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Subversive Brilliance or Masochistic Monotony?

By: Charles U. Zug
November 15, 2017

anya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, winner of prestigious literary prizes and lauded as almost world-historical in significance, is a powerful, perhaps even “subversively-brilliant,” reflection on progressives’ favorite questions. Yanagihara’s “great gay novel” depicts a world of ambition and atheism in which most traditional institutions—politics, religion, and the conventional family—have been replaced by alternatives: modern art and artists, the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and what David Mendelssohn dubs “nonsexual friendship among adult men.” An epic-length 832 pages and a reflection on “twenty-first century anxieties,” Yanagihara intends her novel to be for millennials what Flaubert’s work was for romantics, Hemingway’s for the “lost” generation, and Kerouac’s for the “beats.”

A Little Life’s endlessly-weaving, flashback-studded narrative amounts to a rather simple story—four friends meet in college, maintain and deepen their friendship as young, New York professionals, gradually drift apart, and then briefly reunite, before coming to a sudden, cataclysmic end. Jean-Baptiste (“JB”) Marion is a gay artist and the son of Haitian immigrants; Malcolm Irvine, the heir of a wealthy Upper-East Side black family; Willem Ragnarsson, an actor who eventually becomes famous; and Jude St. Francis, a federal-prosecutor-turned-corporate-lawyer with an enigmatic past.

In this quartet of misfits, each plays his characteristic part, at least initially. The novel’s first 100 pages depicts megalomaniacal JB seeking fame in New York’s art world as well as solace from his close-knit family; Wilhem, the sensitive “nice guy” of the bunch, reconciling his emotionally distant Scandinavian parents with his mentally-handicapped brother; and Malcolm, heir of a wealthy Africa-American father and sophisticated Upper East-side mother, attempting to navigate Manhattan’s complicated racial and socioeconomic matrices.

These subplots are eclipsed by the story of Jude, an intelligent, sensitive man of unknown race. Jude is painfully encumbered by the scars, emotional and physical, of his brutalized early life. A foundling, he was fostered and then horrifically abused in a South Dakotan monastery, before being kidnapped and pimped out in the southwest by the renegade “Brother Luke,” one of the monks who raised him. Finally, Jude was taken in by a man named Dr. Traylor, who actually restored him to health—but then proceeded to torture Jude in his basement. In the grisly apex of Jude’s life, Traylor masochistically runs Jude over with his car, a catastrophe which leaves him permanently crippled.

When salvation finally comes, it’s not from Jude’s evangelical foster-parents, but from the welfare state. One of his social workers—an atheistic lesbian, Yanagihara points out—encourages Jude to apply to college. Once there, Christian Lorentzen notes that “in proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top [of], the upper middle class.” Having made his way to an unnamed prestigious college, and then to an unnamed prestigious graduate school for a law degree and a master’s in mathematics, Jude finds a mentor, best friend, and eventual adopted father in his constitutional law professor.

As Lorentzen’s formula suggests, the novel would amount to little more than a formidably tedious morality play if it showed nothing more than Jude’s ascent from rags to riches. Yanagihara tries to surpass this by dwelling on (not to say, obsessing over) Jude’s physical and psychological scars. Her morose basso continuo drones throughout the entire novel. Jude is “condemned to feel...constant anxiety” and “watchfulness” around almost everyone in his life. Indeed, “he was frightened of everything, it sometimes seemed, and he hated that about himself. Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

Jude’s suffering, “the foundation of his character” and the sun around which the novel’s solar system orbits, gives the novel some gravity and depth. The question is whether all this monstrously undeserved suffering sustains Yanagihara’s monstrously oversized tome. As Elif Batuman suggests, the sheer extent of Jude’s suffering makes his life nearly unfathomable. Jude is more akin to a war refugee than to the tragic hero which Yanagihara evidently intends him to be.

The monks, for example, who raise him find him as a newborn infant, left to die beside garbage bags on a freezing South Dakota morning. There is no record of his birth in the unnamed town. The very fact of Jude’s existence, his “gothic inverted fairytale origin,” sounds like a freak accident: pitiable, no doubt, but so far removed from ordinary human experience as to be unapproachable.

Then there is also Jude’s proclivity for cutting himself, a gruesome spectacle which Yanagihara describes with relish. This tortuous ritual would seem to be rooted in Jude’s past sufferings. But since we’re unable to sympathize with those sufferings, Jude’s mode of coping with them remains mostly unfelt. Passages devoted to his self-torture consequently read like instances of grotesque self-indulgence on the author’s part; she seems to enjoy them, not for a higher philosophico-artistic purpose, but, as David Mendelssohn has argued, for their own sake: “The abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one.”

The only plot point that gives Life true moral depth, thereby saving it from masochistic monotony, is Jude’s perverse conviction that he deserves his horrible fate. “You were born for this,” Brother Luke tells Jude—and Jude believes him, evidently because being born for something, even a life of torment, is preferable to being born for nothing. Cruel moralism is more palatable for him than barren nihilism.

Jude’s sense of deserving also sheds psychological light on his self-hatred, the existence of which Yanagihara never tires of reminding us. If he somehow deserved his plight, then at least his “little life” would have moral significance. If, however, Jude’s suffering simply happened to him, then he would have only himself to blame for failing to overcome it. Clinging to the notion that he was born to be a sex slave, he would be failing to embrace a world where no one is born for anything. And fail he does—massively: “[H]e wonders why and how he has let four months—four months increasingly distant from him—so affect him, so alter his life. But then, he might as well ask—as he often does—why he has let the first 15 years of his life so dictate the past 28.”

A Little Life is not only nihilistic suffering. Morality and moralism do make occasional appearances. Yet they, too, are ultimately unconvincing because Yanagihara’s world cannot sustain them. Ana, Jude’s social worker, for example, nonchalantly volunteers to “talk sin” with him when he moves in with evangelical foster-parents. Her atheism notwithstanding, Ana is convinced (momentarily, at least) that “there is a hell” that Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor “need to be in.” To comic effect, this atheist concocts ad hoc eternal torments to punish whoever happens to provoke her punitive impulses.

Equally incoherent are the pleas for help moaned by JB as he struggles to overcome his meth addiction. “Help me, [JB would] say aloud, in those moments. Help me. But he didn’t know to whom he was addressing this plea, or what he expected to happen.” Evidently unequal to his earlier creed of “ambition and atheism,” JB becomes a meth addict after achieving fame and fortune as a successful New York artist. Far from bringing him fulfillment and happiness, the very success that he spends his young adulthood ravenously pursuing makes him so miserable when he finally achieves it that he turns to amphetamines to distract himself from it.

If liberation and autonomy were all human beings needed to be happy—as many today profess, and as A Little Life sometimes seems to suggest—it would be difficult to explain the cloud of chronic unhappiness that hangs over Yanagihara’s very-liberated world. Is it possible her characters yearn for something which the twenty-first century world’s radical freedom cannot provide? Can art, creativity, and unconventional relationships sustain us in a world where God is dead? A Little Life depicts radical freedom as terrifying rather than liberating. Ordinary human beings—“naked, shivering poor devils,” to use Leo Strauss’ formula—are expected joyously to embrace a world devoid of anything higher than their own petty selves. Accordingly, Jude’s ceaseless misery shows that he has discerned the bridgeless gulf lying between the moral demands that he puts on the universe, and his conception of it as Godless. But whether Yanagihara’s conception of the world is the same as Jude’s, and whether Jude’s conception is correct, is left an open question.