A Little Life

(There are spoilers in this review; so if you’d rather read this with a clean slate, I suggest only reading the first paragraph.)

I love this book and think it is an absolutely incredible achievement, a monumental work, but I cannot recommend it to anybody that I care about. I guess I feel downright feel strange, telling somebody “oh, you simply MUST undergo this incredibly painful experience! I highly endorse it!” Not to imply painful reading experiences are bad, right? Pain is one of the undeniable facts of life (as the majority of most world religions emphasize), and is a big theme (if not THE theme) of this book. But when was the last time a book made me feel this profoundly, spiritually anxious + despondent, while simultaneously exhilarated by the writing? 2666? That book always inevitably takes me weeks to get through, but I read A Little Life on a 10-hour plane ride. I don’t know what that means, but it means something: I could NOT put this book down. I will not be shocked at all if it wins the Booker prize.

It starts out so normal, too. “Tricksy, tricksy,” as Gollum would say. Oh my gosh, I thought as I zipped through the first few chapters, furiously clicking away on the kindle turn-page button, the stewardess drink cart clattering down the aisle. What a good campus novel this is! I can’t think of when I last read a book that was so focused on the post-college life of early 20’s-men. This book is so cool, the way it’s evoking the friendship and intimacy between these four male friends. I love that they’re not all white and heterosexual and rich. I love that with one exception, their careers all focus on art or creativity of some kind (Willem the actor, JB the painter, Malcolm the architect and Jude the lawyer respectively–guess the exception!). I love quotes like the following about early adulthood life; they really ring true for me:

“There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.” (39)

Yeah, this is really enjoyable. I wonder what’s going to happen in the next 700 pages?

Thankfully in regards to this last question, I’d already read some reviews online, so by the time the first “moment” happens, I was (or so I thought) prepared for it: Jude and Willem have moved into their new dumpy apartment in New York together (so reminiscent of my current dirt-cheap abode here in England, with the sink-less bathroom, temperamental shower and giant manhole in the front yard which has claimed the foot of one delivery man already). A few references are made to Jude’s difficulties in navigating flights of stairs, the pain in his legs he’s had since they all met in college. And then the night of their housewarming party, Jude comes to Willem with his arm wrapped in a towel and says that well, there’s been a little accident, he’s cut himself you see, no big deal, but he’s bleeding a lot and it’s probably best if he were to go to the emergency room.

And so it begins. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book so relentlessly focused on physical suffering and pain. I’ll just say it: the reason I kept reading this book was because I wanted to know exactly why and how Jude was suffering. I even skipped ahead at times just to get it over with. It was the same morbid fascination I felt as a pre-teen, thumbing through my mother’s copy of Reviving Ophelia and wondering what “bulimia” meant. So yeah, that is the book’s main narrative drive: Jude’s life, his secrets, and his relentless, never-ending trips to the bathroom to reach for razor blades. This entire book would make the trigger-warning community of tumblr run screaming hysterically to the hills and hunker down in bunkers.

And god, the things that are unbelievable about this book! (I’m going to get very spoiler-heavy now…) In the first fifteen years of Jude’s life, he is basically raped by EVERYBODY. Virtually everyone he encounters is a violent pedophile. Is this an exaggeration? An overblown metaphor so that Jude becomes an embodied symbol for people who have to live with trauma, for those who have survived the unsurvivable? “Not having sex,” Jude thinks at one point, during one of the novel’s most devastating moments: “it was one of the best things about being an adult.” (303) When the book’s title is uttered by basically the worst of characters, it’s cause to throw your hands up in the air and give up on everything and everyone that’s good in the world. “You have to show a little life,” Jude’s pimp says (Jude is twelve years old at this point). “They’re paying to be with you… you have to show them you’re enjoying it.” (415) And trust me… this is not even the worst part of the book. I promise. Oh, there’s a lot more in store for you after that!!

Fortunately, for the rest of Jude’s adult life (with two big exceptions… you’ll know what they are), things go extremely well. It’s almost comically unrealistic–to put it simply, this whole book is relentlessly melodramatic, deliberately exaggerated. Everything is either HORRIBLE or WONDERFUL. During the WONDERFUL phase, Jude becomes an astonishingly successful lawyer. His friends win Oscars, start firms, get exhibitions at MOMA. He’s adopted by a father figure. Everyone loves and wants to look after Jude, though I actually found myself wondering (and feeling guilty for doing so), what’s so great about Jude? Why does everybody want to be his friend? I don’t really see what’s THAT appealing about him. I guess there were a few scenes in which he showed he was, like, a good listener. And he was also very intelligent. At one point he sings a German lied that pretty much defines his character: “I have become lost to the world / In which I otherwise wasted so much time.” (108) At another point he thinks of himself as “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled through the black soil, and chips of bone calcified slowly into stone.” (121) (How mental is that simile?!) At yet another point, he compares himself to the nasty walls of his apartment,  “walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers.” (317) Everything about Jude is initially buried, hidden–the novel’s opening even places him at the margins of the group, but as the others fade he emerges as the primary narrator, the main focus.

In terms of theme and content, this book reminded me of Like the Red Panda (another book I greatly admired but could never bring myself to reread), or if All My Puny Sorrows was unfunny and deeply melodramatic. I also thought at times of Poor People by William t. Vollmann. Why go on? this book asks. What’s the point? What if you just plain don’t want to show “a little life”? Isn’t that your right? Big, painful, intense questions. “So much time,” Jude thinks, “was spent trying to repair something unfixable, something that should have wound up in charred bits on a slag heap years ago. And for what? His mind, he supposed.” (140) But then there’s the moment that occurs early on in the novel, when Willem tells Jude I’ve got you, standing on the fire escape, holding onto Jude as he opens the window of the apartment they are locked out of, “and Willem held on to him so tightly that he could feel the knuckles of Jude’s spine through his sweater, could feel his stomach sink and rise as he breathed, (78) and after Willem crawls in first he then helps Jude, “careful to avoid his bandages.” (78)

God, I thought after I read that. Isn’t that what life is? Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to hold on to us and not let go and say “I’ve got you” and help us not to fall? Someone who is careful and respectful of our bandages but recognizes that they’re there? Friendship is definitely represented as the great “love” arch of this book and is probably the #2 theme after pain. As Jude himself wonders at one point,

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. (223)

The other amazing thing this book does is turn Jude into an embodied symbol for suffering and pain, the “billions” of people (think traumatized Syrian refugees, Colombian desplazados, etc) for whom life is arguably hardcore suffering… This is best exemplified by the following two quotes, occurring late in the book:

When he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace. (619)

[Jude] had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible–he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer? (686)

Life is basically suffering, says the Buddha, and that’s what this book deals with. Relentlessly. Mental and physical. Or as the book puts it, “the terrifying largeness, the impossibility of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days. (498) By the time this sentence on the last page arrived, I was in tears: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see.” (718) Because what else can ya do?

This book made me think about the students I used to work with at the elementary school and Boys & Girls Club, which is maybe another reason it broke my heart. It’s gloriously imperfect, and it achieves what it sets out to do in a powerful, unforgettable fashion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read it again.

(P.S. I highly recommend the following article by the author, in which she talks about the different photographs and images that inspired the novel.)

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Filed under books, review, violence

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