Only a day or two after I meet with Hanya Yanagihara to interview her about her Man Booker shortlisted novel A Little Life, the best new book I’ve read this year, I go to the cinema to see Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack. The film tells the story of the six Angulo brothers who, despite growing up in an apartment block in the heart of Manhattan, spent their childhood shut off from the outside world. “Sometimes we’d go out once a year,” recalls one of the brothers, shot against the backdrop of one of the apartment’s windows, “and one particular year we never got out at all.”
As he’s describing his incarceration, the audience can’t but be aware of the hive of activity down on the city streets below him, quite literally right on his doorstep. The view from the window is that of one of the Lower East Side’s busy multi-lane road junctions, chock-a-block with cars, brake lights gleaming red in the darkness, the sidewalks on either side lined with shops and restaurants, equally brightly lit and teeming with people. It seems near incredible that these brothers – well, their entire family: father, mother, and younger sister included – lived a life of such complete seclusion in the midst of one of the most densely populated cities in the Western world. I immediately want to hear one of their neighbours tell their version of the story: What did they think about the apparently super shy family next door? Did anyone have any idea about what kind of life this family was living? It’s a classic case of the truth being stranger than fiction, the kind of situation that if presented in a novel, the author would be accused of writing a scenario fundamentally unbelievable.
As I watched the scene I felt an immediate resonance with Yanagihara’s novel. Not in terms of plot or character: the stories are hugely different, but rather regarding the issue of plausibility when it comes to the strange lives people lead, often in plain sight but nevertheless ultimately hidden, separate from the wider world around them.
A Little Life begins in the same vein as many a Bildungsroman with four friends moving to New York after graduation. There’s Willem, a Wyoming ranch-hand’s son who has a near non-existent relationship with his parents and aspires to be an actor; JB, third-generation Haitian American, whose ambitions lie in the world of art; well-off Malcolm is beginning his career as an architect; and the mysterious Jude is an up-and-coming lawyer working in the district attorney’s office. It doesn’t take long, however, to realise that the book actually belongs to Jude, and, given that there’s a special bond of friendship between them that transcends that which holds the four together as a group, by extension Willem too.
Rescue does come, but Jude’s peace is short-lived when he finds himself handed over to another institution run by paedophiles, the escape from which also leads directly into the hands of the monstrous Dr Traylor.”
Despite the closeness between the characters, Jude’s backstory remains a mystery to his friends, as does anything beyond the most superficial of observations regarding his character. As JB neatly sums it up, Jude is “the Postman”: “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.” The reality, of course, is the exact opposite: Jude is dangerously weighed down by the baggage of his traumatic childhood. Abandoned amongst the garbage as a baby, he’s brought up in an orphanage run by monks, many of whom sexually abuse him; and one of whom, Brother Luke, ultimately betrays all the trust the child places in him when, after running away together with the promise of a better life, he spends the next few years pimping the young boy out in various motel rooms across America. Rescue does come, but Jude’s peace is short-lived when he finds himself handed over to another institution run by paedophiles, the escape from which also leads directly into the hands of the monstrous Dr Traylor, perhaps the worst of them all, before the end of this extended nightmare really is in sight. The damage, of course, has been done. It doesn’t matter how much love and kindness Jude experiences as an adult – and as if to balance out the exaggerated horrors of his childhood, the love he finds himself surrounded with as a grown man is similarly excessive – he’s doomed to remain “trapped in a body he hates, with a past he hates,” forever unable to extricate himself from these early and most formative of experiences.
To say that Yanagihara lays it on thick is something of an understatement; one can’t help but question whether such systemic and repetitive abuse could happen outside the confines of fiction. How does a child slip so completely off the map that they would find themselves in such horror-story scenarios over and over again? But even as I questioned this, something Yanagihara said when she was interviewed by the Observer rang through my mind: a mind-boggling story a colleague’s friend told her about an encounter this woman had had in a Californian national park: “She and her husband were hiking and they came to this clearing. They met a boy who was 11 or so, and they got talking and he said, ‘Do you want to come back to my house?’ So they did, and he took them to this little shack in the woods and this older man came out and they talked. The woman initially assumed the man was the boy’s father, but she became sure actually this man was his lover. When she got back to the highway she called the cops. Many lives are lived under the radar.”
