Yesterday morning I turned the final page of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, concluding a three-day marathon of working through one of the darkest and most deliciously agonising novels I’ve read in a while. It follows the lives of four friends through several decades, and manages to capture both the dramatic traumas they encounter and the delightful tedium of their everyday lives. At its core, though, the book is a beautifully panoramic study of the main character, Jude St. Francis, who becomes a successful corporate litigator, but must perennially contend with the physical and emotional scars of his childhood, when he was subject to horrific physical abuse and child prostitution (although those clinical labels detract somewhat from the obscenity that they represent, and in order to understand the scope of the anguish that takes place I think you’d have to read the book).
When the severity of Jude’s childhood wounds are first revealed, I was almost inclined to be skeptical: was it really plausible for that many terrible things to happen to one person? Unfortunately, I’ve realised that my reluctance to accept these unpleasant circumstances is probably more a reflection of my naiveté than anything else. I guess it’s just frightening to think that people can slip through the cracks so easily, and it’s difficult to ignore that reality when it’s brutally and graphically expounded in an eight hundred page literary behemoth. In that sense, reading A Little Life is a bit like the experience of seeing roadkill and wanting desperately to look away: there is no shortage of graphic imagery in the book, but more than that, the emotional intensity produces a sense of discomfort, a simultaneous urge to look away and to read onwards. The latter won out in my case, but I’ll be honest and say that it was incredibly painful and thoroughly emotionally exhausting. In spite of that, the torturous process of reading this book is really a testament to Yanagihara’s skill: the prose is elegant and transcendent, the character development is thoughtful, and overall, it is absolutely worth reading.
Eventually, the question in this novel becomes the extent to which people can truly change over time, or whether they are bound to the indelible experiences that have been imprinted upon them, often against their will. To my delight, the main character completes a degree in pure mathematics, and in one section, describes a fundamental mathematical proposition, the axiom of equality: “The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. Always, absolutes, nevers: these are the words, as much as numbers, that make up the world of mathematics.” To Jude, axioms are comforting bounds within which life takes place. His experiences have violated so many rules, and it is redemptive to know that these equations behave as constraints on a chaotic world. We are drawn to math because it’s reassuringly quantitative, because for once the truth isn’t as subjective and confusing as it must be in daily life. And yet, to me, it is dissatisfying on some level to know that some axioms can never functionally be proven, and that even the most seemingly objective of truths are premised upon maxims that are themselves constructed from some form of presumption.
More pertinently, the axiom of equality is what underlies Jude’s struggles to reconcile his demons (or hyenas, as they appear in his subconscious) with the person he longs to become. The book is a cycle of the people around him attempting to reconstruct Jude’s world, with varying levels of success, but he inevitably relapses into the diminished self-worth with which he was inculcated early on in life. For all the graphic accounts of physical abuse and more, I think the idea of irreversibility is what I find most disquieting about the novel: it is unfortunate that people endure atrocious victimisation, but the more alarming prospect is that some problems cannot be fixed, that there might be a place from which people cannot return. It brings to mind a Murakami quote I noted a few years back from South of the Border, West of the Sun: “I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can… damage another human being beyond repair.” At the time, I thought this was unjustifiable pessimism, but now I wonder if this might be true. I guess sometimes people don’t get the happy endings they deserve.