“But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”
Happiness is not a word to describe A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; instead, misery is synonymous with this book. In the subset of the fictional reading community all across various platforms like GoodReads, BookTube, BookTok, Bookstagram, and Readerly, readers who have read A Little Life have been halved into two groups. One batch loves the book, and the other hates the book.
Many readers like myself fall into the latter category of people who dislike the book.
Published by Doubleday on 10th March 2015, it quickly gained international acclaim from critics all around the world and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the same year, with scores of other nominations and prizes shortly after that.
In the manner of viral books, A Little Life gained fame in early 2020 which undoubtedly was not a good time for a book like that to gain traction and fame within the book community.
Reviewers have already advised that the book should be read when the reader is emotionally strong and in a happy place both in life and mentally. Why?
For a book that has readers running to local bookstores and emptying their stock of the book, A Little Life contains almost 30 listed and registered trigger warnings, and none of them light. Due to FOMO (Fear of missing out) that comes as a side effect of a viral book, readers are willfully ignorant of the serious trigger warnings. And the result? Instant regret.
The book claims to follow four friends in 90s New York following their dreams and chasing their big careers. A story of four friends; Willem the actor, JB the painter, Jude the lawyer and Malcolm the architect. On the surface, the book seems innocent enough to be a coming of age fiction book, but once the pages are turned and the chapters are consumed, it is poles apart.
As slowly as the book progresses, each character dies down and only Jude remains as the main character of the book. Jude is a character that is nothing but suffering and agony. For a book that has labelled bildungsroman as a genre, there is no growth in Jude’s character and his life progression shows no development within the excruciating 800-page novel.
There is no plot in the story and the story does not develop. Readers merely follow a young Jude well into his adulthood. However, the harshest critics have admitted to a plot being present- the plot of Jude’s suffering. Considering that for most of the book Jude is transparently the most important character, he does not seem as so, with every type of abuse constantly served out to him from his early years and into adulthood. Apart from the fact that there is no major change in the narrative of Jude’s suffering, the other characters are merely used by Hany Yanagihara as filler characters.
“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.”
In an interview with New York magazine Vulture, Hanya Yanigahara stated that one of the things that she wanted to do in the book was to create a protagonist who would never get better, and on that, she did deliver. Granted that the counterpart of fiction books of various genres like fantasy, romance, etc, do go headlong into the real world, with undisputed problems faced by bona fide characters which readers can have a rapport with; but 800-pages of graphic abuse and suffering? That might be a sign of lazy writing.
With over 33k reviews on Goodreads, the world’s largest site for readers, many have dubbed Hanya Yanagihara’s writing as “lazy writing” with too many details being dragged out and a collective agreement on the vex that the book could have been 200-300 pages shorter and would have still delivered the same result. With characters overcoming pain and falling in love overnight for a crumb of plot drive, characters are wasted and there is no diverging of suffering. The book as well as the writing contained no hope, and the lazy writing of Hanya Yanagihara’s depiction of torture, abuse and suffering was too detailed to be considered “good writing”.
Goodreads has also listed A Little Life as number 2 in the category of “Trauma Porn”. The depth of her writing is the only thing that pulls readers in, locks them in an uninterrupted cycle of suffering, pain and self-hate, and the trauma is what they leave with.
Most books can bring out emotions from a reader with uncomplicated plots, characters and writing, which differs drastically from all of Hanya Yanagihara’s in-detailed narration of suffering and abuse; which could have been heavily avoided.
British daily newspaper, The Guardian listed A Little Life at number 96 on its list of the 100 best books of the century, which is a high honour.
Is it a book you should read? No. There is not one person who has admitted to recommending this book to anyone.
Should you read it? Maybe if you desire to with an abundance. But, you have your whole life to do so. Wait until you are emotionally and mentally strong enough to dive into a book that is character-driven, slow-paced, emotionally wrecking and depicts nothing but hurt and suffering for 800-long pages.
Please check Trigger Warnings before you decide to read the book: