"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
"Since then, he has tried to tell Willem more things. But there are so many topics that he has never discussed with anyone since Ana, now twenty five years ago, that he finds he literally doesn't have the language to do so. His past, his fears, what was done to him, what he has done to himself - they are subjects that can only be discussed in tongues he doesn't speak: Farsi, Urdu, Mandarin, Portuguese. Once, he tried to write things down, thinking that it might be easier, but it wasn't - he is unclear how to explain himself to himself."
Hanya Yanagihara is a novelist, editor and travel writer from Hawaii. A Little Life is her second and most recent book. Her first was The People in the Trees.
In A Little Life, four college roommates work their way toward fame and fortune in New York. There's Willem, an actor and transplant from the West. There's JB, a flamboyantly gay artist. There's Malcom, pursuing a career in architecture. And lastly there's Jude, a young man with legal aspirations. As they rise to prominence in their respective fields, they fall into and out of touch with each other, drawn back together every few months by their shared memories of college life.
On the plus side this is an excellently written book, with prose that flows from beginning to end without ever growing stultified or repetitious. Many more seasoned authors would have had trouble sustaining a tone through a novel this length, but Hanya Hanakigara succeeds admirably. Compare this novel to just about anything else released recently, and I think that in terms of style she easily beats out anyone else.
Her character Jude is also an unqualified success. Jude is the most fully realized character I've seen in any book for quite some time. Even after finishing the novel I felt that he had been physically present somewhere, in the world beyond the pages of the book. Parts of Jude's personal history are truly heartbreaking, and his development as a character is both moving and completely believable. This doesn't mean that all of Jude's backstory makes for easy reading, but I never felt my interest in him waver. His struggles, hard as they were to read about, kept me invested until the very end.
On the minus side, however, I found the male characters in this book entirely too effeminate, to the point where they felt like stand-ins for women. The fact that several of them are gay did nothing to lessen this feeling, since even gay men have certain archetypes and modes of behavior to answer to. The amount of time the men in this book - gay or otherwise - spend kissing and fondling each other seemed to detract from its authenticity, and during several junctures it pulled me right out of the narrative. It was a bit like reading one of those manga titles centered on homosexual love, the type directed at adolescent (Japanese) girls.
And this is not the book's greatest weakness. What stands out to me most about A Little Life is how undeveloped some of its characters are. Jude and Willem? Not a problem. Their narrative takes up most of the book. But Malcolm and JB? They are barely present in a book that claims to be about "four friends," and by the end one wonders why the author bothered to include them at all. Giving them more of a presence in the book would have strengthened the finished product. As it is, A Little Life feels very lopsided, as if there's a whole other half that wasn't included in the final printing.
Oh, and it's crazy depressing. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being "hilarious" and 10 being "made me suicidal," this book is a solid 11. Jude's personal struggles are so unrelenting, and he's so tortured by a past he can't admit to, that by the end I started to wonder why he bothered at all, and for who's sake. There could have been more lighter moments in this book; there could have been more pauses between descents into tragedy. As it is it just continues on, dirge-like, until the reader grows frustrated - and at times even bored - with the material. A "turning away" from Jude's travails at certain points wouldn't have weakened the book, it would have made it better. It would have placed his struggles in a larger context.
Not that I disliked A Little Life. To the contrary, it's one of the best books I've read in a long while, and when it's good, it's really good. Perhaps some of my frustration with it is merely due to its length, which seems to portend a more momentous kind of fiction. I'll be carrying Jude with me for a while, but I can't help but feel that the world he inhabited could have been a bit more varied, and a bit more populated by other people.
"The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma (2015)
"China Rich Girlfriend" by Kevin Kwan (2015)
"Rich People Problems" by Kevin Kwan (2017)
"Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan (2013)