“I’m So Sorry”: A Little Life and the Socialism of the Rich

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"You must have done something very bad to be left behind like that," Brother Peter used to tell him, after he hit him with the board, rebuking him, as he stood there sobbing his apologies… fearing that Brother Peter was correct.1

little life

A Little Life is a big, long book. Hanya Yanagihara's widely celebrated 2015 novel follows the lives of four close friends over the course of three decades as they pursue post-collegiate success in New Yorka narrative that extends to some 830 pages in its paperback edition. Yet, in some respects, the events depicted by the novel are remarkably limited. Seen from one unsympathetic perspective, the characters do little more than spend their lives expressing their regrets to each other. The phrase "I'm sorry" or, the even more prevalent, "I'm so sorry," shows up more than 100 times over the course of the novel, and that is not even to consider the many other ways the characters convey their apologies (an additional 36 mentions) and regrets (another dozen). It is impossible to read the novel for more than few minutes without coming across an expression of sorrow and contrition.

Why all this regret? In one sense, the answer is obvious. A Little Life tells of the intimate friendships of four men as they journey from youthful obscurity to professional success and middle-aged prosperity. But the central character, Jude St. Francisthe novel's aptly named martyr, saint, and enigmanever gets to enjoy his meteoric path to wealth and esteem. For, in its most avowed concerns, A Little Life is a novel about the enduring effects of trauma. And Jude, as we gradually learn over the course of the novel is a man terribly damaged, physically and emotionally, by a history of childhood sexual abuse. As Yanagihara's narrative traces the ever more impressive professional triumphs of its characters, it thus simultaneously follows a second plot that reveals ever more of Jude's hidden past: the orphanage where he was repeatedly sodomized; the multiyear odyssey of abuse and child prostitution into which he was lured by a kidnapper; the shelter whose counselors sexually assaulted him: and finally the psychopathic doctor who imprisoned, raped, and ultimately crippled the lost boy.

As Yanagihara has herself noted, the point of this gothic serial of sexual predation is to create a nightmarish history from which there is no hope of escape. "One of the things I wanted to do with this book," she remarks, "is create a character who never gets better."2 But in an only slightly less evident sense, A Little Life's depiction of the irremediable trauma of sexual abuse is also a story about the impossibility of social mobility. An abandoned child, reared in an orphanage and rescued by the state, Jude St. Francis receives an elite education and the chance to turn his remarkable cognitive abilities to professional success. But his social advancement turns out to be sadly ephemeral. "One of the things that I wanted to do with Jude," Yanagihara remarks, "is give him a lot of gifts and a lot of talents and a lot of qualities but then have those qualities and gifts mean nothing ultimately because the things he needs aren't the things he was taught to have."3

In this respect, A Little Life might seem to offer a richly imaginative allegory of a conventional justification for social inequality. Some people, the novel implies, are simply denied the chance to rise in the world because they are victims of poor childrearing and bad families. But, in truth, Yanagihara offers a distinctive spin on that familiar narrative. For what Jude is incapable of mastering is not, as we might expect, entrepreneurial drive or executive function. He is, as it happens, a model of sobriety, thrift, and deferred gratification. The problem, rather, is that Jude is unable to finally accept the care and benevolence extended to him by his friends. And in this way, Yanagihara conveys an important realization about life in an increasingly stratified society: that lasting membership in the twenty-first century elite depends far less on merit or effort alone than it does on privilege and on the mutual support rendered among the lucky few. Her subject is a version of what Martin Luther King, Jr. once called "socialism for the rich" - or, to alter the phrase for its more appropriate contemporary meaning, the "socialism of the rich."4 The message of her story is that the fortune and happiness of the privileged depend on the private assistance they graciously extend to each other. In brief hopeless moments, her novel suggests, such privileged people feel bad when they realize that not everyone can be so lucky.

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Yanagihira makes this concern nearly explicit. For her novel paints the lives of her characters as an idyll of good fortune, marked at its edges by sorrow and insecurity. In its opening chapters, A Little Life first seems, as Yanagihara remarks, "a fairly standard post-college New York City book."5 Four friendsactor, architect, painter, and entry level federal lawyermove to Manhattan and patch together a life in cheap restaurants and dingy apartments. But, no sooner has Yanagihara created a vivid picture of the trials and tribulations of post-collegiate ambition then she rockets her characters to extraordinary success. The actor Willem spends an obligatory sojourn chasing auditions and working as a waiter, but then leaps to Hollywood stardom and finds his face plastered on billboards and magazines. Malcolm, the architect, briefly struggles as an associate at a renowned architectural partnership. But he soon forms his own firm and quickly rises to the international esteem that has him building photography museums in Doha and competing to design public memorials in LA. The painter JB is an art star before he's out of his twenties, and he earns a spot on the faculty at Yale and a retrospective at the Whitney before he's passed middle age. Jude, too, appears astonishingly successful. Having earned a J.D. at Harvard, and his M.A. in Math at MIT, he distinguishes himself as a law clerk and then as an assistant U.S. Attorney. Moving on to private practice, he quickly becomes the youngest partner in the history of his white-shoe law firm and soon thereafter its chief litigator.

The characters of Yanagihara's novel, in short, are not merely successful members of the professional class. They are super talents who leap to the acmes of their respective fields and enjoy the fruits of a winner-take-all economy. Jude himself wonders at his fate: "His life became more improbable by the year ... [H]e was astonished again and again by the things and generosities that were bequeathed to him... He had gone from nothing to an embarrassing bounty."6 Nor is the good fortune he first seems to enjoy unusual. Indeed, Jude is surrounded not only by his three closest friends, but by a network of equally devoted admirers, all of whom take their great wealth and professional esteem for granted. There is Jude's lifelong personal physician Andy, who runs a practice as an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan, and Richard, a painter who inherits a building in SoHo from his family of real estate dynasts. They are joined by Lucien, the older law partner who takes Jude under his wing, and by Harold, a Harvard Law professor, and Harold's wife Julia, a Harvard microbiologist, who jointly adopt Jude and welcome him into their home in Cambridge and their beach house in Truro and their pied-a-terre in Manhattan.

