A Little Guilt Trip

One big problem I have with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is that it made me into a voyeur. I was a voyeur as I avidly read about the lifestyles of the rich and famous characters in the book as they jetted off to Paris and London for random weekends, as they bought and gifted each other with expensive works of art, as they acquired apartments and country houses and renovated them with the help of their world-famous architect friends, as they attended party after party after party.

It’s the lifestyle of the one percent, of the talented graduates of the Ivy Leagues. It’s fascinating and it’s fun. A dinner party, one of many, perfect in its mix of glamor and accidental wackiness, is described: “There are eleven people at dinner, and Rhodes has to retrieve his desk chair from his office, and the bench from Alex’s dressing room. He remembers this about Rhodes’s dinners: the food is always perfect, there are always flowers on the table, and yet something always goes wrong with the guest list and the seating – Alex invites someone she’s just met and forgets to tell Rhodes, or Rhodes miscounts, and what is intended as a formal, organized event becomes instead chaotic and casual. ‘Shit!’ Rhodes says, as he always does, but he’s always the only one who minds.” It reminds me of those celebrity magazine spreads that show celebrities pumping gas and taking their kids to school. The stars … are just like us! It’s fascinating, but you also kind of hate yourself for being fascinated by it.

Despite this glittering environment, there’s anguish at the heart of it all because of the past of one of the characters. Jude, the central and mysterious character in the novel, despite his big circle of loving and devoted friends, is tortured. Part of you understands – he’s miserable, haunted by a horrific past. But part of you also feels like saying to the guy to get a grip and get some help already. And this makes you feel guilty, as if you’re part of the character’s problems.

alittlelifeAnd here’s the other way that the book makes you into a voyeur – you have to sit there and watch (well, read about) the horrifying events of Jude’s childhood and adolescence. You don’t have any choice. You have to read through those awful parts – doled out in two parts in the book, somewhere in the second half – in order to understand what’s happening.

There are big problems with plausibility. While the characters are fully described, there’s something that’s difficult to visualize about them, as if they’re partially shrouded or extremely far away. There are many inconsistencies. Jude gets a job defending big corporations, which he enjoyed doing, because, as he explained to himself, he needed the money for the extensive healthcare he knew he was going to need eventually. He did need healthcare, but he also bought famous designer homes, endless fabulous vacations, pricey sushi dinners and lunches at the most exclusive restaurants in New York. And, oh yes, expert and personalized tailoring for his suits. Now I’m no Marxist and I don’t have a problem with a character (or a person) being rich and having luxuries, but it also doesn’t make the character very appealing, does it? Because the money is made defending hedge fund billionaires and big pharma. Because the privileged lifestyle doesn’t lead to any lasting realization of luck or any kind of deep gratitude or any relief from the constant pain. A lot was made out of Jude’s practicality in taking the job he took, but wouldn’t going to therapy and taking medication be equally practical?

(This paragraph is completely irrelevant and should probably be skipped by the reader. I can’t help but go into the rabbit-hole of wondering what Jude’s career should have been to make his ensuing wealth and continued discontent more palatable. He took a graduate degree in pure mathematics in MIT while [before?] taking up law in Harvard [the book is actually vague on the details of his education – perhaps because it sounds rather insane?]; perhaps he could’ve been one of those millionaire Facebook engineers? But then he couldn’t be in New York with his friends. Perhaps an investment banker? But bankers almost ended the world as we know it back in 2008. There has to be some other lucrative job in New York, one with neutral or even positive associations, right?)

I’m not completely sure why I picked up the book. I read about it last year when it came out and garnered a lot of buzz, but I didn’t find the reviews promising or interesting enough to want to read it. I read it now because a friend mentioned reading it and, well, I read a few weeks ago that it made Gwyneth Paltrow cry. Now that I think about it, I also read somewhere that two other celebrities, Sarah Jessica Parker and Andy Cohen, loved it. It really is a book for the one percent!

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