Glittering quartet’s success disguises a
Hanya Yanagihara’s 2013 debut, The People in the Trees, was one of the most striking and most disturbing first novels to have appeared in some time. The story of Norton A. Perina, an immunologist whose extraordinary discoveries have been overshadowed by accusations of brutal and systematic sexual abuse of his adopted children, it was as notable for its assurance and cool control as for its forensic depiction of the psychology of the repugnant and selfregarding Perina.
In a crude sense Yanagihara’s new novel, the Man Booker Prize longlisted A Little Life, could be read as a sort of companion to The People in the Trees, a portrait of the psychology not of the perpetrator of abuse, but of the victim, and the devastating effects of such abuse.
Set in New York and spanning more than 40 years, it focuses on four friends: crippled mathematician and lawyer Jude St Francis, actor Willem Ragnarsson, wealthy architect Malcolm Irvine and painter and son of Haitian immigrants Jean-Baptiste, or JB as he is known. At first these four have almost equal billing, the narrative shifting fluidly between them as it depicts their efforts to make names for themselves in the city, a process that sees each enjoy multiplying success in their chosen field.
Although initially Yanagihara is finely tuned to the question of money and the degree to which it drives and constrains the choices the four make, there is something oddly blithe about the novel’s depiction of this process, a sense it is somehow preordained that all will succeed brilliantly, accruing fame and wealth with startling effortlessness.
In this respect A Little Life owes more than a little to novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch (albeit without the faux-Dickensian trappings of the latter), both of which enjoin the reader in a particular set of fantasies about wealth and privilege (the adolescent nature of these fantasies is further underlined by the constant references to Jude and Willem’s beauty and specialness, the way they are always at the centre of their social worlds). It’s a quality that’s underscored by the novel’s curious elision of historical detail and deliberate lack of reference to events such as 9/11, a technique that suspends it in an eternal now and severs its portrait of the lives of the rich and famous from the complexities of historical reality.
Yet as the novel proceeds, and its focus begins to narrow, concentrating more and more on Willem and Jude, it complicates this tendency by allowing another, much more troubling reality to intrude. At first this reality remains unstated, implicit in the unsubtly named Jude’s silence about his past and the circumstances of the injuries that have permanently damaged his legs and back, but gradually it becomes clear these injuries are the visible manifestation of a childhood disfigured by appalling abuse.
The mismatch between the glittering lives of the central quartet and Jude’s hidden history is made more unsettling by the novel’s curious register, the degree to which the combination of distance and intensity that distinguishes Yanagihara’s writing allows her to depict the horror of Jude’s experiences in a way that episodes of him self-harming, or being raped and beaten, are almost of a piece with the parties of his later life.
Perhaps not surprisingly the result is more than a little disquieting, not least because the novel is so unflinching about the intractability of Jude’s psychic injuries. For while there are certainly moments when Jude’s psychology can seem a little over-determined, Yanagihara also resists the false catharsis that inheres in most narratives of recovery, demanding the reader