I’d been so haunted by this it’s the very first thing I ask Yanagihara about, before we’ve even begun the interview proper, but it’s really only later when I’m sat in the cinema watching the Angulo brothers on the screen in front of me, that the reality of just how easy it is for people to live lives off the grid hits me with full force.
“I wanted it to be plausible,” Yanagihara confirms of Jude’s childhood. “It didn’t have to be typical, it just had to be possible. There are moments in the book when it’s not believable exactly, but it should always ring true.”
This ties in with what’s been described – by both Yanagihara and reviewers – as the fairy-tale-like elements of the book. We’re not talking the conceits of magical realism, but rather some of the classic conventions of a fairy-tale plot. Yanagihara’s always been upfront about the novel’s artificiality. It’s a story ostensibly without so many of the elements that would ground it in reality: a named time period, central female characters, even parents. And predominantly it’s a story about hardships and trials, but without redemption.
“In the same way that I found fairy tales mesmerising as a child, I hope that this book will have the same bewitching effect,” Yanagihara explains. “One of the interesting things about fairy tales, when you go back and look at them as an adult, is that they’re very plot driven, and they’re particular in their need to emotionally ask for engagement from the reader. They offer you a vision, or version of happiness in the end, but then they cruelly don’t tell you how to get there, or what happens after. Thus the chief virtue for so many heroes and heroines is a sense of endurance, of continuing to go on often in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s a very hollow message and lesson, but one I think we all absorb. If you look at fairy tales across cultures, it’s a message that comes up again and again. I wonder if it’s a lesson that we’ve all culturally absorbed so well that we start expecting it from our daily lives, when really it’s not something that’s meant for daily lives; it’s meant for a story.”
This element of artificiality is completely fundamental to the book, and readers, she says, “either succumb to it or they don’t.” Some people have been troubled by what they regard as absences in her storytelling, most specifically the absence of any historical specificity – the occasional mention of computers and mobile phones contextualises it as contemporary, but such references are few and far between; and perhaps more surprisingly the events that have marked recent history are never referred to, even those that presumably would have affected Yanagihara’s characters, from the AIDS crisis through 9/11. In a novel of this length these omissions certainly can’t be attributed to anything as commonplace as oversight; they’re as purposeful as the detail Yanagihara chooses to include. In the same way that the novel’s unrelenting and repetitive exploration of Jude’s suffering – be it the graphic descriptions of the abuses he’s undergone; his subsequent years of self-harm (again, all described in agonisingly vivid and visceral detail); or his inability, despite all the help and love available to him, to elevate his own sense of self-worth – replicates the brutal and, let’s be honest, not especially appealing realities of the life of one such traumatised victim of severe abuse; so too, this refusal to dwell on anything outside the sphere of Jude’s psychological existence fits the same template. This is a man in possession of a rare judicial mind. A man who, were he not engaged in a constant battle with his own demons, could use his talents to wage war for those in need of a powerful voice. Harold, his one-time collage professor-turned-adopted father, is disappointed when Jude decides to sell his soul to the corporate fat cats and leave the district attorney’s office, but Jude has no option. Not only does he need the money corporate litigation offers him – this is what we’re told – but we’re also shown that he’s just too psychologically damaged to stay where he is. Yanagihara enters into the minds of her characters with such unabashed abandon, I think it’s easy for readers to miss these perhaps more subtle nods as they arise. Read as such, the historical events and contexts that Yanagihara excludes from the text are simply a further symptom of Jude’s inability to engage with society or even, dare I say it, history itself – his own psychological survival is at the expense of these external factors. This is why the novel is about nothing but human relationships. It’s about the realities of abuse and trauma on a horrifyingly realistic level – and perhaps this is why it’s the instances of love, kindness and compassion that make for the novel’s most moving passages, rather than those depicting the traumas of Jude’s childhood.
