book club: ‘a little life’.

by Michael King

‘I have a book for you,’ a friend told me, ‘but it will very likely break your heart.’

I took him at his word, tracking it down immediately –– A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara –– and setting it in my Amazon cart. ‘I’ll get to it,’ I promised, ‘when I’ve got time to have my heart broken.’

I was, at the time, poised to close my second chapter in Muncie, facing my own series of heartbreaking goodbyes. I would move home, savor a few fleeting weeks in the warmth of my family, and then move my life to New York. The months would scuttle by underfoot, my legs stretching to keep pace, and I would all but forget A Little Life.

Then, one afternoon, I reviewed my Amazon cart and found it there, nestled between a piece of wall art (Indiana, by county) and a pair of happy socks. Feeling ready, I clicked it into existence, unboxing it a few days later, beginning.

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Jude. Willem. JB. Malcolm. A Little Life surrounds itself with the stories of these four men, college friends embarking together to carve out individual lives in New York City. Their dreams are informed by the scars in their stories, the reader learns, and each of them steps precariously ahead with the weight of his history over his shoulders. Malcolm resides with his parents, directionless and privileged, and doesn’t have his friends’ clarity of purpose. JB is convinced of his destiny, long the center of his family’s world, and he awaits his ‘big break’ in the art world with a bit of petulance. Willem is an actor, albeit a bit tempered in his expectations, though he is strikingly unaware of the impact of his beauty on everyone else in the room. At last, there is Jude, who is bright and loving and guarded, a promising law student, a mystery even to those who love him best.

‘You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.’

The narrative of A Little Life sweeps over a broad timeline, bringing the reader along to see the ways in which the four titular characters build and break and fall apart over a lifetime. With the turn of a page, a character realizes a dream, another falls into drug addiction, another falls into love, and another reflects on the heartbreaking losses that still haunt him. New characters wander into their lives, shifting their priorities and changing the routines of their lives –– Harold, Julia, Andy, Richard, Robin. And, as their twenties give way to their thirties, forties, fifties, the role their common friendship plays in their lives rightly evolves. Yanagihara characterizes all of them beautifully, with depth and honesty, pain and love alike.

‘Dear Jude,’ Harold wrote, ‘thank you for our beautiful (if unnecessary) note. I appreciate everything in it. You’re right; that mug means a lot to me. But you mean more. So stop torturing yourself.

‘If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.

‘Actually––maybe I am that kind of person after all.

‘Love, Harold.’

At the center of everything in A Little Life, I’d be remiss in mentioning, is Jude. An entire section of the novel, ‘The Postman,’ concerns itself with Jude and the mysteries that surround him. All his identities are ambiguous and unexplored –– is he gay? straight? what is his racial background? who were his parents? what stories is he carrying with him, and why does he guard them with such severity? what, exactly, led to the debilitating pains he experiences with his legs? Of course, much of Jude’s history makes itself known over the course of A Little Life, but at a cost. Chapter after chapter, Jude’s story sifts through the ways in which the traumas we bear interfere with the lives (the loves, the hopes, the dreams) we permit ourselves to seek out.

The thing I remember most vividly from that weekend is a small thing. We were walking, you and he and Julia and I, down that little path lined with birches that led to the lookout. (Back then it was a narrow throughway, do you remember that? It was only later that it became dense with trees.) I was with him, and you and Julie were behind us. You were talking about, oh, I don’t know –– insects? Wildflowers? You two always found something to discuss, you both loved being outdoors, both loved animals: I loved this about both of you, even though I couldn’t understand it. And then you touched his shoulder and moved in front of him and knelt and retied one of his shoelaces that had come undone, and then fell back in step with Julia. It was so fluid, a little gesture: a step forward, a fold onto bended knee, a retreat back to her side. It was nothing to you, you didn’t even think about it; you never ever paused in your conversation. You were always watching him (but you all were), you took care of him in a dozen small ways, I saw all of this over those few days –– but I doubt you would remember this particular incident.

My friend was right. A Little Life broke my heart –– not once, but several times, in an array of nuanced, varied ways. I cried in coffee shops, on my couch, in airplanes slicing their way through clouds, and still I kept turning. My tears were sometimes born from sorrow, other times joy. For every scar inflicted in A Little Life, there is a character fighting to show love. For every brutality, every crushing heartbreak, there is a tendril of stubborn, pervasive hope. In this way, A Little Life explores life at its most honest –– heartfelt and bleak, sorrowful and bright, raw and comforting.