the main character’s sexual abuse experiences, his psychosomatic and self-inflicted injuries, together with his cynical, if not nihilistic, attitude towards life. You could say, it’s indifferent to how much its readers can take, though there are moments it tries to be compassionate, but only in as much as everyone around him is compassionate. But, it must be said: reading this novel requires great compassion, a serious understanding of trauma and how it seriously affects real people.

‘A Little Life,’ the second novel from Hanya Yanagihara, is in your face blunt, obscene, and grotesque, one that’s seemingly done with all the genteel subtleties of modern narratives. Frankly, this ‘too muchness’ of the novel, as often pointed out in our book discussions, is what makes it a hard read. And it didn’t help that we started reading it early June, amid the rising global coronavirus cases, work-from-home self-isolation, and for some of us, erratic weather. There were days, one of our readers quipped, where he picked up the book and looked out the window to see thick dark clouds dimming his early summer morning. It felt like it’s the wrong book to read at that moment, only we think now, it wasn’t, so much as it somehow mirrors the kind of anxiety we’re all in. 

Beyond the ‘too muchness,’ however, what stands out is its representation of trauma in its most literal sense. Here, trauma is more material than abstract, its effects real and consequences immediate, as manifest in the novel’s extreme attention to what is tangible. Here, there is but the body. 

It’s excessive for a reason. Yanagihara, in her 2015 interview with The Guardian, talks about how she ‘wanted everything turned up a little too high.’ For this, it’s easy to read the novel as a critique of modern capitalist values when you look into the kind of worldview it largely depicts: the characters are well-educated, lead successful careers, able to afford expensive NYC apartments, among others. Money, therefore, is a nonissue, and you too, could argue that they have everything, at least, insomuch that money could buy. Yet none of that seems to spare anyone from grief. This is probably the point of the novel: there is a need for a kind of sifting. 

The following passage contemplates the legacy Jude would leave behind when he dies, something that seems to require a narrowing down to one’s self: ‘…not buildings or paintings or films or sculptures. Not books. Not papers. Not people: not a spouse, not children, probably not parents, and, if he keeps behaving the way he is, not friends. Not even new law. He has created nothing. He has made nothing, nothing but money.’ It’s widely known that money has no inherent value as it’s, first of all, paper used as an instrument for economic exchange. For Jude to say, for all that he has accumulated in life, whether material goods or social connections, ‘he has made…nothing but money’ is rather telling. The self becomes a curious object of interest when you boil it down to his biggest insecurity, his own body, all of its flaws, corruption, and monstrosity. This fixation on the body only reifies his trauma and gives it even more intensity. 

Here, trauma is embodied, well within the physical domain, a return to its original sense—wound in GreekIt’s its own entity, something quite divorced from his psyche, that Jude often refers to as hyenas or beasts residing in his body, his legs, back and skin. There it takes precedence, occurring and reoccurring, capable of recreating itself, particularly in the very wounds he inflicts upon himself. Where the wound emerges as a written symbol of trauma the body, in turn, becomes a palimpsest, though here nothing is ever effaced. 

These somatic representations of trauma are not only histrionically effective but also necessary. For all of Jude’s troubled past, he says, ‘I need to make physical what I feel.’ Even matters as abstract as memories of trauma take on material attributes, something that he envisions of keeping in a vault, in which he says, ‘at the end of the day, he would gather his images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.’ In this manner, trauma is not only physical but also capable of being collected and possessed.

To say that trauma is salient in this novel is an understatement. Rather, it’s the plangent leitmotif that oppresses and drags you down as you leaf through each page. Despite its inherent difficulty, it’s inevitable a subject for it stares right at you and then slaps you hard right in the face. It holds on to the very literalness of it: Trauma torments the body. The body cuts and bleeds, corrupts and deteriorates. As Yanagihara said in her interview, the trauma and all of its material excessiveness is intentional.

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