In the same Observer interview, Yanagihara stated that the exaggeration was entirely intentional: “I wanted everything turned up a little too high,” she says. “I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste.”
For me there seemed to be an obvious link between the melodramatic excesses and the fact that as a genre, melodrama has traditionally encoded queer narratives that otherwise couldn’t be told, and indeed, in a rather brilliant piece in the Atlantic, Garth Greenwell hailed it as the “great gay novel.” This is quite an accolade and as such, I’m keen to discover if any of this was something Yanagihara consciously had in mind when she began writing.
“Not really,” she says. “I think it was less about wanting to follow in any aesthetic tradition and more about not wanting to be afraid about asking a reader for his engagement. We’re currently in a literary landscape I’d characterise as ‘cool,’ and I mean that in both senses; it’s a little remote, and a little bit reluctant to really be needy. That definitely wasn’t my intention here; I wasn’t trying to be cool in any sense. I wanted the reader to feel – in so far as I thought of the reader at all, which wasn’t that much – as if they were having an emotional experience. A great deal is being asked of them; but in return a great deal is being given to them. I hope that if this books demands from its reader in terms of endurance, I suppose, a suspension of belief, and in some senses a lack of comfort, it repays with a generosity of intimacy that makes the reader feel like he’s really being allowed in a larger and rich open-hearted sense into these characters lives.
“I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read, one in which you really had the opportunity to feel as if you’d spent significant time with these characters; and not just time, that you were allowed access into what we least want to discuss as people. I hope that it feels in that sense a generous book. In terms of melodrama, I mean, I love that sort of queer aesthetic – as identified in the Atlantic piece – but the thing about that is that it’s using one sort of narrative to hide another, and this book wasn’t about using these characters as doubles or screens, it was simply about offering the reader full access.”
Some of her characters are gay, some are straight, some are bisexual, this, however, isn’t really the point. Her post-sexual depiction is progressive, but ultimately it’s friendships that are the most important relationships in the book. At one point Willem articulates what appears to be one of the central concerns of the novel:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
I’m wondering how much of this element of the novel was something of a manifesto for an alternative way of living as an adult – one without marriage and/or children – and/or a working through of Yanagihara’s own ideas on the subject. Certainly it seems that friendships are often subsumed by or considered second best to romantic relationships.
To me, the thing about friendship that makes it so singular is that it’s a relationship that’s central to our identity in that it doesn’t necessarily benefit us in any tangible way… it’s an unspoken bond.”
As we begin to discuss this, Yanagihara reminds me that there’s actually a grand tradition of men writing about friendships which dates back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, via Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln – something she became aware of through reading Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman in the City, about Gornick’s relationship with her best friend, Leonard.
“To me, the thing about friendship that makes it so singular is that it’s a relationship that’s central to our identity in that it doesn’t necessarily benefit us in any tangible way. It’s a relationship we don’t have to pursue – if we decide to stop being friends one day, nothing will happen, no one’s there to legislate or adjudicate it. It’s two people who every day choose to keep it going, and in that way it’s very powerful because it’s one you choose to work on, and you choose to without any agreement; it’s an unspoken bond.”
She also admits that in giving voice to this particular kind of adult life in the novel she was paying tribute to her own friends.
“We’re not married, we don’t have kids, so it is the way we live, and it is a different version of adulthood and one that isn’t really celebrated in books or in movies or on TV, and one that is somehow considered childish in one sense, like something you pass through on the way to something else, whether that something else is marriage or parenthood or whatever.”
