A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

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You’ve probably heard about Yanagihara’s novel. It’s won prestigious awards, been the finalist for others, and garnered mostly rave reviews. You’ve probably heard that it’s about four men, close friends, just out of college and ready to take on the world, starting with New York City in the 1990s.

It’s not. It starts out that way, but quickly focuses on one of the men, the mysterious Jude. While Jude works as a lawyer, Willem, his roommate in both college and their new ratty apartment, wants to make it as an actor. Jean-Batiste, known as JB, is an artist, while Malcolm has started on his architect career.

Only Malcolm comes from a wealthy family, but all quickly become successful, in the sense of being fabulously wealthy and/or famous. That, combined with their not having children, or in some cases spouses, put them for me in the realm of television soap opera. Yes, of course, such lives exist, but that all four should have such over-the-top success strained my credulity.

Of course, there’s plenty of unhappiness to go around. Let no one tell you this is an easy book to read. I often had to put it down and go off and read something else. Despite the glitter and the sustaining friendships, I found the misery so profound that I had to get away.

While three of the friends have their troubles with lovers or drugs, it is Jude whose suffering dominates the book. We learn early on that there is some trauma in his past that has left him with a serious limp and so much pain that he cuts himself regularly. It is the mystery of Jude’s past that keeps us reading. Yanagihara drops bits of information like breadcrumbs leading us ever deeper into the story.

The scenes of Jude cutting his own flesh are almost intolerable. While most of the book is written in an immersive point of view (POV), in those scenes Yanagihara draws back a little, pulling out of the deep dive into Jude’s emotions and instead simply shows his actions leading up to the moment. Then she allows Jude to describe what he is doing with almost clinical detachment.

Immersive POV has become popular in today’s fiction. Whether using first person (“I”) or third person (“he, she”), the author can modulate how deeply to go into the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. In a blog post, Donald Maass describes the importance of using immersion a tool in service of the story, as well as the danger of overusing it. He cautions: “Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination. Readers need space. Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.”

By modulating this distance, Yanagihara keeps the reader from being completely overwhelmed. For example, compare these three passages, all from Jude’s POV:

A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of the shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties.

There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of day, e 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.

He felt a pull of regret after talking to both of them, but he was determined. He was no good for them, anyway; he was only an extravagant collection of problems, nothing more. Unless he stopped himself, he would consume them with his needs. He would take and take and take from them until he had chewed away their every bit of flesh . . .

You can see how these passages progressively go deeper into Jude’s emotions. It’s up to the author to find the right balance for the story.

Another tool Yanagihara uses is changing the verb tense. At certain points in the story while we are in Jude’s POV (with one exception when we are in Willem’s), she shifts into using the present tense, providing a sense of immediacy and upping the tension. Then she falls back into past tense, either with a flashback or by starting a new section. She also moves occasionally into first person POV, always using the same character as narrator, one whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. This, too, changes the emotional intensity.

While I can appreciate how Yanagihara carefully modulates the verb tense changes, POV, and the degree of immersion, I still felt overwhelmed emotionally, if not intellectually. As a writer, I learned from reading this book that a good reason to pull back from immersion is if your story is so disturbing that the reader needs a bit more distance.

I found it a challenging book to read, partly because of the emotional overload and partly because of its length (814 pages in my paperback). Still, I learned a lot about using immersive POV, first versus third person POV, and verb tense changes effectively.

Have you read a novel where you felt immersed in the protagonist’s thoughts, experiences, and emotions? Did you feel there was too little immersion, too much, or just the right amount?

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