Hanya Yanagihara doesn’t read her reviews. Which must be an incredibly tantric act, considering she is one of the year’s most lionized novelists. The 2015 winner of the Kirkus Prize — and nominee for many other prestigious awards — is astonishingly humble as she describes her post-success ethos: “You shouldn’t feel any differently about yourself. The only thing to do is the work and try to shut out as much of the noise as possible.”
Yanagihara’s A Little Life is an 800-page tour de force that takes four male college friends through the difficult arc of their lives, examining the dynamic between friendship and trauma with a rawness that leaves many readers shattered. She explores violence, sexual abuse and self-mutilation like a surgeon calmly probing for fragments in a shrapnel-riddled body.
“I wanted the reader to feel trapped within the emotional lives of the characters,” Yanagihara explained in a recent phone interview, and indeed, the reader does. She also employs an innovative conceit, by stacking time upon itself and, in effect, denying its linearity.
With no references to dates or events to anchor the action, everything is always in the present, like a dream comprising 30 years. The characters age over decades, but the decades themselves never age. Lawrence Durrell famously compressed time in The Alexandria Quartet, a work in which he claimed “time is stayed.” But what took Durrell four novels to accomplish, Yanagihara achieves in one. The result is psychologically transformative: “I wanted to play with this idea of how trauma is experienced,” she says. There is no “hard line between what came before and what is now … trauma is always intruding upon your every hour.”
The book’s narrative maintains its tension in a painterly way, as if the narrator were illustrating a vast mural that stretches for miles, and doesn’t want to leave any space blank. Ironically, although Yanagihara (who’s also a deputy editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine) was trained as a visual artist, she found that “whatever I had that might have been mine got eliminated once I was taught how to draw properly.” She credits her success to her lack of training as a writer, “which has been liberating because I never knew the rules I wasn’t supposed to be breaking.”