She tells me about a New York Times piece entitled ‘A Confederacy of Bachelors’ published back in 2012, about four straight men in their 40s, who lived together in a large converted apartment in Queens. It didn’t go as far, Yanagihara explains, as saying that they should stop living the way they were – something that Malcolm’s mother does suggest at one point in A Little Life: “Don’t you think you guys should stop clinging to one another and get serious about adulthood?” – but the very fact the set-up was considered worth writing about demonstrates how people regard it as remarkable.
“I thought it was a wonderful piece, and I really liked the men, who obviously all enjoyed one another’s company so had chosen to live together. But it spoke of how they had to defend themselves against their family who thought they should grow up and move out, and their girlfriends who thought it was strange. I do think that for all the progress we’ve made in terms of how we identify and how we allow others to identify, we’re still quite narrow-minded about what it means to be an adult, what it means to make a family, and how we expect others to live. In that sense, whether someone is gay, straight or other, we still get perplexed when someone leads a version, not of sexuality necessarily, but of adulthood, that doesn’t resemble the adulthood we know.”
The questions Willem is asking aren’t posed in a vacuum. They’re specific to his and Jude’s friendship, a relationship that deepens throughout the course of the novel but in doing so causes each of them different concerns regarding the appropriate and possible ways to demonstrate the depth of their feelings for one another.
“The very word friend is so unsatisfying in many ways, because it means everything and nothing. How do you distinguish between someone who means the world to you, and someone you’re only friends with on Facebook? It’s tough. How do you announce to society the profundity of what you and that person share except by saying, ‘They’re my boyfriend, or my girlfriend.’ I’m wondering how many of these relationships change due to the tyranny of language, the paucity of terms we have to define them.”
So this is something she’d been thinking about before she sat down to write the novel?
“I’m 40 now, and yes it’s became particularly relevant – most of my friends are a few years older – it’s never really bothered me, but it is something that has bothered some of them, this idea of we don’t have families, we’re not married, so what are our lives and who’s going to see me through for the next thirty or forty years. It was the subject, even if elliptically, at dinner parties. Malcolm speaks for many of them when he says who are we, and what is the legacy we’re going to leave behind, and who are our people going to be?”
Given Yanagihara’s juggling so many important ideas in the book, I want to know if at the heart of it all there lies one central kernel, something that kick-started the entire project. The answer is yes, the Diana Arbus photograph titled ‘The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room, NYC’; an image of a man whose head and torso are facing one way, his legs and feet the other. It’s an image that screams loneliness and suffering: a man in the pose of a circus contortionist, but with a look of pain on his face, wearing a shirt and trousers, with a cheap plastic raincoat over the top, standing in a sparsely furnished unwelcoming hotel room lit by a bare bulb hanging down from the ceiling.
“I had seen that image many years ago, and it’s not technically a great photograph, but I remember being so taken by it, because it felt like you were seeing somebody at the most vulnerable point in his life, and somebody, literally in this case, so at odds with his own body, I thought in some way I would write a story about that man – he was a character I had in my head for many years.”
However it wasn’t until she began writing A Little Life that she realised just how many different strands were going to come together in the story.
“All these things – everything from if we could recover from damage, what the point of life is, if there’s a point at which life isn’t worth living, what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a friend, what we are obligated to do for one another – I came to realise were actually related to one another in the life of this story, so the book is, I hope, capacious because all those elements are fundamentally intertwined, especially as we get older.”
There are also echoes of Yanagihara’s first book The People in the Trees. The structures and tones of the two novels are as different as could be – the former is told in the immediate first person of a memoir, the voice thus both inherently unreliable but at the same time that of a character used to dealing in scientific facts rather than creative hyperbole. Loosely based on the real-life case of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and convicted child molester, The People in the Trees tells the story of Dr Norton Perina who, on an expedition to a small Micronesian island, discovers the secret to eternal life. Fame and acclaim follows, and Perina goes on to adopt many of the island children as his own, one of whom he eventually ends up forcing himself on as a punishment for bad behaviour. In shifting perspective from the abuser to the abused, A Little Life definitely seems to offer something of the other side of the story.
