Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully. –Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Packing five months of my life into a couple suitcases was a daunting task. I spent a long time distilling who I am into my favourite band shirts and the pair of jeans that I wear as if they’re glued to my body and the notebooks that I carry around at all times. Worse than all that, though, was deciding which books to bring. I have shelves packed with novels and autobiographies, coffee table books and art history texts. I turn to them for companionship and inspiration and encouragement, and the idea of choosing only a few was a hard one to wrap my head around.
When it came down to it, I knew which ones I needed to have with me. I got the Patti Smith box checked off easily – Just Kids and Devotion and a copy of her 1978 poetry anthology titled Babel, which is something I still can’t believe I own. I piled on You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, a book that everyone who wants to live their best life needs to read. I was missing a novel, though, and although I could have brought my favourite Harry Potter book or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or The Secret History, I eventually decided on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
This is not an easy book. It’s over 700 pages long. It’s dense and heavy and it sits inside your stomach once you’ve finished it. The first time I read it, I put it down multiple times because the passages were too heartbreaking and the emotions were too strong. The author has said that she wanted to write a novel like ombré cloth, something that starts out light and is pitch black by the end, and that’s what she did.
I brought A Little Life with me because it feels human. It lives and breathes, the lives of Jude and Willem and JB and Malcom intertwining with your own. The lows are really, really low, and the highs, although somewhat mundane, shine through the darkness like jewels. It puts your own hardships into perspective while simultaneously making you realize the value of the tiny, shimmery moments, even when they’re as normal as making eye contact with your best friend across a crowded room or going out for dinner at the same place with the same group of people every week.
The world that this book lives in seems attached to so many other things, and that’s why I’m writing this. There are no other books like it – and believe me, I’ve searched – but it comes up in art pieces and movies and songs. I like when one form of art bleeds into a million other forms of art, and A Little Life does that beautifully.
What drew me to this book in the first place was the cover. It’s a black and white photo by Peter Hujar, and when you relate it to the novel itself, it displays so much pain, reflecting the content of the book back at the reader. It reminds me a lot of a photography series by Maud Fernhout called What Real Men Cry Like, which is a really beautiful depiction of boys being vulnerable and transparent about their emotions. Another similar piece is Robert Tait Mackenzie’s Four Masks of Facial Expressions, which are plaster casts depicting violent effort, breathlessness, fatigue, and exhaustion. It’s another work of art that depicts emotion exceptionally, just as the cover of the book does.
This connection may be because the film is fresh in my mind or because I am mildly obsessed with it, but I think Call Me By Your Name mirrors A Little Life in more ways than one. Both show the nuances and breadth of human emotion. Both are about connection and vulnerability and how hard it is to put your guard down. Both are not frivolous, but real, when it comes to describing relationships. It’s the last scene of Call Me By Your Name that reminds me of this book. Elio cries in front of the fireplace for nearly four minutes, letting the dam break and his sadness run through him. It’s glorious, and the parallels that can be drawn between he and Jude are numerous.
The very first song that reminded me of A Little Life was ‘All The Sad Young Men’ by Spector. The band does a really good job of communicating both connection and disconnection, and we see a lot of that in Yanagihara’s masterpiece. I eventually added ‘St. Jude’ by Florence + the Machine to the list. In the novel, Jude is named after the patron saint of lost causes, and that is exactly what Florence sings about in the track. Another notable one is ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ by The National, as Jude spends much of the book distancing himself from others because he believes this will keep them safe. The tracks I’ve included in this playlist are overflowing and emotive and they hold nothing back, much like A Little Life.
Reading this book all over again is proving to be difficult. I pick it up each morning and feel a bit of my heart fall out of my chest and into its pages. I feel for every single character, I understand some of the hardships (though definitely not the biggest ones), and I am so drawn to the lives of these friends that I feel as though I am one of them. Although it’s painful and heart wrenching, it also feels hopeful, and a tiny glimmer of hope is really all that we can ever ask for. That’s what keeps me going.
Side note: I checked my Goodreads page, and I was reading A Little Life at exactly the same time last year as I am this year. Life is cyclical and amazing and I love that my life now is connected to my life then, even in such a small way.