Glit­ter­ing quar­tet’s suc­cess dis­guises a

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley A Lit­tle Life By Hanya Yanag­i­hara Pic­a­dor, 736pp, $32.99

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

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