Illustration by Fiona Ostby.
This debate contains spoilers for “A Little Life,” as well as discussion of suicide, sexual abuse, pedophilia, domestic violence, disordered eating, and self-harm, which may be triggering to some readers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and to get rid of all our little verbal tics, because we uh, um, like, I think, used a lot of them, you know what I mean?
Frankie: Hello, Niche readers. My name is Frankie Thomas. I am a writer currently in my second year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I will graduate in a few months, and I actually just wrote extensively about A Little Life in my MFA thesis essay exam, so it’s fresh in my memory. My critical credentials are that I am a regular contributor to the Paris Review Daily, and most recently, I have been writing a monthly column for them where I critique YA fiction of the 90s.
Peyton: My name is Peyton Thomas, not to be confused with Frankie Thomas —
Frankie: Oh, yeah, no relation.
Peyton: — who is also a slacker andro waif with brown hair and glasses who writes things and gets passionate about gay shit. You can see why people would mix us up. But anyway, I am a young adult novelist, and I write scripts for video games, and I’ve contributed writing to Vanity Fair, Billboard, Pitchfork, and The Atavist. My credentials for reviewing A Little Life are not that I’ve written an academic paper about it, or that I write columns about books. I just love it a whole lot. I re-read it annually. I’ve given it away as a gift to multiple people. I’m as passionate about loving this book as Frankie is about hating it.
So we are here today to debate a simple question, in the tradition of Jordan Peterson versus Slavoj… Ziz…
Frankie Thomas: Slavoj Zizek.
Peyton: There you go. You pronounced it.
Frankie: I object to your casting of me as Jordan Peterson. Really, it should be you, because you’re Canadian, right?
Peyton: Don’t you ever compare me to…
Frankie: But I’m not eager to be Zizek or Peterson, so, whichever you need me to be.
Peyton: Capitalism versus Marxism is one of the most contentious debates of our age, as is, “Is A Little Life good or bad? Is it the best book, or the worst book?”
Frankie: It actually does feel like those are the only two options. One reason I am so excited to have this debate with you is that this novel is so polarizing. I’m not sure anyone has ever had a really spirited critical discussion about it before.
Peyton: No, because everyone who’s ever written about it is either really hardcore in one camp or the other. No one’s ambivalent about it.
Frankie: And if you hate it, it’s so easy to make fun of it. I’m not sure anyone’s ever seriously discussed their problems with it, because you can just lapse into parody so quickly.
Oh, wait, one more thing, before we start this debate. I only remembered after agreeing to do this debate that you were a debate champion in high school. I went to a Quaker school where we didn’t believe in competition or being adversarial, so I’ve never done a debate before and I’m gonna get fucking creamed by you, I’m sure. So, this is not to say, “Go easy on me,” but, uh… be warned that I’m soft. I’m very soft.
Peyton: Well, I am out of practice. That’s the one thing. I was a debate champion in high school, which was… a minute ago.
Frankie: It wasn’t that long ago.
Peyton: It was a few years. Now, do you want to give us your opening statement?
Frankie: I should open by saying what I do love about A Little Life, because I am coming to this in good faith. I can see why someone might love this book, even though I hate it. I read it in 2016 and hated every minute of it and literally have not stopped thinking about it since. Not a day has gone by since then that I have not thought about it.
What I admire about it is that it has this incredibly immersive quality. Even if you hate it, it’s very difficult to put it down. Its universe, even though it bears very little resemblance to our universe, is quite self-contained and feels like a real place, though not one that you could visit. It makes such bold choices. It is so bonkers. And whether you like that or not, it’s hard to deny just how much Hanya Yanagihara goes there. She does nothing halfway. She will never do something slightly if she can do it maximally. That’s a large part of what makes it so memorable to people.
And then, finally, it is shockingly well-attuned to a certain fantasy that a lot of us have, including me. When I want to see this fantasy gratified in fiction, I usually turn to fanfiction. A Little Life is very unusual in its similarity to fanfiction, in terms of the pleasures that it offers and the fantasies that it gratifies. That said, I do not think that it transcends fanfiction in its use of fanfic tropes. Its critical success is largely due to the mainstream publishing world’s utter ignorance of fanfiction as a genre. If you are as well-versed in fanfiction as many of us are, A Little Life will seem very familiar, and even cliché, instead of groundbreaking. But I’m excited to discuss this with you, because I know that you, too, are a connoisseur of fanfiction, and you clearly don’t experience it the same way.
Peyton: Yeah, that’s another thing we have in common: we’ve read just an absurd amount of fanfiction, and that informs the way we approach literature in general. I mean, you’ve written for the Paris Review about the Sirius/Remus fanfiction phenomenon. This is very much in your wheelhouse.
Now, my opening statement. I should begin, in good faith, by listing the things I don’t like about A Little Life. Here we go!
So, clearly, the one caveat I have is that this isn’t a book I can universally recommend to anyone. There are books that I can unreservedly recommend to any reader — The Idiot by Elif Batuman is one example, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — but A Little Life covers really difficult subject matter, and it does so in a really graphic and uncompromising way, and it doesn’t end happily. It could be massively triggering, and it’s not an easy read or a lighthearted read by any means.
The one thing I always say to people is, “You’ll either love it or hate it, but whatever you do, just don’t look up the Wikipedia plot summary.” Because if you do, it just looks like a litany of terrible, terrible things happening, and a person getting worse and worse and worse, until it all ends miserably. Which is not inaccurate. But it misses what, for me, is just this transcendent experience: seeing a lifelong history of trauma met every step of the way with love and care and tenderness.
Now, my next point: what Frankie said is right. It borrows a lot from fanfiction. We’ve speculated that it may have originated as fanfiction. We don’t know what fandom, but Hanya, at one point, was writing some serious AO3 hurt/comfort fic. The fanfic aesthetic, for me, is something that has been missing from contemporary fiction. A Little Life is not alone in heaping terrible things upon its protagonist, but it is unique in that every low is met with a high of equal strength. This awful, traumatic childhood that Jude undergoes is matched with so many blessings and committed relationships and connections in adulthood. And these good things don’t magically resolve his childhood trauma, which I think is a very honest way to approach the subject matter.
