Let’s be clear: to enjoy the act of reading is to surrender to manipulation. I get that, and I happily surrender whenever I read a really good novel. If an author does her job well, she draws you into the world of the book a way that encourages the “willing suspension of disbelief”—a phrase coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1817 Biographia Literaria, but with roots going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, where he talks about an audience’s acceptance of fiction as reality, as a means to experiencing catharsis—the release of the intense emotions that a well-constructed tragedy arouses, which for Aristotle, serves as a “purification of the soul.”
My soul needs as much purification as anyone else’s, especially during election season. But Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life didn’t get me there, and I don’t think it did for the other book club members, either. It’s rare that we book-clubbers agree, but we all felt some serious disappointment with this much-lauded best seller and National Book Award finalist. Chalk it up to pre-catharsis frustration, or perhaps the inevitable let-down of finishing a very long book. In any case, A Little Life left me feeling, well, slimed. (And yes, that’s a literary term that I’m totally sure both Coleridge and Aristotle used.)
A Little Life ostensibly “follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune.” As the back cover notes, the deeply scarred and apparently deeply charismatic Jude is the glue that holds this foursome together. I say “apparently” because I just couldn’t buy into the depth of their bonds, based on the relatively scanty portraits of their relationships that Yanagihara ultimately paints.
Instead, she expends great narrative energy (very) slowly revealing the (very) traumatic events that have so damaged Jude, and recounting in (very) much detail the (very) traumatic events that continue to result from his damaged orientation to the world, until it starts to feel like an experiment in audience manipulation for its own sake. Though it’s an interesting exercise to try to create a character out of a catalog of wounds, Jude’s character both takes up too much space and is never really made fully believable. And the glimpses Yanagihara gives of the other characters’ backstories and inner lives are so compelling that their marginality seems like a serious missed opportunity.
I wanted to love this book, and I found plenty to admire in miniature, within discrete passages (a long rumination on the ambivalence of parenthood and the fear of one’s child dying left me breathless, for example). But somewhere along the way while reading A Little Life, I lost my willingness to suspend disbelief, my “poetic faith,” à la Coleridge. Maybe I’ll try purifying myself with some cat videos to get me through the election instead.