I love books that rip open my chest, show me my beating heart, and force me to see the world through the eyes of a different person. When I read, I want to feel. I want to be touched. And the most successful books are that ones that do that—that leave me in amazement whether it is because of beauty, fear, rage, wonder, whatever. A Little Life promised to be “the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season.” I expected raw emotion to wet every page of this novel. And while A Little Life was certainly well-written and intriguing, the one thing it didn't succeed at was moving me.
That's not to say I didn't have moments when I felt a little teary-eyed. I did. But for a 720-page epic supposed tear-jerked, these moments were too few. The truth is, I felt considerable disconnect. Sure, the story of Jude is sad. Very, very sad. At the same time, Jude seems to exist in a completely different universe than the one I live in. For starters, time is not the same. In A Little Life, time progresses, but the world doesn't change. Despite spanning some fifty years, the novel has a very contemporary feel to it. Now, I understand this was probably the author's intention, a means to not let the story get bogged down by trivial matters (my wife disagrees and says it's just lazy writing), but it's still distracting. At the beginning of the novel, we have laptops and cellphones and corporate lawyers and gay marriage and discrimination based on sexual orientation. And fifty years later we have the exact same?
Which brings us to the second point of disconnect. Although uncommon in the novel, there are moments when characters face discrimination because they are gay. There is one moment when a character faces potential backlash from the masses for his embrace of a gay relationship. Yet, in this world, nearly everyone is gay or bisexual. Sure, there were a few characters in heterosexual relationships, but it is implied that every person has had sex with someone of the same gender at some point in life. Willem, for one, doesn't know a man who hasn't; and Willem knows a lot of people. So what world is this? How can I believe gay relationships are so incredibly widespread, yet disdained? How can it be both? This takes me one step further from an emotional response. See, what's happening here is that my mind is switching to its logical side, and the emotional is being neglected. But I'm not done.
Where is the world in which there are so many people would friend Jude? He's deeply troubled. He's a considerable amount of work. As someone who has been around a large number of people with mental illnesses that do not even compare with Jude St. Francis', I can say I have never once seen such an outpouring of love. That's not to say someone couldn't love Jude. Of course Jude could realistically have one or two people in his life who risk everything for his well-being. But to have so many people in the first place, and so many, on top of that, who do not give up. Well, my logical side says that's not reality.
And then there's the wealth aspect. Is everyone in this world rich? Yeah, I'm having a little trouble feeling for you when you're flying around the world and building your dream home. I have problems, too.
So far, I have been a big whiner. It's not that I didn't enjoy this book. I did. I enjoyed the characters and the story. I enjoyed the writing and the mystery. Yanagihara nailed Jude's inner torment with skill and grace. But if a book is going to be sold as “profoundly moving,” I expect to be moved. And yet, the only character that succeeded in moving me was Harold. And I think that's because Harold was the most human character. He'd experienced loss and he was willing to sacrifice everything to get back what he'd lost. He was a father with a fairly normal occupation and he believed in things and had hopes, but also had doubts. I accepted Harold because his actions and reactions were relatable. Jude's story was devastating to say the least. Perhaps there are people out there like Jude who make something of themselves, but they are so few that I have to doubt their existence. I've known kids in similar situations as Jude. Those who don't kill themselves live the life of a transient. They cannot commit to anything. They work Burger King one week, McDonald's the next; all their money goes to drugs, video games, tattoos—stuff that either makes them numb or causes them to feel pain. Jude's story was devastating, but its outcomes were not. I didn't feel sorry for Jude because despite all his pain, he'd lived a fuller life than most of us are given.
Yes, I liked this novel. Overall, it was very successful. Had I been able to turn off my logical side, had I not been thinking of my many injustices, I'm sure I would've fallen to the floor weeping. There are many out there who face the kind of trials Jude does and they should not be forgotten. But the story about sexually and physically abused kids that I want to hear—the kind that succeeds in moving me—is not the story of a powerful corporate attorney who is married to a hot movie star. That's the stuff of fairy tales, which brings us back around to the question of time. Is A Little Life a Fantasy book? The most depressing fantasy ever written, to be sure, but nevertheless a fantasy?
Once upon a time there was a boy named Jude...