Hanya has spoken a lot about how she wrote it like a fairy tale. I know, Frankie, you said you didn’t really understand that.
Frankie: Yeah, we’ll talk about this, I’m sure.
Peyton: A lot of foundational stories for children, fairy tales, are grounded in really traumatic things happening, and then being completely resolved and swept away. Every Disney movie begins with the death of a parent, which is an awful, horrible, traumatic, life-altering thing. And inevitably, by the end, the character has gone on a journey and completely healed, and the trauma’s been forgotten and all is well.
In A Little Life, the character begins with an awful, traumatic childhood, this horrible origin myth, and is delivered into this kind of salvation. But the residue of the trauma is still lingering, and he still has to figure out what to do with it, day by day by day. That’s an interesting combination of the tropes of fairy tales and the style and diction of contemporary fiction. So, that’s my opening statement.
Frankie: Oh my gosh, that’s a hell of an opening statement. Okay! You brought up a lot of interesting defenses of the novel. I’d actually like to frame many of my complaints in the form of questions to you, because I’d like to hear your defense of these things before I go to town on them.
Frankie: So, we could begin so many places, but let’s just begin with Jude’s trauma, because you brought that up a lot.
I would never judge a novel for being triggering. Like, that we will just set aside. But it is worth pointing out that what makes the novel triggering to many readers is not just the fact that it contains such trauma, but the way it revels in the excess of the description of the trauma. You and I can both agree that, aesthetically, A Little Life is defined by its excess. It is approximately 90,000 pages long. It is 800 pages long. It is really, really long. And even to read the Wikipedia plot summary — which, uh, don’t do, I suppose, if you want to read it for yourself — which does look like a litany of horror, does not even begin to capture the amount of horror and violence that is visited upon Jude. It’s not even that he cuts himself, it’s that we get the suppuration and the sick, fishy scent of his rotting flesh and the, oh, God, “looks like a side of fatted bacon,” and, what is it, “a crusty cap of pus forms…” There’s a lot.
And to me, this can feel exploitative at best, and at worst — and I’m only talking about the cutting here, but this is also true of the sexual violence and the relationship violence and getting run over by a car, lots of violence occurs in this novel, all of it visited upon Jude — at worst, to me, it seems pornographic. I use the word “pornographic” only in the sense that the violence seems to have no purpose except as an end in itself. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released?
Peyton: Oh, yeah.
Frankie: I remember the word “pornographic” getting thrown around a lot in discussion of The Passion, too, in the sense of, “Is this just violence for violence’s sake?”, as pornography is sex for sex’s sake. So I’m very curious to hear your defense of the unbelievable amount of graphic violence that is described in A Little Life.
Peyton: Well, Hanya is graphic about everything. She is so descriptive of every tiny little detail. You know the colour of every surface in Jude’s apartment. She’ll spend pages describing the texture of a fabric or the smell of sandalwood that lingers on an old shirt. She doesn’t blink or look away or ignore any kind of sensory detail. And that is what makes the scenes of trauma so, so difficult to read.
Like you, I would never judge a novel for depicting triggering content. There are sensitive ways to do it and insensitive ways to do it, good taste and bad taste. I can also understand someone choosing not to read a novel because it contains subject matter that is a no-go for them.
But while A Little Life is graphically violent, we’re also given these very in-depth looks at how Jude thinks, and how he feels, and how he responds to the world around him. The violence in the book is never separated from emotional impact. We not only get descriptions of the violence, but we deeply feel how the violence is affecting Jude, how it affects every thought pattern, how he sees himself, how he sees his connections to others. The difference between this and something like “The Passion” — because, you know, I was raised in a very hardline Anglican denomination and I watched it a lot —
Frankie: Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.
Peyton: You don’t get to see the interior life of Christ. Mel Gibson is not concerned with Jesus’s spiritual journey, which is, ironically, what the movie should be about. His aim there was to depict this horrifying thing that happened to Jesus, put it in three dimensions, make the smell of blood radiate from the screen. This is a story that we know, but maybe haven’t conceived in material, bloody terms. We haven’t had that viscera before.
But in A Little Life, the graphic detail is not just there to shock. It’s not just there to illustrate the extent of Jude’s suffering, although that is one function of it. It is deeply connected to his mental illness and to his history of trauma. It really is bringing readers into this world and making them understand that mindset.
As much as this is a book that, spoiler alert, ends in the main character’s suicide, it is ultimately one of the strongest cases against suicide that I’ve ever seen in literature. When we reach the end of the book, we have been given every single excuse for why Jude’s life is miserable and unbearable. And it still ends with his adoptive father saying, “I wish he hadn’t ended his life, I wish he’d died believing that he was loved and connected.” That’s my overall takeaway from it, but you might feel differently, Frankie.
Frankie: Wow, thank you for that detailed answer. I want to begin by agreeing with something you said, and move from that into a larger critique.
I definitely agree with you that the book really skillfully gets into Jude’s psychology and, by extension, the psychology of someone who has been a victim of abuse and trauma. The novel is really, really well-attuned to how someone in Jude’s position would manipulate himself, and this would affect his self-esteem and his ability to form bonds with others. Hanya Yanagihara is very sophisticated on that psychological front.
But what I find disturbing about A Little Life is that even though it has a very large cast of characters and even though it’s narrated from the point of view of multiple characters, somehow, the entire universe, the entire fictional universe of the novel, is structured around Jude. Jude is literally the centre of his universe. All the violence that occurs in the novel is visited upon Jude. The emotional arc of every single chapter is that something terrible happens to Jude, and then everybody else tells Jude how wonderful he is. The reassurance of Jude, and the adulation of Jude, and the celebration of Jude, is pretty much the emotional rhythm of the entire thing from beginning to end. Even after his suicide, we just get constant celebration of Jude and lifting up of Jude.
I do believe in building up and praising people who are going through a hard time, but there’s something very disturbing to me about the moral narcissism of the novel. Everything is so much about Jude that none of the other characters, none of the other people in the novel’s universe, seem as important as Jude.
