I very rarely write about books I don’t like, unless they have high entertainment value and the author won't care. And I don’t usually do straight reviews, but I am making an exception in this case to make an unusual point. For this reason, I am not dealing with the clothes in the book, and there is no fashion illustration for the blogpost. The images above are the UK and US covers of the book. And the author for sure won't care, she's done very well with it.
One of the features of A Little Life that I didn’t like is that it is way, way too long - more than 700 pages - and that the claim by the author and editor that it couldn’t be made shorter is simply not true.
I’d have done it for them.
(The lovely online magazine Slate - for whom I used to work - simply encouraged them both by giving them this space to discuss not editing it: they’d have been better employed spending the time getting on with the red pencilling.)
The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.
It’s also disconcertingly unreal: though given a very thorough geographical placing – largely Manhattan and Massachusetts – the timing is completely non-existent. The novel covers more than 50 years, but all of it seems to be happening right now (in terms of, say, technology) and never, in terms of events in the outside world. Or convincingness. It starts as though it is going to be the story of four college graduates, close friends, making their way in New York in different professions. Two of the friends get ditched by the author – we know almost nothing of them, the odd page or two over the course of this very long book. The novel is actually about Jude who –
SLIGHT SPOILER BUT REVEALED IN EVERY SINGLE REVIEW
--- spent his childhood subjected to the most terrible sexual and physical abuse. Having met not one person in his first 16 years who could either help or protect him or even just refrain from mistreating him, he now spends the next 40 years surrounded (equally unconvincingly) by people (with one exception) who love him, who adore him, who will do anything for him.
All this is quite ridiculous, along with the fact that everyone is terribly good-looking and quite bizarrely successful in their lives, and those who were not fabulously wealthy to begin with become so through those well-known moneymaking pursuits of acting and art.
You can say that this is a fable, a parable, a fairytale (there are strange echoes of the Little Mermaid) – but then the author seems to want to have it both ways, with this ludicrous world on the one hand, but Jude demanding our pity and sorrow on the other. We are asked to believe in his story. I didn’t. The book left me unmoved by its attempts to show the love and kindness of his friends.
But my major objection to this book is something different. What I hated about it was the complete lack of a true moral framework. The author’s attitude is that what happened to Jude is dreadful because he is a beautiful clever sensitive boy.
This underlying assumption – that he didn’t deserve this because of who he was - is appalling, because of the flipside, that it all wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Jude wasn’t so attractive. (To be clear: Yanagihara never overtly says this, but I think it is an inescapable conclusion from her line of writing.) That goes against everything I believe in. If we don’t at least try to believe that all humans are worthwhile, and work and live with that assumption, then we are lost.
In addition, Jude can only be helped by money, success, fame, networking, other beautiful people. Everything that helps him is the result of money: this is one of the most materialist books I have ever read. I think that is why I winced at quite a number of things in the book but (unlike other readers and reviewers) I did not find it affecting or moving or profound. I found the character of Jude’s great friend Willem completely unreal, and the endless kindness and affection handed out by him and others to Jude nearly as unconvincing as the bad times the author put him through in his earlier life.
I have rarely felt so strongly about the morals in a book, particularly one that appears to demand our sympathy for a bad situation.
I thought the ghoulish descriptions of the abuse were vile and unnecessary and pointless – it isn’t real, and it is quite unbelievable, so why is it so detailed and unrelenting? Yanagihara wanted, presumably, to invent and write about Jude, and to imagine what it would be like to be him – but she didn’t fulfil her contract with the reader by making this worth our attention.
There are other absurdities: The author seems to have decided to emulate Hilary Mantel by using the pronoun ‘he’ for Jude – but this is just confusing and messy (and inconsistent - in the para below, the first 'he' is Willem). When Mantel did it in Wolf Hall, where if in doubt, ‘he’ means Thomas Cromwell, it was clever and persuasive.
Then there are the stupid names, with characters called Citizen & Contractor. The whole adoption scenario. The fact that there are virtually no women in the book. The endless repetitions of very similar scenes. The complete lack of any humour or wit. The observations on modern life shoe-horned in for no reason. The completely unbelievable set of lawsuits at the end of the book, making no sense on any level - including, yet again, morality. The paragraphs like this:
JB has been on a fellowship in Italy for the past six months, and Malcolm and Sophie have been so busy with the construction of a new ceramics museum in Shanghai that the last time they saw them all was in April, in Paris - he was filming there, and Jude had come in from London, where he was working, and JB in from Rome, and Malcolm and Sophie had laid over for a couple of days on their way back to New York.The US cover of the book – above right – seems both horrible and eminently suitable for the contents: unsubtle, forcing the story, insisting on something to the reader, shouting at the reader.
If I want to read a story about a man having a hard life I will re-read the Book of Job from the Old Testament.