Brutal history of abuse
engage with the totality of his suffering in a way that feels genuinely new and confronting.
Yet simultaneously there is something slightly uneasy about A Little Life’s treatment of its subject, a sense in which it is, if not quite exploitative, then certainly a little manipulative. The issue isn’t that the horrors inflicted on Jude are so relentless and extreme, although they are, it’s the contrast between the dislocation and deprivation of his childhood and the glittering, beautiful lives he and his friends build for themselves in New York.
This contrast gives rise to practical questions (is it really plausible a child treated the way Jude has been would be able to excel the way he does?) but it also lends the depravity Jude endures the same edge of fantasy that attaches to the image of Willem and the others gliding from one glamorous moment to another.
More deeply, though, it’s difficult not to feel the novel’s representation of Jude’s suffering occasionally shades into a sort of kitsch, in which extremity becomes an end in itself. Certainly in the book’s final sections, when Jude is progressively brutalised in new and ever more inventive ways, it feels less like keeping faith with the truth of his experiences and more like the sort of cosmic cruelty Thomas Hardy dishes out to his namesake in Jude the Obscure.
Interestingly — and I suspect significantly — a similar sort of overstatement mars the final pages of The People in the Trees, suggesting perhaps that this insistence we experience the extremity of suffering in all its blank, unprocessable awfulness is integral to Yanagihara’s fictional method. And while the reservations this overstatement engenders are more pervasive in A Little Life than in The People in the Trees, they nonetheless do not detract from the book’s larger sweep and complexity, its absorbing strangeness or, perhaps most importantly, the sheer ambition of its project.