This sort of goes to the fairy tale thing, and we can talk about it more later. But a major choice that Hanya Yanagihara made is to set the novel unstuck in time. One critic described it as “a perpetual 2007.” It spans twenty or thirty years, and the technology never changes, and there’s no sense of historical progress. The effect of this is both claustrophobic and self-indulgent, because Jude is the only person who seems to matter in the universe of this novel. I find that, as I said, narcissistic, and a kind of unexamined fantasy. I’m curious what your response is to that.
Peyton: I would strongly disagree that Jude is only ever told how perfect he is. That’s certainly not true in his childhood, ever.
Frankie: This is true.
Peyton: Right, he begins abandoned in garbage, and then is raised in a monastery where the monks abuse him in every way possibly — verbally, physically, sexually. He’s taken on the road by the one monk who ever showed him kindness, who turns out to be a pedophile who is exploiting and warping Jude’s conception of what love can be and introducing Jude to the concept of self-harm, putting Jude through hell.
Then he’s sent to a foster home, where he is abused within that system. At one point in his childhood, he has a weekend preview with a potential adoptive family, and he gets all excited about the possibility of finally having a family, and they ultimately decide not to adopt him. And that’s just a huge blow to his spirit. Then he’s kidnapped and locked in a basement by another psychopath.
And it’s only when he’s finally on the cusp of adulthood that he winds up in the care of a capable social worker who is willing to put in the work and tell him he’s not broken, and he’s not dirty, and he’s not diseased. In his early life, no one is in his corner. No one is telling him that he’s good. He has no reason to think well of himself. It’s just this one social worker who is the first glimpse of genuine kindness that he has. And then she passes away because, again, lots of difficult things happen to Jude here.
When he becomes an adult, he has friends, for the first time, who don’t know anything of his past. He really puts up a wall around his entire childhood and does not give away anything. He’s constantly in service to these people, trying to go above and beyond for them, never inconvenience them in any way. He just wants to be told he’s perfect all the time. That much is true.
But as his relationships deepen, and they become more complex, there are moments of real cruelty, moments where people who love him fail him, or don’t anticipate his needs, or grow frustrated with just how entrenched his psychological trauma is, and how difficult it is for him to trust anybody. I’m thinking of the moment where JB — one of their friends from college, and one of the core four at the beginning of the book — he’s dealing with a crystal meth addiction, and he’s going through withdrawal. Jude attends an intervention for him, and JB mocks Jude’s disability by speaking in a slurred voice and imitating his limp. And that is just crushing to Jude. It destroys their friendship for several years.
And there’s another incident where Jude self-harms by burning himself. When Willem, — his life partner, at this point — finds out about it, it sparks a major, major fight between them that ends in Willem self-harming, almost out of sheer frustration with Jude. And that is almost a breaking point for their relationship. It really is a depiction of Willem pushed to the brink. Jude is someone he loves very deeply, and wants to continue caring for, but the duty of caring for Jude is very intense. The emotional impact of the sheer difficult of caring for Jude is never more present than in that moment.
Fundamentally, I wouldn’t agree that Jude is only ever surrounded by yes-men who cater to his every whim. The ways in which his loved ones interact with him and respond to his psychology and his trauma are very realistic. Hanya shows these people being tested and frustrated and baffled by Jude’s choices, upset by his inability to move on. But their love for him is just unconditional, and these incidents makes that stand out all the more. We do see the extent to which those relationships and connections are tested, and the extent to which these people are just unwilling to let go because they love Jude so much. There may be something fantastical about it, but it’s also a huge comfort to anyone who’s ever been through trauma and thinks they’re too much or too needy.
Frankie: That’s a good response. I’m very glad that you brought up that scene where JB mocks Jude with an ableist voice, which is a fascinating scene. I keep returning to it when I read the novel, because it seems indicative of a double standard that exists within the narrative. A Little Life holds JB extremely accountable for being cruel to Jude in that moment, and certainly I am not disputing that JB is terribly cruel to Jude in that moment. But the novel never stops punishing JB for it. We are shown over and over again how hurt Jude is by JB’s actions and how appalled the other characters are when they find out what JB did. It takes Jude a very long time to even consider forgiving JB. And JB himself is very, very sorry.
Contrast this with one thing that I find sort of fascinating about Jude: he works an evil job. And the novel is actually very open about this. He hurts people with his work. He’s a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company, is that it?
Peyton: Yeah, for a pharmaceutical company and a banking company.
Frankie: She occasionally highlights the fact that Jude works an evil job and his work actively harms defenseless people and causes them to suffer greatly so he can line his pockets. But the novel never does anything more with this than jokingly refer to it and then swiftly move on. It’s related to the fact that the novel is unstuck in time. I wonder, too, if this is anything more than an excuse to make the character of Jude phenomenally wealthy so he can have such nice stuff and a nice apartment. It doesn’t sit well with me that when someone hurts Jude, the characters call in the cavalry, but when Jude hurts others, this is just hand-waved away with, “Oh, well, he had such a terrible childhood, and he is really little more than a poor victimized child.” That’s how I experience Jude, reading the novel, as a poor, victimized child who can’t be held responsible for what he does.
Peyton: I’ll respond to that point first, about Jude being a “poor, victimized child.” The ending of the novel — the good ending, before the epilogue — it hinges on Jude having this moment of actually being treated like a child. He’s tried to kill himself by starving himself to death, and now he’s in the care of his adoptive parents, and they’re trying to bring him food. And he’s being incredibly rude to his parents. He’s saying, “This food is disgusting, it tastes like dog food, it’s inedible, I’m not eating this.” And his adoptive mother makes him a sandwich instead, and when she brings him the sandwich, he flings it at the wall. And he has this monologue, where he says, “Maybe this will finally be the last straw, they’ll realize that I’m a terrible person, they’ll kick me out of their lives, they’ll leave me to die.” He really wants to be kicked out in that moment.
And instead, they just envelop him in a hug and they say, “Poor Jude, my sweetheart, my baby.” And something breaks in him, and he just starts crying, and he has this vision of what it might have been like if he’d been raised by them as a child, scampering through the grass in Cambridge. And that epiphany is what leads him to choose therapy and decide that he wants to stay for a little bit longer.
As much as you may object to that, it is a really important moment for Jude — that he can see himself as an innocent child who is deserving of love even when he behaves like a brat, even when he throws his plate, even when he’s unspeakably rude and he breaks his parents’ china. That’s an important point.
