On Re-reading A Little Life

I haven’t fallen into a literal hole. I am still here. But I did fall into rereading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (original post here) and well, it turns out that rereading one of your favourite books that happens to be 700+ pages takes a few weeks. Both for the length and because I purposely drew it out. Took my time. Tried to remember what it was like reading it for the first time, and how I might have changed since the first reading.

The most obvious difference the second time through is that I knew what had happened to Jude and what would happen to him. On the first reading a major part of the experience is learning, along with Willem, the history and present of Jude, and learning, along with Harold, what Jude’s life becomes. It’s a gradual unravelling and the beauty and pain of it is all mixed up. This time, though, I knew – dreaded, and knew – what was coming and so could both understand Jude better from the beginning, as well as feel ever more wrenched worrying about him.

A more subtle difference, I suppose, is in my interest in the question the novel explores around what makes a meaningful life. Reading in the middle of a pandemic, with the American election looming and the planet heaving, along with the arrival of a new small human, really brings the existential questions Front and Center. And for Jude and his friends, the only-once-spoken question of what makes a meaningful life circles all they do. I didn’t notice the first time around that none of the four main characters have children (maybe because children and life meaning was less important to me personally, or maybe because I’m inattentive, or was concerned more with the story of Jude). There is one brief scene where they talk about this and do away with the long held idea that children bring life meaning; instead, they pose friendship, true friendship, as a worthy inheritance. Of course there is all the art they create and consume, all the hours of effort put into rich and fulfilling careers, but the centrepiece of existence does seem to be this relational commitment. Indeed, Jude makes it for as long as he does on the basis of his feeling that he owes something to Harold (someone I’m sure could do a useful comparative read between this book and All My Puny Sorrows), and the effort and energy the characters give to friendship reads as the ‘commitment’ one might expect from a spouse or a parent. Of course the novel does explore the parent-child relationship with Harold and Jude, and the spousal relationship with Jude and Willem, so it’s not as though these relationships are completely absent, more that on this reading I found myself drawn to these affiliative relationships and the true sense of purpose they offer.

So yeah. My mum thought it unwise to reread such a difficult book in such difficult times, and there were certainly moments where I agreed with her: it is hard to read this book and not find yourself living in the story such is the brilliance of the writing. That said, it is somehow entirely… I was going to say ‘uplifting,’ but that’s definitely the wrong word. Affirming? Some word that gets at the idea that good art, great art, as this novel is, spurs hope, generates optimism, even while the subject itself is as grim and dark and heartbreaking as they come. Something to do with the contrast then. Is there a word for this? Beauty maybe? Lol. I don’t know. I do know that once again I loved the book, and once again, I’d urge you to read it.

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

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