Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
A Little Life is slow to build, which is as much a testament to Hanya Yanagihara’s discipline as a writer as it is to her ability to capture the relentless tedium of depression and trauma. Once the book gets going, though, it is so emotionally engaging it is painstaking to walk away from, even for a few hours.
The book follows four friends, Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcolm, over several decades of friendship, first as college dorm mates, through their early years in New York and into commercial success and middle age. Jude is, somewhat perplexingly, the group’s emotional anchor despite revealing nothing about his past or his inner workings. His friends are left to make inferences about Jude’s life, occasionally prodding him to open up about his experiences with no success and each time getting frustrated in the process. Yanagihara subtly positions the reader in the context of this inner circle—we learn about Jude from arm’s length, in patches, and with a level of detail that engenders more questions than it answers. We come to embrace Jude for many of the same reasons his friends do: for his loyalty, his brilliance, his heartbreaking and earnest belief that the people he loves are so good. Loving Jude, it seems, can only happen in the present tense.
Like Jude’s friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, but unlike Jude himself, the reader sees him as much more than the sum of his experiences and traumas. This is true even though we know more about his childhood than anyone in his adult life, except, eventually, Willem. We come to love Jude so fully that we too want to step into his apartment and say that we see him, all of him, and we love him anyway. We want to change his mind. Willem and Harold struggle to understand why Jude can’t or won’t simply accept that their view of him and his worth is the right one; Yanagihara deftly gets us to cling to that same kind of arrogance.
At times, I felt myself getting frustrated with Jude—just like everyone around him, I kept clinging to the hope that he would finally “snap out of it.” In those moments Yanagihara’s true gift is apparent: she forces us to reckon with the slow, eroding nature of chronic depression, at once grotesque and mundane. Jude’s is a constant hum of pain, both physical and psychological, that cannot simply be shaken off no matter how badly he or we may wish it. Yanagihara pulls the loose threads away from the notion that loving people should be enough to “save” them, steadily unraveling the combination of naïveté and willful ignorance that buoys Jude’s relationships as they cautiously churn on.
And yet, Jude’s life is punctuated by so many beautiful moments—when Harold and Julia adopt him, when Willem offers his romantic feelings, when Malcolm and JB erect buildings and fill galleries as creative testaments to their love and appreciation for his friendship. These periods give shape to Jude’s depression; Yanagihara refuses to let us wish it away just as she firmly rejects reducing Jude to little more than a string of depressive episodes. We understand the potency of depression in part through its ability to endure through, but not necessarily eclipse, periods of genuine joy.
Where the book sometimes falls short is in its awkward attempts to add detail that seem merely to show off the author’s worldliness. She tosses in random notes about a particular vintage of wine or the characters’ various global excursions that read as clumsy attempts to remind the reader that we reading about the Manhattan elite, as if we could forget. These detours are cumbersome, but overall, A Little Life excels in its blunt yet nuanced treatment of mental health issues and the many ways human beings struggle, build, and carry on through depression.