Now, moving on to your point about Jude’s evil job. Early in the book, some chapters are narrated by Jude’s adoptive father, who’s a law school professor, and he’s saying, “I wish I had been more intentional about pushing Jude toward creative fields, instead of him becoming a litigator, because I really brought him into a dark, bleak space there, by not encouraging him to expand his horizons more.” For Jude, that evil job becomes a point of control in a life where he feels he doesn’t have much control.
You said his evil job is never really acknowledged beyond the occasional joke, but there’s a really potent illustration of what the job means to Jude after Willem is killed by the driver of a semi-trailer. It’s mentioned that Jude sues everyone who could possibly be implicated in the accident. He sues the truck’s manufacturer. He sues the trucking company. He sues the truck driver, who fell asleep at the wheel at the end of a long shift, who has a sick little daughter. He wants to ruin these people’s lives. He’s using every arm of the law to go after anyone. He’s out for retribution. He does not want to forgive. He is not letting go. He has no sympathy for the truck driver, who’s been out on the road for 20 hours with a sick little kid at home. He’s like, “You are going down, I am going to take you for everything you have.”
There’s this facet of Jude’s personality where he feels really powerless against the things that harm him. Being a litigator gives him the power to control other people and seize retribution, in that one instance. It allows him to become part of a hierarchy of power, which he’s never had before. If there are other aspects of Jude’s life that are about him opening himself up to love and connection, the professional element of it is absolutely about keeping those walls up and making sure that no one can ever hurt him. I don’t think he realizes that going ham on the truck driver after the accident is not going to repair the harm in any way that matters. It’s just the one thing that he has access to.
Frankie: Man, I want to say, I’m really enjoying your description of this plotline where he sues everybody in sight. I have to admit, despite having re-read the book twice recently, I had zero memory of that. You’re making me wish it were a bigger part of the novel. I’m thinking now about how even though there are multiple points of view in the narration, we only ever inhabit the point of view of someone who adores Jude, or Jude himself. You’re making me wish we had the point of view of the truck driver —
Peyton: Oh, wouldn’t that have been great?
Frankie: — Or that he’d had a name! I wish that we could see Jude through the eyes of someone who feels something other than pure admiration for him. I wish we could see him through the eyes of someone who was harmed by him. That’s the kind of complexity that I feel is not only missing from the novel, but also, it seems to me, that Hanya Yanagihara is intentionally avoiding.
Peyton: Maybe. But we also don’t see Jude through the eyes of anyone who hates him. We never get narration from Brother Luke or Caleb, for instance.
Frankie: Who are such cartoon villains that it’s hard to imagine they could even have points of view.
Peyton: You can call them cartoon villains, but everything that happens to Jude in this book is also something that has happened to a real human being. Maybe not all of those things at once.
Frankie: Probably not all of those things at once. I’m not certain anyone has ever been so unlucky.
Peyton: Being abandoned at birth. Being abused by members of the priesthood. Sex trafficking.
Frankie: Being run over by a car on purpose.
Peyton: Being hidden in a basement is probably somewhat rarer, but it happens.
Frankie: Being abused in a relationship.
Peyton: Being disabled and dealing with chronic pain and dealing with mental illness.
Frankie: And cutting.
Peyton: And cutting. Everything that happens to Jude is something that happens to real people. And the cartoon villains of Jude’s life exist in real life, too. There are real people who really do abuse children and who really do beat their partners. Now, Hanya’s not especially concerned with making Brother Luke sympathetic, but we do see that Jude has genuine affection for Brother Luke and is devastated when he dies, despite having been ritually abused by him. And with Caleb, Jude takes Caleb’s treatment of him as a referendum on him. He can’t see why Caleb is the one who has done the wrong thing, which is a mindset common to abuse victims. So it’s not as simple as these people being cartoon villains, I don’t think. There is some shading in the way Jude perceives them, even if the people who love Jude see them as cartoon villains. And that’s their job!
Frankie: You’re bringing this back to the subject of excess, and maybe we should return to that. I do agree with you that Jude’s relationship to his first abuser, Brother Luke, is pretty finely shaded, and a pretty good portrayal of the complicated love that a child might have for his abuser. But what I don’t understand is what justifies not just the pedophilic abuse, but also everything you just listed. The cutting and the basement entrapment and the run over by a car and the amputation and the Caleb and the everything. This is the major thing that haters of A Little Life run up against. They can accept one thing, but so many things start to feel artificial and, well, excessive, to use that word again. How do you respond to that very common critique?
Peyton: There is a tremendous amount of very difficult things that happen to Jude. But something you just said there was, “You can maybe justify one thing, like the pedophilia, but what about the cutting?” And to that, I’d say: how many survivors of childhood sexual abuse do grow up with cutting as a coping mechanism? One thing does follow from the other. How many victims of childhood sexual abuse fall into similar patterns when they’re older, and they’re in adult relationships, and they’re abused by their partners? There are threads between those things. They’re not completely disconnected.
If a person’s been through severe bodily trauma as a child, they’re going to have chronic illness later in life. And even if we are trying to bring the novel back into realism, it’s not at all outlandish to think that there could be a real person out there who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and fell into abusive patterns later in their adulthood and took up cutting to deal with it, and also, in their youth, got into a car accident which left them with chronic pain. That sounds like a reasonable portrait of a real person. When I say that everything that happens to Jude in this book could happen to a real person, it includes the intersection of a lot of those different traumas, and a lot of the ways the residue of that trauma manifests later in life. Even though the novel is so excessive and over the top in its description, I don’t think it’s that far off from something that could be a real event.
Frankie: Yeah, and you used the word “realism.” This is actually a good transition to talk about the fairy tale question, because the defense that you’re making, of the excess of what happens to Jude, would be more compelling if it were clear from genre terms that this entire novel is built to be excessive and over-the-top. The writer Garth Greenwell is the one who argued that A Little Life engaged with queer-coded modes of expression, like grand opera and the melodrama. And if you read a description of the plot, this is a compelling argument. But re-reading the novel today to prepare for this debate, I was so struck by how the early chapters signal forcefully that this is going to be a realist novel set in very real contemporary New York. Not just New York, not just a fairy tale version of New York, but literally Lispenard Street, literally SoHo. Another thing that many haters of this novel take issue with is the way it sort of careens from realism to something very, very not realism —
Peyton: But that’s by design!
