The title of Hanya Yanagihara’s second work of fiction stands in almost comical contrast to its length: at 720 pages, it’s one of the biggest novels to be published this year. To this literal girth there has been added, since the book appeared in March, the metaphorical weight of several prestigious award nominations—among them the Kirkus Prize, which Yanagihara won, the Booker, which she didn’t, and the National Book Award, which will be conferred in mid-November. Both the size of A Little Life and the impact it has had on readers and critics alike—a best seller, the book has received adulatory reviews in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other serious venues—reflect, in turn, the largeness of the novel’s themes. These, as one of its four main characters, a group of talented and artistic friends whom Yanagihara traces from college days to their early middle age in and around New York City, puts it, are “sex and food and sleep and friends and money and fame.”
The character who articulates these themes, a black artist on the cusp of success, has one great artistic ambition, which is to “chronicle in pictures the drip of all their lives.” This is Yanagihara’s ambition, too. “Drip,” indeed, suggests why the author thinks her big book deserves its “little” title: eschewing the kind of frenetic plotting that has proved popular recently (as witness, say, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the 2014 Pulitzer winner), A Little Life presents itself, at least at the beginning, as a modest chronicle of the way that life happens to a small group of people with a bit of history in common—as a catalog of the incremental accumulations that, almost without our noticing it, become the stuff of our lives: the jobs and apartments, the one-night stands and friendships and grudges, the furniture and clothes, lovers and spouses and houses.
In this respect, the book bears a superficial resemblance to a certain kind of “woman’s novel” of an earlier age—Mary McCarthy’s 1963 best seller The Group, say, which similarly traces the trajectories of a group of college friends over a span of time. But the objects of this woman novelist’s scrutiny are men. Bound by friendships first formed at an unnamed northeastern liberal arts college, Yanagihara’s cast is as carefully diversified as the crew in one of those 1940s wartime bomber movies, however twenty-first-century their anxieties may be. There is the black artist, JB, a gay man of Haitian descent who’s been raised by a single mother; Malcolm, a biracial architect who rather comically “comes out” as a straight man and frets guiltily over his parents’ wealth; Willem, a handsome and amiable midwestern actor who stumbles into stardom; and Jude, a brilliant, tormented litigator (he’s also a talented amateur vocalist and patissier) with no identifiable ethnicity and a dark secret that shadows his and his friends’ lives.
As contrived as this setup can feel, it has the makings of an interesting novel about a subject that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.