At the beginning of Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel, “A Little Life,” four young men, all graduates of the same prestigious New England university, set about establishing adult lives for themselves in New York City. They are a pleasingly diverse crew, tightly bound to each other: Willem Ragnarsson, the handsome son of a Wyoming ranch hand, who works as a waiter but aspires to be an actor; Malcolm Irvine, the biracial scion of a wealthy Upper East Side family, who has landed an associate position with a European starchitect; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, the child of Haitian immigrants, who works as a receptionist at a downtown art magazine in whose pages he expects, one day soon, to be featured; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer and mathematician, whose provenance and ethnic origins are largely unknown, even by his trio of friends. Jude, we later learn, was a foundling, deposited in a bag by a dumpster and raised by monks.
For the first fifty or so pages, as the characters attend parties, find apartments, go on dates, gossip, and squabble with each other, it is easy for the reader to think he knows what he’s getting into: the latest example of the postgraduate New York ensemble novel, a genre with many distinguished forbears, Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” and Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children” among them. At one point, after his acting career takes off, Willem thinks, “New York City … had simply been an extension of college, where everyone had known him and JB, and the entire infrastructure of which sometimes seemed to have been lifted out of Boston and plunked down within a few blocks’ radius in lower Manhattan and outer Brooklyn.” Yanagihara is a capable chronicler of the struggle for success among the young who flock to New York every autumn, sending up the pretensions of the art world and the restaurant where Willem works, which is predictably staffed by would-be thespians. “New York was populated by the ambitious,” JB observes. “It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common…. Ambition and atheism.”
Yet it becomes evident soon enough that the author has more on her mind than a conventional big-city bildungsroman. For one thing, there’s the huge hunk of paper in the reader’s right hand: more than seven hundred pages, suggesting grander ambitions than a tale of successful careers. There are also curious absences in the text. Yanagihara scrubs her prose of references to significant historical events. The September 11th attacks are never mentioned, nor are the names of the Mayor, the President, or any recognizable cultural figures who might peg the narrative to a particular year. The effect of this is to place the novel in an eternal present day, in which the characters’ emotional lives are foregrounded and the political and cultural Zeitgeist is rendered into vague scenery.
But the clearest sign that “A Little Life” will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, “A Little Life” becomes a surprisingly subversive novel—one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery. And having upset our expectations once, Yanagihara does it again, by refusing us the consolations we have come to expect from stories that take such a dark turn.
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