Frankie: — without any warning, really. I mean, we start out on Lispenard Street and suddenly we are in a rape monastery in, where is it, Montana? The evil monastery? Do we know what state it’s in, the evil monastery where Jude is found in the trash and raised?
Peyton: The foster home was in Montana. I don’t know if we know where the monastery is.
Frankie: It’s such a fairy tale idea, this evil monastery where Jude is raised as an orphan. And I personally cannot reconcile the evil monastery with Lispenard Street, do you know what I mean?
Peyton: No, yeah. Yeah. But again, that’s by design. She is setting readers up for one thing and pulling a twist on them and giving them another. You’re bringing up another important point, which is that the novel becomes more and more disconnected from realism as it goes on. But as much as the descriptions of Jude’s abuse and his childhood are excessive, the descriptions of the positive plot elements are excessive and outlandish in the opposite direction, too. Like, Jude and every single person he knows becomes absurdly, world-historically wealthy and successful over the course of the novel. He becomes the top litigator in New York. Willem wins an Oscar — well, it doesn’t say an Oscar, it just says “a major award,” but —
Frankie: But it’s clearly an Oscar, I agree.
Peyton: Malcolm becomes the world’s pre-eminent architect and JB has a four-floor retrospective at MOMA. You could argue that it’s unrealistic for one person to suffer that much abuse, but it’s much more unrealistic for all of that to happen to a single group of friends.
Frankie: I definitely agree with that, too.
Peyton: But I don’t hear that complained about as much.
Frankie: Really? It’s been complained about, too. It’s just not as flashy as the other problems.
Peyton: As I said, every abuse visited upon Jude is something that has happened to a real person. But not that many people are millionaire litigators who live in fancy apartments or win Oscars or take over the MOMA.
Frankie: They’re two sides of the same coin. What you’re describing is yet another manifestation of Jude being the centre of the universe. All the bad things happen to him, but all the good things happen to him and his friends. There’s nobody else in the world who is working in the film industry or architecture.
Peyton: I mean, Jude is the protagonist. So, naturally, we are going to have the greatest sense of the tragedies unfolding around him. But I don’t think it’s true that he’s the only character to whom bad things happen.
Early on in the novel, there’s a gorgeous chapter where Willem is talking about growing up with his intellectually disabled little brother, and the bond that they have, and the lack of regard that his parents have for his little brother, and how crushing it is when his little brother passes away when he’s at college and he’s not there to go home to him.
There’s JB’s meth addiction. There’s the death of Harold’s first son, from wasting disease, when he’s still just a baby. All of these other characters have their own suffering, and that affects how they respond to Jude. That’s an important point. It’s not like he’s surrounded by trauma-free blank slates who can’t understand what he’s going through at all. Although his experiences are pretty far removed from anything they’ve dealt with, they do have points of connection with him. They can relate to him and understand him. They suffer in realistic ways as well.
Frankie: It’s interesting that you argue that his friends are not trauma-free blank slates, because that is actually the phrase I would use to describe them. Maybe “blank slate” is going too far, but the scale of the misfortune that is heaped upon Jude kind of just by necessity makes everyone else seem incredible fortunate. You and I can agree to disagree on this particular point.
Peyton: But you could write a novel just about Willem and his little brother that would be wrenching and devastating. You could write a novel just about Harold losing his first child and it would be horrifying. You could write a novel about JB’s meth addiction and it would be harrowing. Any of these characters could carry a book all on their own.
Frankie: That actually brings up another question I wanted to ask you about the novel. You just illustrated for yourself that so much happens in this book. It’s an enormous book. And that’s part of its charm, for people who love it. But, to me, there’s a first draft quality to it.
It’s one of the many ways in which this novel reminds me of fanfiction — this really long, juicy, delicious fanfiction that gets updated one chapter at a time for years and years and ends up being hundreds of thousands of words long. I find this much more forgivable when I am reading something self-published and written for free, and I’m following along in real-time.
There are structural elements of clumsiness in A Little Life that really take me out of it in a published work, and I’m curious if you think some of them are a feature rather than a bug. It has many characters and storylines that are just briefly touched on and dropped. You can agree that Malcolm is a character who initially seems like a major character and then kind of disappears from the narrative.
Peyton: Oh, yeah, she’s setting it up to make it seem like it’s going to be narrated by all four of them.
Frankie: Do you think that’s an intentional choice, that she introduces it as a story of four people and then just forgets about half of them?
Peyton: I don’t think she’s forgetting. It’s very deliberate. I don’t think she set out to write a book about four friends and then, along the way, was like, “Oh, wait, this one friend is so much more fascinating to me, fuck everybody else.” It was very deliberately always about Jude.
I don’t think Jude actually starts narrating until a little later in the story. The beginning of the book consists of his friends’ chapters, talking about their lives and their backgrounds, and Jude is on the periphery. His friends might be confused by his behaviour, and they might wonder about his history, but those early chapters don’t probe too deeply on that. And when Jude begins to come to the fore, you don’t really realize what’s happening just yet. I do think that’s by design. It’s unusual, so I can see why people are pissed off by it. But for me, that’s a feature, not a bug. I can see not liking it, because it’s unconventional, but it works for me.
Frankie: That is a compelling defense of that aspect of the novel, and that’s a good response. One other thing that I would be much more forgiving of in a self-published fanfic, which seems very amateur hour to me in a published novel — this is kind of petty, but it is important to me: the verb tenses are all over the place. It is, in terms of verb tenses, perhaps one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read.
Someone in my workshop the other day asked, because we were talking about verb tenses in novels, “What tense is A Little Life in?” And everyone at the table who had read this book said, at the same time, “All of them.” The frame narrative of each chapter is in the present tense, but then it will flash back into a scene that will be narrated in the past tense, and then they’ll have a flashback within the flashback so that an entire scene will be narrated in the past perfect, like, “Jude had done this, Willem had said this, and then Jude had cut himself again.” Which I find terribly distracting to read. I believe it was Garth Greenwell who defended this by saying that it structurally mimics the way Jude is constantly besieged by intrusive memories of his trauma. That sounds really impressive when you say it, but it doesn’t make the past perfect scenes any more fun for me to read.
