“The Child is father of the Man,” as Wordsworth’s famous axiom goes. The Bildungsroman, narratives that trace the relationship between child and adulthood, certainly has a long-standing, if never subtle, presence in the history of the novel in English. It can be traced back through Jane Eyre to the origins of the novel with Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722).
Hanya Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted A Little Life (2015) should be located within this somewhat creaky tradition. The protagonist Jude’s early life, initially teasingly and then increasingly abruptly, is positioned in counterpoint to the adult Jude’s negotiation of relationships. The effects of childhood abuse, neglect and terror are played out in these relationships, in which Jude both finds great love and, at times, struggles to understand his place within.
This fascination with self-discovery is a necessary part of the Bildungsroman narrative, but has also been exacerbated by the now century-old popular fascination with psychoanalysis. Nothing, surely, can be more interesting to others than one’s own self-discovery. Jude is in the first year of law school when “his life began appearing to him as memories”: “A scene would appear before him, a dumb show meant only for him.”
But Jude’s self-interest is something which we as readers will excuse, in the aftermath of the last 20 years of child abuse memoirs and fictions, because of the abuse he has sustained. His adult self is punctuated by scenes of horrific abuse which are elegantly and described in a Nabokovian way:
A month ago, after a very bad night – there had been a group of men, and after they had left, he had sobbed, wailed, coming as close to a tantrum as he had in years, while Luke sat next to him and rubbed his sore stomach and held a pillow over his mouth to muffle the sound.
The domestic quietude evoked by the rubbing of his stomach, juxtaposed with the threat of the pillow, underlines the fraught emotional sinews which bind abused and abuser. These bonds that tie, and connect, and connive, are at the heart of the child Jude’s novel.
The horrific accounts of the abuse which Jude experiences as a child, and its tentacles coiling through his life, are the most difficult passages to read. In an age in which, we are told, a few clicks of the mouse can bring us face-on with visual evidences of this kind of abuse, to be able to evoke nausea and disgust through the written word is remarkable. More often than not, abuse on this scale (scale not only in act but also in description) does not make it to the pages of the mainstream novel, and rarely into a novel that has been feted with literary approbation.
But it is the sinews of other relationships which mark this novel as more than just one more of the child abuse memoirs and fictions which now populate booksellers’ must-reads. This is a novel about male desire in some of its forms, and the grotesquely described accounts of male-male child sexual abuse are part of this spectrum of emotionality between men. Yet it is in friendship between men that Jude gains a sense of himself as an adult, and as someone who can contribute (however little he may recognise this or, more vitally, value it) to others’ lives. This is all the more important given that this is often an overlooked relationship in the 20th-century novel, presumably partly a response to the multiple dissections of friendships between women in the novels of the long 19th century.
The opening pages of A Little Life are reminiscent of Donna Tartt in setting, and there are some muted hedonisms which nod towards Easton Ellis: fresh from university, a group of male friends make their way in the big city. Much is made of the promise of these young men when they come to the city, and they do not disappoint, at least in terms visible to those who know them superficially.
Here Yanagihara plays with readers’ expectations around the tropes of “literary” fiction: in a novel which is more attuned to the realities of experience, one would expect some of these men to fall, and even to fall spectacularly. But they do not, and each becomes tremendously successful in their professional lives. If Jude’s childhood has hallmarks of the gothic, then these young men, leaving the sanctuary of the gilded halls and heading into the success of life in the big city, are more in tune with the fairy tale.
History of letters
These nods to the history of the novel in English are no accident. A Little Life is rooted in the past: both the individual history of Jude, but also the history of the novel in the English language. Yanagihara is well aware of the Bildungsroman, of the fairy tale, and of the gothic. There is the southern American gothic – as Jude is bundled around Texas and used by redneck truckers for sex – and the English gothic. The abandoned child, the possible and very real terrors within the domestic, and the devilish monk, Brother Luke, who is Jude’s abuser, pimp and carer, all feature in many Gothic novels from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) onwards.
One of Jude’s friends, JB, refers to Jude as the Postman – post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past. This is a knowing nod to the seasoned reader of contemporary fiction, a reader aware of the edges, at least, of the discussions about postmodernism.
But the reference to the Postman also has a particular place in American popular cultural history. The critical and commercial failure of The Postman (1997) ended a decade-long run of Hollywood success for Kevin Costner. A saccharine post-apocalyptic film which now has a cult following, the Postman rebuilds a society through small connections he makes with others, and which he helps others make with one another. The film’s ending implies that the Postman was not able to live through to see the effect of his work, but that he is remembered with love and hope.
There is love and hope in A Little Life as well – of hope left by the knowing of someone, of being friends. The hope also of loving one another well enough, although perhaps not the complete love that we might have desired.
There is no narrative redemption for Jude, no fairy-tale ending, which child abuse memoirs and fictions often evoke. A less deft novel might have given Jude a less obscure winding down of his life, but Yanagihara is confident enough to show that even fleeting and transitory moments of love and happiness can be enough, that that the act of friendship can be the most important act in one’s life.