BY THE TIME you finish reading A Little Life, you will have spent a whole book waiting for a man to kill himself. The novel, the second from author Hanya Yanagihara, begins as a light chronicle of male friendship among four college graduates in New York before narrowing its focus to Jude, a corporate litigator whose decadeslong struggle to repress a childhood of unrelenting torments—he was raised by pedophiles in a monastery, kidnapped and prostituted in motels, molested by counselors at an orphanage, kidnapped again, tortured, raped, starved, and run over with a car—ends in his suicide.
An unlikely beach read with a gothic riptide, A Little Life became a massive best seller in 2015. Critics lavished praise on the book, with one declaring it the long-awaited “great gay novel” for its unsparing approach to Jude, who falls in love with his male best friend. (A rare pan in The New York Review of Books prompted an indignant letter from Yanagihara’s editor.) A Little Life would go on to win the Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize; in December, readers of the New York Times nominated it next to finalists like Beloved and 1984 for best book of the past 125 years.
Yanagihara’s motivations remained mysterious. The author was born in Los Angeles to a third-generation Hawaiian Japanese father and a Seoul-born Korean mother. She has lived in Manhattan since her 20s, but her heart is in Tokyo and Hawaii. (She has called that state “the closest thing Asian Americans have to Harlem.”) Her first novel, 2013’s The People in the Trees, about a doctor who discovers immortality in an island paradise, was well but quietly received. That book featured homosexuality and pedophilia; not until A Little Life would these be revealed as consistent preoccupations. The People in the Trees took Yanagihara 18 years to write, off and on, during which time she worked as a publicist, book editor, and magazine writer. A Little Life, which she wrote while an editor-at-large at Condé Nast Traveler, took only 18 months.
How to explain this novel’s success? The critic Parul Sehgal recently invoked A Little Life as a prominent example of the “trauma plot”—fiction that uses a traumatic backstory as a shortcut to narrative. Indeed, it’s easy to see Jude as a “vivified DSM entry,” as she put it, perfectly crafted to appeal to “a world infatuated with victimhood.” But Jude hates words like abuse and disabled and refuses to see a therapist for most of the novel, while Yanagihara has skeptically compared talk therapy to “scooping out your brain and placing it into someone else’s cupped palms to prod at.” More compelling about A Little Life—and vexing and disturbing—is the author’s omnipresence in the novel, not just as the “perverse intelligence” behind Jude’s trauma, in the words of another critic, but as the possessive presence keeping him, against all odds, alive. A Little Life was rightly called a love story; what critics missed was that its author is one of the lovers.
This is Yanagihara’s principle: If true misery exists, then so might true love. That simple idea, childlike in its brutality, informs all her fiction. Indeed, the author appears unable, or unwilling, to conceive love outside of life support; without suffering, the inherent monstrosity of love—its greed, its destructiveness—cannot be justified. This notion is inchoate in The People in the Trees, which features several characters kept on the brink of death and ends with a rapist’s declaration of love. In A Little Life, it blossoms into the anguished figure of Jude and the saintlike circle of friends who adore him. In Yanagihara’s new novel, To Paradise, which tells three tales of people fleeing one broken utopia for another, the misery principle has become airborne, passing aerosol-like from person to person while retaining its essential purpose—to allow the author to insert herself as a sinister caretaker, poisoning her characters in order to nurse them lovingly back to health.
TWO YEARS AFTER A Little Life was published, Yanagihara joined T magazine, the New York Times’ monthly style insert, as editor. She has called the publication “a culture magazine masquerading as a fashion magazine”—though you’ll have to sift through many pages of luxury advertisements to confirm that. During her time at Condé Nast Traveler, the publication sent her on a staggering 12-country, 24-city, 45-day, $60,000 journey from Sri Lanka to Japan for a 2013 issue called, incredibly, “The Grand Tour of Asia.” “A trip to India isn’t complete without a stop at the legendary Gem Palace,” she wrote in a photo spread titled “The Plunder,” “and a few souvenir diamonds”—four diamond bangles, to be exact, priced up to $900 each.
This may be surprising. But it is easy to forget that A Little Life is an unapologetic lifestyle novel. Jude’s harrowing trials are finger-sandwiched between Lower East Side gallery openings, summers on Cape Cod, holiday in Hanoi. Critics remarked on its mouthwatering (or eye-rolling) spread of culinary delights, from duck à l’orange to escarole salad with pears and jamón, followed by pine-nut tart, tarte Tatin, and a homemade ten-nut cake Yanagihara later described as a cross between Danish rugbrød and a Japanese milk bread she once ordered at a Tokyo bakery. The book inspired celebrity chef Antoni Porowski to publish a recipe called “Gougères for Jude,” based on the canapés Jude makes for a New Year’s party before cutting his arms so badly he requires emergency medical attention; it can be found on the website for Boursin, the French herbed-cheese brand.
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