Peyton: I’m so glad you brought up the verb tenses, because that is a highlight of the novel for me, the effortless way she slips in and out. There’s one passage, one passage and one passage alone, which I bookmarked and wanted to read at some point, and it is this one, right after or while Jude is disclosing his trauma to Willem. So, it goes:
They are quiet once more, and this time, their quiet turns to sleep, and the two of them fit into each other and sleep and sleep until Willem hears Jude’s voice speaking to him, and then he wakes and listens to Jude talk.
So that’s all present tense.
Peyton: And then she goes:
It will take hours, because Jude is sometimes unable to continue, and Willem will wait and hold him so tightly that Jude won’t be able to breathe. Twice, he will try to wrench himself away, and Willem will pin him to the ground and hold him there until he calms himself. Because they’re in the closet, they won’t know what time it is, only that there has been a day that has arrived and departed, because they will have seen flat carpets of sun unroll themselves into the closet’s doorway from the bedroom, from the bathroom. He will listen to stories that are unimaginable, that are abominable. He will excuse himself three times to go to the bathroom and study his face in the mirror and remind himself that he has only to find the courage to listen, although he will want to cover his ears and cover Jude’s mouth to make the stories cease. He will study the back of Jude’s head, because Jude can’t face him, and imagine the person he knows collapsing into rubble, clouds of dust gusting around him, as nearby, teams of artisans try to rebuild him in another material and another shape, as a different person from the person who has stood for years and years. On and on the stories will go, and in their path will lie squalor, blood and bones and dirt and disease and misery. They will sleep again, and this time the dreams will be terrible. He will dream he is one of the men in the motel rooms. He will realize he has behaved like one of them. He will wake with nightmares and it will be Jude who has to calm him. Finally, they will heave themselves from the floor. It will be Saturday afternoon and they will have been lying in the closet since Thursday night. They will shower, and eat something, something hot and comforting, and then they will go directly from the kitchen into the study, where he will listen as Jude leaves a message for Dr. Loehmann, whose card Willem has kept in his wallet all these years and produces, magician-like, within seconds, and from there to bed, and they will lie there, looking at each other, each afraid to ask the other: he to ask Jude to finish his story, Jude to ask him when he’s leaving, because his leaving now seems an inevitability, a matter of logistics.
And then it’s back to present tense.
Frankie: So that was all in future tense.
Peyton: That was all in future tense.
Frankie: Which is bananas!
Peyton: It’s bananas in a good way! There’s just this sense of propulsion that pushes it forward, and it feels like this breathless race through this day and a half of lying on the floor of the closet, going through this unbelievably traumatic thing. And it’s “he will, they will,” but it’s —
Frankie: It’s incantatory, I agree. That’s the word I would use.
Peyton: It’s such a brilliant technique, because it grabs you by the hand and pulls you along for the ride. This is one of the roughest patches in the novel, because it’s the one place where Jude and Willem’s relationship is really tested. At the end of that passage, Jude thinks Willem must be leaving now, because it seems inevitable. But using the future tense indicates that there’s a future coming after this dark moment.
I love that she is not hardbound to any one tense or any one point of view, that she is just painting with all the colours, and that’s the most effective passage where that’s illustrated.
Frankie: It is an effective passage. It’s also a really good example of the type of passage in the novel that reminds me of fanfic. And I will explain why. It’s the wallowing. The quality of wallowing in emotion is one of the greatest pleasure of fanfic for me, and I rarely get it from literary fiction. And the love between fictional men — it’s always between fictional men for me. Usually, sex is secondary to what is really just a sustained exploration of every possible facet of these two men’s love for each other.
The feeling that you clearly have, reading that passage, is a feeling I get all the time reading my favourite fanfiction. So this returns us to the question of — I guess it’s a two-part question: does A Little Life transcend fanfiction, and if so, why, and if not, does it matter? Is the lesson of A Little Life just that the tropes of fanfiction are so wonderful that maybe they should just be treated with literary seriousness?
Peyton: I would agree that fanfiction does deserve literary consideration. It’s not a lesser form. Yes, there’s silly, amateur hour fanfiction, but there’s also silly, amateur hour literature. At some point in the future, there will be canonical fanfiction. There will be a canon of excellent fanfiction.
But anyway, there are specific tropes and words and genres that were created in fanfiction and that belong to fanfiction, and I agree that, structurally, A Little Life has a lot in common with something that updates over the course of years and goes into excruciating depths on the progression of the characters’ life and selfhood.
Frankie: And suffering.
Peyton: And suffering. And for me, it succeeds.
Frankie: I just want to cut in briefly and say that if I had to categorize what kind of fanfiction A Little Life would be, we can all agree it’s whump, right?
Frankie: Whump is that genre where horrors are visited upon the main male character over and over and over.
Peyton: Hurt/comfort fic.
Frankie: Yes, that too.
Peyton: We’ve talked a little bit about fairy tales, and I’ve mentioned that trauma is foundational to fairy tales. An important characteristic of fanfiction is the opportunity to actually take that trauma seriously and go deep on it.
I was thinking about “Star Wars,” for whatever reason, when I was preparing for this. The first “Star Wars” movie is about a little boy whose mother dies in childbirth. He’s ripped away from his sister by bureaucrats. He’s sent to live with uncaring relatives who belittle and abuse him. His country is invaded, and foreign soldiers burn his home to the ground and murder his relatives, the only parents he’s ever known. He befriends a man who once knew his parents, and then he has to watch as that man is murdered. He decides to risk his life and join a terrorist insurgency for a suicide mission to attack a government facility. Like, that plot could belong to a very serious realist contemporary novel.
Frankie: That’s an interesting idea.
Peyton: There are really traumatic things happening to Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” but the narrative is a sci-fi fairy tale, so it’s not going to give Luke PTSD nightmares and really go into the psychological residue of his trauma. But fanfiction is an opportunity to do that. Fans can seize on aspects of characters’ traumatic pasts and go, “How would this realistically affect them?” and blow it up and expand it and add detail and shade. Ideally, pair them up with another character who can help them heal from that trauma.
