The cover of my edition of A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 Booker- and National Book Award-nominated novel, is a close-up, black-and-white photograph of a man crying. It may be the most perfectly thematic cover ever designed, because this novel, falsely advertised as a novel about four college friends, is actually a close-up, nuance-averse portrait of one man’s relentless suffering.
Jude St. Francis is a brilliant, sweet young man who keeps a lot of secrets, because—as we find out later—his childhood was a never-ending series of increasingly horrific abuse by men who were supposed to take care of him, starting from the monks who rescued him as an abandoned baby and raised him on a regimen of physical violence and sexual abuse within their walls, progressing until an injury so bad that he now struggles with a lifelong disability and chronic pain; and his adult life is basically a long trajectory of professional success shadowed by constant, grotesque self-harm.
His three friends—prickly artist J.B., insecure architect Malcolm, and Willem, the handsome actor who loves him the most—have their own stories at first, but eventually settle into the role of witnesses to his suffering, and to his saintliness. Even when they’re alone, they’re mostly talking about Jude, wondering about him, trying to see through his reserve and decipher the exotic tragedy within.
The very relentlessness of Jude’s suffering has gained the novel a lot of positive attention, not just from prize committees, but from the many major venues who gave it breathlessly glowing reviews. The Atlantic called it “the great gay novel,” and many reviewers praised it for resisting contemporary American narratives of suffering leading to redemption—which is really comparing apples to oranges, since the redemption stories tend to show up in the form of Oprah club reads, not Booker prize nominees. The one dissenting voice I could find came from Daniel Mendelsohn’s review in the New York Review of Books, which bizarrely blamed “victimhood culture” for the excesses of this book; in other words, as with everything else you don’t like about the twenty-first century, it’s the feminists’ fault!
Certainly, the book is impossible to put down exactly because said suffering is teased long enough to raise our curiosity, and then described with luxuriant attention to each harrowingly cruel detail. It is also, in its depiction of self-harm, not without psychological truth, as in the strikingly insightful passages that describe Jude’s need to cut himself as a powerful temptation, the way drugs are to the briefly addicted J.B.: “He snapped on the light next to his side of the bed and tried to read, but all he could see was the razor, and all he could feel was his arms tingling with need, as if he had not veins but circuitry, fizzing and blipping with electricity.” I was absorbed while reading it. I was also faintly embarrassed at how absorbed I was, recognizing in myself a prurient curiosity: what else happened to young Jude? How bad was it? (The answers, in order: everything. And very very bad.)
Anglophone literary fiction, in general, could do with a little bit more bravery and daring—a little more willingness to risk being called excessive and melodramatic. However, this doesn’t mean that we need to be satisfied with mere excess. Where this novel fails is precisely in its inability to see beyond the trauma, the disability, and the self-loathing that result from Jude’s abuse. He is not interested in food, sex, or pleasure; his only desire is to assuage his pain. (This is another reason I think it’s absurd to call this a gay novel even though several of the most important secondary characters are queer: its main character sleeps with men as an adult, but not because he has any actual desire for them. He is an object of male gazes that range from loving to violating, but never, himself, gazes on anyone with sexual desire.)
Though there are moments in which Jude isn’t thinking about his own suffering, they grow fewer and further between as the book progresses; even his bosses at work, where he is an extraordinarily talented lawyer, appear mostly to reassure him that they aren’t angry at him for missing work due to his flamboyant suffering, from suicide attempts to attacks by abusive ex-lovers.
Such myopia is a hallmark of periods of acute depression, it’s true. A man who has been abused may indeed feel that he is forever defined by it. But why does the surrounding novel seem to feel the same way? In fact, it is not revolutionary at all to portray rape victims as irrevocably damaged, or to abandon narratives in which a person can be more than simply their trauma in favor of narratives in which said trauma has so defeated their personhood that they are understood forever merely by what happened to them.
Jude is, at his core, Lucretia: the absolutely innocent rape victim who becomes a cultural hero because she recognizes herself as eternally soiled and kills herself, removing the stain of her victimhood from society. Even protofeminist Henry James made a career out of portraying women gracefully submitting to the vast and unjust societal gears that ground them to dust. This is, in other words, neither a subversive nor an original narrative. It’s the oldest female story in the book, transformed into a story about a man whom other men desire.
It also seems to be a symptom of a kind of juvenility on the part of the narrative viewpoint. In fact, reading it, I was also reminded of the addictive, lushly detailed stories of eating disorders that littered the young-adult shelf during my teen years at the turn of the century. (The Guardian’s reviewer had a similar reaction, comparing it to the related genre of abuse narratives from the same period, like A Child Called It.) These books encouraged girls to see anorexia as a romantic, beautiful response to the crushing pressure of society’s disapproval of their bodies—a modern extension of the narrative that the most heroic way to respond to a society that rejects your personhood is to remove yourself altogether. There’s a reason the patriarchy’s favorite heroines, and now its favorite gay characters, are often martyrs: it’s a lot more comfortable when the victim dies, because it allows us to feel virtuously empathetic and yet leaves the general order of things unchanged.
This novel does not, in fact, seem to aim at being the great gay novel—I think it reaches for greatness in a non-identity-specific way, by attempting to depict the full range of human psychic destruction, and fails. But the great gay novel, when it comes, will not depict gay life as an unremitting parade of suffering and pedophilic abuse. Because any great novel, gay or otherwise, should aim at reaching the richness of ambiguity (or negative capability, as Keats terms it) that art has to have in order to remain art, and not a clinical treatise. When a character is so fully defeated by his own trauma as Jude is, when his fate is so inarguably final, the meaning of his trauma becomes too defined, and thereby loses much of its power.