“I was aware that it was in some ways an answer, however imperfect, to the first book,” she admits.
This prompts the slightly uncomfortable question of if there’s any particular reason why she’s so drawn to child abuse, especially since it’s a subject many would prefer to steer clear of?
“The thing I find so interesting is that it’s such a distortion and misuse of power,” she explains. “To me, the manipulation of the child that leads up to the actual act of abuse, is just as troubling as the abuse itself, and that was one of things I wanted to explore, to show how it wasn’t merely the physical act of rape in this case, it was also how Jude’s sense of trust had been distorted by someone who had asked him to trust them, someone who had allowed him to trust him, and then broken that trust. The physical violation is awful enough, but the acts that lead up to it are equally scarring because those are the things that teach us how to think, how to trust someone, how to relate to someone, how to think about ourselves; they teach us about our own sense of autonomy or not. I wanted to show that it was in these moments that more of the damage to his character was done.
“I was speaking to a friend of mine who was seduced at a very young age by a much older man, and the most heartbreaking part of it was the way he was cultivated. As an adult he recognised what had happened, but as a child, well, a child trusts; until you teach him not to.”
“It’s taking me a long time to get out of the life of this book, and I’m still not quite out of it. It demanded such an immersion in that world; I think it’s the kind of project where when it’s over it’s not as simple as you hope.”
Near overwhelmed with misery during the period they spend living in motel rooms, Brother Luke teaches Jude how to self-harm as a way to release his pent-up emotions, and tragically it’s a coping mechanism that Jude’s yoked to thereafter. As a consequence we spend an awful lot of time behind the closed door of the bathroom with Jude and his bag of equipment – razor blades, alcohol rub, cotton wool, plasters and bandages – as he cuts himself again and again and again: the only release for the filth he feels lies inside him: “He felt so ceaselessly dirty, so soiled, as if inside he was a rotten building.” Reading these scenes I felt an odd mixture of compassion, repulsion and irritation. The relentless repetition is gruelling, I tell Yanagihara, and it’s not without the uncomfortable sense that in being unable to stop him, his friends are somehow enabling this behaviour.
“I hope that readers get frustrated with Jude,” she replies, in earnest, not at all daunted by my confession. “He’s a deeply frustrating character – though I hope in an understandable way. It’s a compulsion for him, an addiction. I wanted to remind the reader that whenever he cut himself, the only thing standing between him and the rest of the world is that bag with the razors in it. Everything he earns, everything he has, everything he is given, everything he’s privileged to attain in life, in the end, his only solution is the one given to him by Brother Luke, and it’s the one he returns to again and again for lack of any other way to answer what’s been done to him. I think that we always believe the first person who teaches us about ourselves, and while for most of us it’s our family members who are, while often imperfect, loving. But if the first lessons you learn about yourself are different, it’s very hard to unlearn them.”
Yanagihara’s described writing the novel in something of a fevered state. Astonishingly for a book of such depth, not to mention physical size (it weighs in at over 700 pages) it took a mere eighteen months to write, and that was only working on it three days a week as she also has a day job. A former editor-at-large at Condé Nast Traveller, Yanagihara is now an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Given the subject matter, surely this led to some dark nights of the soul?
“Absolutely. What balanced it was the sheer thrill of the writing, and also just enjoying spending time with these characters. But yes, it was very hard. The most difficult section was the one where Jude was with Dr Traylor. I wrote it very fast, it came out in a rush, but it was difficult because I knew what was going to happen to Jude. He was a character who, while I find him deeply irritating and frustrating, was someone I thought was loveable; and someone I wished I could do other things for but knew I couldn’t.”