Frankie: That’s actually a really good definition of what fanfiction often is. So, well done. It’s the in-depth exploration of what is only the emotional subtext or implication of canonical work.
Peyton: Where A Little Life breaks from fanfiction in an important way, though, is that it doesn’t give Jude and Willem a happy ending. If this were fanfiction, Jude and Willem would walk off into the sunset together as silver-haired old men.
Frankie: Or they would at least have good sex.
Peyton: You’re right, that is another thing. If this were fanfiction, no matter what amount of trauma Jude has suffered, he and Willem would hop in the sack and just like —
Frankie: Yes, have healing, delicious, meaningful, intense, passionate sex.
Peyton: Yeah, sex is not a healing thing for Jude, and he’s adamant about that, and uncompromising. It takes him a while to understand that, but when he does get there, it’s an important moment.
Again, where it breaks from fanfiction, he doesn’t end up having successful sexual relationships. He suffers the loss of his partner. And ultimately, he commits suicide.
I’ve definitely seen arguments in fandom along the lines of, “Did this fic go too far in abusing a character?” That’s an interesting debate in fandom. Fanfiction, a lot of the time, is about remedying homophobic media. So there’s an expectation that you’re going to make these characters canonically gay and give them the happy ending that the narrative won’t give them. In certain corners of fandom, it’s considered unethical to give these characters negative endings at all.
Frankie: That’s true, yeah. That’s very true.
Peyton: So, that’s where it breaks from fanfiction. There’s certainly a lot that A Little Life has in common with fanfiction, but the conclusion and everything that happens in the end, the tropes of fanfiction aren’t present there.
Frankie: It’s interesting, though, because I do feel that I’ve encountered fanfic that is as dark and as unhappy in the end as A Little Life, and when I see fanfic like that, I find it just as self-indulgent as the really happy, fluffy stuff. I guess you and I differ on this point, but there comes a point where heaping so much trauma onto one character is, in a way, singling them out as your favourite, just as much as if you only heaped good things on them.
Peyton: Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. That’s another thing about self-identification. You brought that up, how you think there’s a self-indulgent fantasy in so much abuse being visited upon one character and, at the same time, so much love and connection and unconditional acceptance. That is pure fantasy, as you said. But it’s an important fantasy to have. It’s tempered by the fact that Jude’s mental illness doesn’t leave him, that he deals with this until the day he dies. And, also, that he is actively engaging with his mental illness, and in conflict with it, every step of the way. It’s treated with a lot of seriousness, in my view.
Frankie: I really like what you said about how it’s an important fantasy to have, ’cause that’s something you and I definitely agree on. The fantasy we see in A Little Life is echoed in a lot of other books that I love.
The one last question I want to ask you is: be honest, do you find the cover as hard to look at as I do?
Peyton: I think the cover is so clever.
Frankie: I can’t look at it! It’s his nut face! It’s so embarrassing!
Peyton: That’s the point! It’s so great! I mean, I’m not gonna stare at it and just look at it all day.
Frankie: I’m staring at it right now.
Peyton: Me too.
Frankie: I have it on my kitchen table and I’m just looking at this nutting guy just, like, jizzing all over me in my kitchen.
Peyton: It looks like, is he crying? Is he nutting?
Frankie: It is a sublime troll move of Hanya Yanagihara to demand this photo as her cover.
Peyton: The UK cover is just, like, a cityscape. They were not having it.
Actually, there’s one more thing I want to say in closing.
Frankie: Oh, yes, please! Go on.
Peyton: I alluded to it earlier, which is that, for all its depiction of abuse, and despite the fact that it does end in suicide, I think it is an important argument against suicide, and one of the strongest arguments I’ve ever seen in literature.
It’s ultimately because, as I said, we understand Jude’s psychology so thoroughly. We know everything that has happened to him. We know exactly how much it’s affected him. On one level, the book is laying out the case for Jude to commit suicide, and saying, “Look at everything that has happened to this poor person, look at how difficult life is for him, surely it would be a mercy, it would be the right thing to do.” But ultimately, the last glimpse we have of Jude himself on the page, in his own narration, in his own voice, is him going to the therapist and saying, “I’ve decided to stay.”
Time and again, whether his friends are pulling him back or he himself is choosing to stay, he fights, and the people who love him fight, to keep him alive. And ultimately, when he does commit suicide, there’s an acknowledgement from the story that even him surviving this far was a real accomplishment, and he did important things and touched people in important ways, and that his internal belief system was a flawed one, and that his parents wish he was still with them, that he hadn’t ended his life.
Frankie: I’m genuinely curious, based on what you’re saying: would you prefer a version of the novel where Jude does not commit suicide at the end? Is this maybe one issue you take with it?
Peyton: I gave it to a friend once, and I included a note with it, and I said, “This is one of my favourite books, but you might hate it, and that’s completely understandable, and also, if you just want to stop reading on, like, this page number, before the epilogue, that’s perfectly fine.”
Frankie: The necessary disclaimer.
Peyton: I would accept a version of the novel where it ends without the epilogue. That would be fine by me. But that epilogue, narrated by Harold looking back on his time with Jude, talking how much he wishes Jude was still with him, that is an important piece of the novel. The spectre of suicide has been hanging over the book from its very beginning. And to actually have it happen and engage seriously with it, and to have this one character, Harold, who’s seen firsthand and knows probably better than anybody else just how much Jude has suffered, really engage with the question of, “Was that the right thing to do? Was he releasing himself from his suffering when he committed suicide?” And his answer is no. There’s one quote, he says, “It’s not that he died, it’s what he died believing, and so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.” Which is just such a powerful statement of rejecting the attitude that suicide is a mercy, or a remedy to Jude’s problems, or that the world would be a better place without Jude in it.
