“A Little Life” Explores The Relationship Between Experience & Identity

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, does what few novels are able to successfully do: capture the universality of life’s pain and beauty. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Within the first couple of pages, notions of what the book is and isn’t start to form in your mind: Oh, this is a coming of age story of 4 friends; Oh, there’s clearly something going on with Jude…

As you dive deeper into the families and back story of the 4 friends, fresh out of a prestigious university in New England and making their way to New York to pursue their dream life, it becomes uncomfortably apparent that something is amiss in this retelling of the classic, but never overdone, coming-of-age story… Something darker lurks behind the doorways of their, particularly Jude’s, memories. This isn’t just a story about what it means to go through life, to pursue goals, to create lasting relationships, or to discover one’s identity. This is a story about trauma and the role our experiences play in shaping our reality and identity. This story, in particular, is about Jude and his daily struggle with the demons (memories) from his past which, ultimately (and the reader sees this coming from a mile away) leads to his suicide.

When Jason and I first started Transcendental Meditation, there was something our teacher told us during one session of our 4-day course that, while simple, struck me on the side of my head with its magnitude and strength. She said that every experience we have shapes our brain. While this statement is seemingly obvious on the surface, I was so taken with this statement that I sat with it, thought about it and analyzed its truth in regards to my own life. And yes, every experience we have shapes our thoughts, behavior, pet peeves, interactions, shapes who we are as a person both when we’re alone and in front of others. This couldn’t be more so the case than with A Little Life which is centered on the role experiences play in shaping our identity.

Jude — having been sexually and physically abused and tortured — grows into a tormented, yet fearsome litigator with severe intimacy issues and PTSD, self-destructive tendencies and a warped view of what a healthy romantic relationship looks and feels like. When he meets Caleb at a friend’s dinner party, he, while reluctantly but being influenced by the recent questioning of his friends and family to engage in a romantic relationship, strikes a conversation which turns into a relationship which turns into abuse and rape. Frustratingly enough to the reader, Jude accepts Caleb’s treatment of him as it mirrors the treatment he’s received his entire life. But as frustrated and heartbroken as we get, who can blame Jude for his behavior? Who can blame Jude for his poor, if existent, sense of self when he’s been abandoned since the start of his life? Who can blame JB for his selfishness and emotional immaturity when all he’s received in life has been praise and detrimental coddling? Who can blame Harold for his overbearing nature when the death of his 5-year-old son loiters at the forefront of his memories? Who can blame Caleb, Dr. Traylor or Brother Luke — the three men who played the largest role in disfiguring Jude’s memory and body — when all we have is a one-sided story of who the character might be, rather than is?

In an interview with Electric Lit, Hanya Yanagihara further explores the relationship between experience and identity to discuss the more vile characters in her novel — Caleb, Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor. Yanagihara states that the purpose of the writer is to explore the nature of the human condition and the experiences that underlie the motive of our behavior, words and thoughts. The novelist wanted to create complicated characters, characters whose lives we only see one aspect of and that is through Jude’s retelling. This is apparent in her creation of Caleb, a seemingly brutal, sadomasochistic man who abuses and rapes Jude, but who, somehow, is well respected at his job, has a close relationship with his sister and finds a boyfriend after Jude. This paradox forces us to ask who Caleb is and what his life is like when he’s not with Jude. The same can be said, on a more subtle note, for Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor — two characters we only get to know through Jude’s retelling of his childhood memories.

With the thread of trauma, Yanagihara stitches a beautiful composition of life’s landscape complete with sunny days, open fields, insurmountable mountains, and stormy weather. With pain as her foundation, she explores the beauty life offers through our personal achievements and, most importantly, relationships. What Hanya Yanagihara creates is a universal story in which human identity and behavior are explored with the direction of experience as our guide, thus helping us answer the weighty question of what directs human behavior and how can we use that knowledge to influence our lives and interactions.

*Feature image via Mashable

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