She talks about being incredibly attached to the characters in the book, admitting that even now, so long after having finished writing the story and sending it off into the world, they’re each “still very much a part of my waking life.” This is something I’m not surprised to hear. Quite a few people I know reported having spent each night while reading the novel dreaming about the characters, and the first praise I heard about it, from Bookanista’s own Farhana Gani, wasn’t that she was longing to get back to the book as such; instead it was Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB she wanted to return to.
“I would hope that with these characters you’re being allowed greater access to a person than you are to people in your life,” Yanagihara reflects. “You’re given such entry into the darkest emotional landscapes they wander though. And in some way, it is what we hope for in our friends to some extent, but many of the thoughts, actions, late-night fears that one is allowed to witness with these characters are ones that we never see in people we love; we only ever see them in ourselves. One of the things I told my US editor was that at Jude’s darkest moments the reader is always there to accompany him, and that’s meant to be a privilege but also something of a favour. I wanted the reader, if she was going to be with Jude, to be with him all the way, to live every aspect of his life, not just the comfortable aspects.”
Some critics haven’t liked the fact that as the story progresses JB and Malcolm slip out of focus compared to Jude and Willem, but Yanagihara links this to perceived ideas about what the book is and isn’t.
“There are a few change-ups,” she admits. “It seems like a Bildungsroman then it’s not; it seems like a book about four friends then it’s not; it seems like a book about a love relationship then it’s not. I do think it slips away at points. But I would also hope that this aspect mirrors the arc of a friendship of a group; that sometimes people slip away, they remain in your orbit, but they’re not someone who occupies your waking emotional life, and their relationship mellows into something that is guided by history, but contributed to less and less by day-to-day events. That’s certainly true with Malcolm. With JB, you know, he’s probably my favourite character because I think he changes the most in some ways. I think of Malcolm as perhaps naïve and privileged and a very sweet person; Willem as someone who’s genuinely compassionate; and Jude suffers from a general lack of imagination; but JB is someone who because of his own intelligence and self-absorption has to rethink what it means to be both a friend and a good person. In that sense he’s someone who changes deeply and is wonderfully imperfect in the course of the book.”
She’s been applauded for not complying with a traditional redemption narrative, instead depicting a no-holds-barred account of a character so damaged by what he’s experienced that despite the best efforts of those around him, recovery is never even an option, but she shrugs off any mention of this being a brave move.
“I think offering redemption would have been deeply unsatisfying. Asking the reader to go down this road with you; there is only one inevitable ending. If I was the reader, and he suddenly got better, I’d think, What the fuck just happened? It would be completely inconsistent and completely untruthful.”
I’m keen to find out if she’s begun work on a third book, especially since I’m eager to glean any sense of where she’s thinking of going next after a novel like A Little Life.
“It’s taking me a long time to get out of the life of this book,” she says. “And I’m still not quite out of it. It demanded such an immersion in that world; I think it’s the kind of project where when it’s over it’s not as simple as you hope. That’s when you really realise that as much as you think you’re controlling the situation, it’s really controlling you. And that’s what makes it a pleasure to write, but that also means that it’s sort of not yours to sign off and turn the page on.”
That said, she does have the germ of an idea for her next novel; she has an ending, something that she likes to know in advance. Although The People in the Trees took eighteen years to write, compared to the eighteen months for A Little Life, in both cases she held the stories in her mind for a long time before committing them to paper.
“They were so complete, I didn’t ever have to think about motivations or tone, but the ideas I have now are much more embryonic. So yes, I have an ending in mind, but I don’t know anything yet about the structure or how I want it to unfold. I want more of a sense of it before I really consider myself working on something. What I do know is that the thing I have in mind is not going to be emotionally intimate for me in the same way. On one hand that’s good, on the other hand I know I’ll miss it.”
Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City. Her first book, The People in the Trees, was chosen as a Book of the Year by the Independent, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Cosmopolitan. A Little Life, published by Picador, has been widely acclaimed as a masterwork. Read more.
Author portrait © Jenny Westerhoff
Lucy Scholes is contributing editor at Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the BFI and Waterstones Piccadilly.