Frankie: One of the most interesting readings of A Little Life I’ve ever encountered was from an anonymous person on an anonymous forum. They said, I’m just going to paraphrase from memory, that when they first read A Little Life, they were in a deep depressive episode. They were very mentally ill at the time. And they loved A Little Life when they read it, because they found it to be such a tempting fantasy for a mentally ill person. They said, “I wish that my pain were so justified, and so visible to others, and so clearly linked to external forces, that no one could possibly blame me for wanting to die. I wish that my reasons for wanting to die were so fully justified that even though people will miss me and want me to not do it, at least they won’t wonder why I wanted to do it.” And this person said this is not something they feel anymore, but they felt that A Little Life really played into that wish of the depressed person to have their pain written on their body so that people wouldn’t think that they were lazy or feeling sorry for themselves, or any of those stereotypes about depressed people.
Peyton: That’s a very insightful comment. And that’s, again, one of the reasons why this isn’t a book I would universally recommend to everybody. I don’t know how helpful it would be if you’re in a certain mindset. But, by the same token, there was a word you used there, which was, “No one could blame me for it.”
And what A Little Life does is it just removes the issue of blame. It treats Jude’s suicide as the product of a lifelong chronic illness, much like the infection of his legs or his chronic pain. It is just something he deals with every single day. And every day that passes is a victory. I don’t think A Little Life is championing suicide; it’s reframing the way we look at it. It’s not saying this was an individual failure of Jude, that he was weak and bad.
Frankie: Wow, this is so intellectually rigorous! I hope I’ve been putting up a good fight against you.
Peyton: You have.
Frankie: Even though you are a champion debater and I cannot possibly win against you.
Peyton: Is there anything you want to say in the way of a closing statement?
Frankie: I really enjoy hearing such an intelligent defense of A Little Life, because even though I hate it, I hate it in a very obsessive way.
Peyton: I know you do.
Frankie: And it’s hard to find criticism of A Little Life that, as I said earlier, doesn’t just lapse into parody and jokes, which are a lot of fun, because even you can agree this book is so parody-able, right?
Peyton: It is.
Frankie: It’s just so very much itself.
Peyton: I parodied it for The Niche. I did.
Frankie: You did. There you go. I remember that. I had just started reading your work at the time.
I do think that it’s such a fascinating book. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s worth this kind of critical discussion.
I guess my final thought is that the public critical discussion of A Little Life has been dominated by men, and by gay men who instinctively see it as something of theirs and something for them, in a way that, I think, really erases a lot of what makes the novel so interesting, whether you love it or hate it. A Little Life owes such a debt to this very female tradition of writing. I’ve never seen it talked about deeply, and I’m glad that you and I got to touch on it here, and I hope that more people do, going forward.
Peyton: I’m familiar with the Garth Greenwell essay that you mentioned a few times, for example.
Frankie: Do you agree with it, by the way?
Peyton: Mostly, yeah, for the most part. And I’ve read Antoni’s interview, going deep on A Little Life. But my favourite piece of writing about it is actually by Elif Batuman, who wrote The Idiot, which I plugged at the beginning of this call.
I don’t know if this is universally true of modern literature, but certainly in the young adult community, which is where I operate, the trend now is “own voices,” which essentially means marginalized people writing about their own marginalized identities. And Hanya is writing about a marginalized identity to which she doesn’t belong, that of a queer man — I mean, I assume.
Frankie: I love how un-forthcoming she is about her personal life, just as a side note.
Peyton: I know. I love it. I love that her entire bio is just, “Hanya lives in New York City.” You don’t get anything more than that.
Frankie: I sense people really wanting to critique it by saying, “Oh, a straight woman shouldn’t write about gay men,” but as far as I know, she’s never spoken about her personal life. And some of the haters wish that they could call her straight, because it would bolster their argument, but she won’t let us do that. And I do admire that about her.
Peyton: I was on her Instagram a little while ago, and she was saying how, when she was growing up, she was really pleased to discover whenever she learned that one of the authors of her favourite books were queer. And she commissioned a feature about it for T Magazine, which she edits, about queer authors of children’s literature and how their worldviews shaped young children’s worldviews.
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One of the best things about being an editor is coming up with half-baked theories that can then be assigned to real journalists to prove. A few years ago, I realized that the authors of many of my favorite children's books were either gay or, by today's definition, queer, including Arnold Lobel (FROG AND TOAD); James Marshall (GEORGE AND MARTHA); Maurice Sendak (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE); Louise Fitzhugh (HARRIET THE SPY); Tomie dePaola (OLIVER BUTTON IS A SISSY); Margaret Wise Brown (THE RUNAWAY BUNNY); and Edward Gorey (THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES). If you were raised in America from the 1960s onward and were lucky enough to have family or teachers who read to you, then it's likely you got some of your earliest lessons about how to be a friend, how to be an adult, how to be independent, how to be lonely—how to be a person, in other words—from men and women who were often denied full rights of personhood themselves. This is certainly true for me: anyone who's read my fiction knows how much I absorbed from FROG AND TOAD; GEORGE AND MARTHA (the art above are some of Marshall's rarely seen sketches from the 80s) taught me about the right kind of male friends to choose (sweet and forgiving); and Fitzhugh's THE LONG SECRET remains one of the best satires of the Hamptons (well, Water Mill) ever published, as well as one of the few books in which the female protagonist—admirable and lovable, though also spiky and gloriously unlikable—is unapologetic about her disdain for marriage and family. In his beautiful essay in @tmagazine's upcoming Women's Fashion issue, the Times' co-theater critic #JesseGreen discusses how these authors (only dePaola is still living) offered generations of children solace and taught them self-expression: lessons of humanity offered, sometimes, from deep within the closet. His story is online now, and in the February 17 edition of #tmagazine, inside your @nytimes. #jamesmarshall #arnoldlobel #tomiedepaola #louisefitzhugh #mauricesendak #edwardgorey #margaretwisebrown #TWomensIssue
Frankie: The way I would put it, this just came to me: I would never guess that A Little Life was written by a cis gay man, but I would also never guess it was written by a cis straight person.
Peyton: Yeah, exactly. I love that she does not give any of her identity away. I love that her entire Instagram is just gorgeous, exotic world travel and delicious food and her sumptuous ridiculous apartment with the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the ladder that slides along on a rail. I just — I want your life.
Frankie: That’s her real sexuality: beautiful apartments.
Peyton: It really might be. She might be, what is it called — object-sexual? Like that woman who married the Eiffel Tower.