“But these were the days of self-fulfillment,” writes Hanya Yanagihara early in “A Little Life,” her capacious and consuming new novel, “where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble.”
So it is that four tight-knit college campadres, crackling with ambition and eyes trained squarely on the prize, plant themselves in New York City and ascend their towers of first choice: the art world for JB, a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Marion, the quartet’s Haitian-American provocateur (and first out of the closet); architecture for the self-proclaimed post-black Malcolm Irvine, pampered scion of commercial banking’s second black CFO; the stage for Willem Ragnarsson, orphaned ranch-hand’s son from Montana; and the theater of law for Willem’s on-again, off-again roommate Jude St. Francis, whose family back story and ethnicity is as much a puzzlement to others as a murkily explained car accident that left him with permanent leg damage.
Yanagihara, who turned heads with her unsettling debut novel, “The People in the Trees,” projects lofty aspirations of her own. What initially appears to be a gender-reversed riff on Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” burgeons into a stops-out bildungsroman that retrofits sexuality and racial identity to our more nuanced age. Boasting a scale and immersive power to rival the recent epics of Donna Tartt and Elizabeth Gilbert, “A Little Life” orbits a constellation of high-functioning individuals only to land upon the shoulders of a battered hero whose sufferings are enough to still the plaints of any young urban warrior scaling the parapets of success.
That unenviable role goes to Jude, a character of Goliathan inner demons. Abandoning a service-minded job at the US attorney’s office to become a ruthless defender of corporate interests for a high-end law firm, the gifted, handsome, and universally beloved Jude exudes a professional swagger that belies a private agony. As one intimate observes, “I have still never met anyone as neatly or severely bifurcated as he: someone who could be so utterly confident in some realms and so utterly despondent in others.”
Despondent hardly touches it. (You don’t, after all, name a character after a Thomas Hardy icon and a stigmata-scarred martyr on an idle whim.) Unbeknown to his inner circle, Jude is a cutter, furtively sawing away at his skin with razor blades as if to drain off the pain and self-loathing accrued from a tortured past. “[S]ometimes,” confides the pathologically guarded Jude, “it’s because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t.”
Weaving flashbacks into the narrative’s three-plus-decade chronology with a deftly cinematic sleight-of-hand, Yanagihara brings into incremental focus a hair-raising childhood trajectory of serial punishment and deprivation. This pinballing path of horrors, involving monks with vinegar-soaked belts, a group home riddled with degenerate counselors, and a psychotherapist of an abuse victim’s worst nightmares, is perhaps more evocative of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine than the aggrieved Judes of Hardy fiction or Paul McCartney lyrics.
Given Jude’s self-protective penchant for dissembling and the artful dodge, it seems fitting that he should come to find succor in, respectively, an actor and a law professor. Personality clashes and evolving careers eventually push Malcolm and J.B. to the book’s margins (along with its sketchily-conceived women). As they recede, Jude grows closer to a haunted Cambridge constitutional scholar named Harold Stein (who unwittingly assigns Jude the Fifth Amendment, the one that shields against self-incrimination) and to Willem, who has been cultivating a succession of girlfriends and a rarefied celebrity from a series of high-minded pictures. The author makes a parlor game out of concocting modern movie treatments of literary warhorses; she is so attuned to the zeitgeist that she even has Willem starring in a lauded biographical drama about Alan Turing.
Yanagihara revels as well in the atmosphere and minutiae of her characters’ respective industries: The early pages of “A Little Life” zing with the heady energies of architecture firms off Madison Square, communal art studios in Long Island City, and Chelsea eateries where pretty actor/waiters sportingly deflect come-ons from gay male patrons. Few novels have so stirringly captured the unfettered angst and exhilaration of gaining a toehold in New York City; one may find oneself heaving a yearning sigh at the spectacle of the four post-grad musketeers in early bloom: “[T]hey were a fleet of parrots shaking their bright-colored feathers at one another, presenting themselves to their peers without fear or guile.”
The multihued joie de vivre of these opening chapters barely prepares us for the incursion of sexual violence and tragic twists waiting in the wings. The author conducts us Virgil-style on a gut-punching tour through the inferno of Jude’s childhood, juxtaposing these brutal indignities with the character’s first adult intimacy: a terrifyingly sado-masochistic relationship in which Jude subconsciously replicates the psycho-dynamics of his youth.
Yanagihara puts us to the empathy test. Jude’s physical and psychic injuries are so exhaustingly inventoried that I found my compassion giving way to impatience with his hamster-wheel marathon of self-flagellation and mulish refusal to seek help: chronicles of New York’s intelligentsia don’t get much more therapy-phobic than this. Comparably frustrating is his loved ones’ collective failure to intervene (the book could be subtitled “Jude and the Enablers”). Alternately devastating and draining, “A Little Life” floats all sorts of troubling questions about the responsibility of the individual to those nearest and dearest and the sometime futility of playing brother’s keeper. Those questions, accompanied by Yanagihara’s exquisitely imagined characters, will shadow your dreamscapes.
Jan Stuart is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.