There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he has envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the 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. But this method wasn’t effective…So he invented some solutions.
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
A Little Life was unlike any book I ever read. There are sad, destructive works written with a degree of distance from the characters where you understand their pain but are removed from it; and then there are those written with such heart-wrenching devastation, that it is difficult to breathe and convince yourself that these people do not exist. I read this book almost two months ago and I still cannot bury the grief it evoked. Goodreads rating: 5 glorious stars.
It took 18 months for Yanagihara to write this and open a world’s eyes. Her intention was to see how far she can push the reader and she more than succeeded. There is not a single horrible aspect of society that she did not spearhead; child trafficking, rape, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and self-harm, just to name a few. What amazes me is that she gave unspeakable descriptions but with such absolute and aloof definitiveness, the emotion you felt originated within yourself. It was hard enough to read the facts she presented to you, but it became exponentially more difficult in the rare moments Jude embraced his emotions.
There was one vivid scene that invoked the same terror you feel when you watch a horror movie and you want to scream at the idiotic protagonist not to go down the stairs. Just when you think Jude will heal, Yanagihara described, with a horrible sense of foreboding, that he was about to walk into his apartment to begin a night that became his final undoing. This was right after a drunk Caleb confronted Harold and Jude in a restaurant and Jude went home alone. Until this point, Jude and company had their lives [mostly] put together; they knew their flaws and deep-rooted issues that they continued to work through, but this night, snapped Jude’s control over his painful past. When Caleb violated Jude in all the same ways Jude faced as a child, he destroyed the vault Jude maintained.
There were a number of times, like this passage, where it was too much of everything. Too much horror, too much anguish, too much grief. Yanagihara wielded her words like swords that struck at the most vulnerable parts of the book and the only way to defend yourself was to enact your defense mechanisms. In many situations, the only option to move forward was to become so numb that no amount of heinous child molestation would be able to affect you; and trust me, there was plenty of it so you better be pretty damn numb.
The diction was beautiful; however, I zoned out on occasion because it was too wordy. Though it’s sacrilegious to say this about any well-written novel, there were a lot of extraneous details that could have been omitted without losing the integrity of the scenes. Even though I understood the importance of every passage, some of them were inessential to the plot and character development and took away from the momentum of the overall book.
It took weeks to finish and by the end, I needed to escape. It appeared that surrender was the only option because the agony was so exorbitant, all I could wonder was how Jude fought to survive. But I guess that is what Yanagihara’s goal was the whole time: how much can a human endure and still find a will to live?