I may be three years behind the times, but this summer I finally got around to reading A Little Life, the monstrous tombstone of a book which made headlines in 2015 for its unexpected place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and its gritty and honest portrayal of abuse, depression, self-harm, trauma and, perhaps most controversially of all, intense male relationships. While I laughed, cried, was moved and found myself wishing for more even when all harrowing 800 pages were finished, there is an aspect of the book which I have issue with – and this is the status it has gained as a gay or queer novel.
To draw a complex plot in very broad strokes, A Little Life follows four male friends, all graduates of the same liberal arts university, all of whom have moved to New York City to pursue their various careers. As the novel progresses, we focus primarily on the mysterious Jude, a serious lawyer who is intensely private about his past. As the horrors of his childhood emerge, and the reality of his present day – graphic scenes of him cutting himself pop up around every fifty pages – the complex nature of his sexual identity is also explored.
It should be noted that the lack of women in the novel is almost eerie. The few who have major screentime, so to speak, are present only in relation to more important men; a wife or girlfriend usually. Not every man we meet is queer, but for all of them it is male relationships that are the most important. Jude’s adopted father spends far more time building his father-son relationship than he does worrying about his own marriage; the character of Willem sacrifices relationships with several women because of his devotion to his male friends.
The suggestion is that there is something unhealthy in these male relationships; something regressive and childlike, as these men yearn to go back to their carefree college days and become boys again. JB, a painter, is the best example of this. He is the only one who self-identifies as gay and the only one who almost never has a meaningful, long-term relationship. For large swathes of the novel, he refuses to face the real world, turning to drug abuse and obsessing over paintings of his male friends rather than answering calls from his mother.
Yanagihara never shies away from describing gay sex scenes, largely in a negative light, and Jude’s association of men with trauma and physical pain is never downplayed. Even with his best friend and later lover, the handsome, charming and kind Willem, sex never stops being something he fears and hates. Jude never identifies himself as gay, pointing out at one point that he has only ever been with men so that is all he knows. Indeed, becoming gay is something that he associates with his past and with pain; he avoids being labelled with this identity and yet the only person he truly ever loves is a man.
That man – Willem – spends most of the novel performing heterosexually, even after he and Jude start a relationship. Dealing with his own childhood trauma and problems, he is always somehow “saved” by his heterosexuality; that he is a straight, white, attractive man remain his defining characteristics throughout the novel.
It is reductive to say that in the novel being gay always has bad consequences and being straight always has positive ones, but this conclusion would be an easy one to draw. In this portrayal, Yanagihara is only being faithful to the real world as she sees it, where young gay men are far more likely to be suicidal, be subject to abuse and have suicidal thoughts than straight men.
However, what she has masterfully done in A Little Life is create a world of trauma and possibility that supersedes gay or straight binaries. It is possible to place each male character neatly on the Kinsey scale, or move them around as the chapters progress, but in fact the trauma in the novel speaks to something more universal than that. There will always be people who hurt others – people who help others in this world. Pigeonholing A Little Life as queer literature is limiting a sensational novel that speaks to far more than that. It is a forceful account of the human condition and, somehow – through all the tears – it remains relentlessly positive to the end.