Adrian Wiggins Prada Flickr Creative Commons

"Prada," Adrian Wiggins, Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.0

With these friends, Yanagihara's main characters share both the bonds of sympathy and the rituals of wealth. They frequent their favored bistros and high-end sushi restaurants and exchange handmade ties and artisanal fragrances. They travel to London, Paris, Cophenhagan, Reykavjik, and Rome, as well as to Cappadocia, and Morocco and Bhutan and Hanoi. They hitch international flights on the private jets owned by their hedge-fund managing friends and call in favors to arrange private visits to the Alhambra. Alongside their sorrows and apologies, their tastes and pleasures are cataloged with the numbing luxury of a credit card commercial. "I wanted... [the novel] to approximate in language and feeling," Yanagihara reports, apparently without irony, "the pieces in Prada's fall/winter 2007 ready-to-wear collection."7

Appropriately, then, the world she depicts is one not only of privilege but of insularity. Nearly all the reviewers of A Little Life have noted one of its most striking oddities, the novel's stark absence of historical detail. Although the book covers three decades in the lives of people who must have lived sometime in the recent past, Yanagihara withholds any clear markers, grand or small, to tell us when their interactions take place. There is no reference to 9/11, for example, no invasion of Iraq or Gulf War, no Bush or Obama Presidency or Clinton impeachment, no Hurricane Katrina or Deep Water Horizon, no internet bubble or financial crisis. This historical vacuum turns out to fit well with the entirely self-contained world that Yanagihara's independently wealthy characters construct for themselves–as if their lives could consist, as Jude thinks in a brief moment of happiness, of "just people they loved and people they liked." "It [is] only when he step[s] outside his firmament of friends" that Jude realizes that their success is "rarer and more precious than they even knew."8

In fact, howeverwith one key exceptionJude almost never steps outside the firmament of his friends. And the significance of that insularity is underscored by the fact that Jude's life as a member of the 1% turns out to be a mirror of his equally cloistered past as a child sex slave. In his youth, Jude had been the captive of a series of oppressively claustrophobic institutionsa monastery, a series of cheap motel rooms, a shelter for homeless youth, a basement prison. In his adulthood, he enjoys an almost equally insulated good life. Jude himself notes how diametrically opposed the two worlds are. The generous people who make up his adult peer group are "so different from the people he had known [in his childhood] that they seemed to be another species altogether."9

Jude prefers to characterize this stark difference not as a matter of wealth or privilege, but as one of ethical character. He wonders how his friends had "chosen otherwise" than to become figures of brute rapacity like the captors and clients of his youth. "How had they chosen what to become?"10 But there are more than a few hints that Yanagihara herself sees ethical character not merely as characterized by a Manichean division between generosity and predation but as equally defined by social class. The predatory figures of A Little Life are nearly all the socially marginal poor or working class. The good and kind are rich. In one eloquent comment, Yanagihara traces the inspiration for her depiction of Jude's childhood experience to her own memories of childhood in an itinerant family.

Many of my significant childhood memories... involve motels; my family moved frequently, and we were often driving across the country, going from one place to the next. I still remember the particular bleakness of those one- or two-story structures... I have never forgotten that sensation: the feel of the patterned polyester bedspread that matched the curtains, or the green carpeting worn shiny by hundreds of feet; or the sight of the television bolted to the wall; or the sound, like a river rushing, of cars zooming down the road just a few hundred feet away... I remember the moment as a hollow, empty one.11

Motel Room Laurel Mennonite Church Flickr Creative Commons

"Motel Room," Laurel Mennonite Church, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-Generic 2.0

The particular bleakness of transiency, of being lost and vulnerable among the multitude: A Little Life turns those hollow, empty feelings into a story about captivity and the sexual abuse of children. The fuller meaning of this transformation becomes apparent in A Little Life when Willem considers the "larger sadness" that Jude's suffering appears to represent:

[It] seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn't know... a sadness that mingled with wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life was so sad, he would think... and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.12

For Willem, in short, the trauma of child abuse and the broader problems of suffering and injustice amount to the same, sad, irresolvable problem. The problem, in other words, is not only the legacy of trauma; by the same token, it is the nearly metaphysical denial of any hope for redress or justice or even change. Jude himself draws this lesson by calling on the phrase that gives one book in the novel the title "The Axiom of Equality." Taking this phrase from the Algebraic principle "that x always equals x," Jude invokes it to deny the possibility of social mobility. Applied to his own life it means that "the person I was will always be the person I am":

The context may have changed . . . . [H]e may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have [adoptive] parents and friends that he loves. He may be respected in court. . . . But fundamentally, he is the same person he was [as a child prostitute], a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated. . . . He knows that x will always equal x . . . no matter what he does . . . no matter how much he earns.13

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But why is Jude so doomed? How is it that the axiom of equality turns out to mean that he will be forever unequal, always cast out of the great privilege he only appears to have earned? The answer is not, as it would be in a different kind of story, that Jude lacks the talent or drive to succeed. His deepest limitation, rather, is his inability to finally accept the care and benevolence extended to him by his friends. He cannot acclimate himself to the thought that he will be "depending on others."14

In her comments on the novel, Yanagihara refers to such mutual dependence as "the mercy of love."15 But a less charitable read of A Little Life might call it instead the gift economy of the rich. For, in addition to their many apologies, the characters of Yanagihara's novel exchange countless donations that appear loving and distinterested precisely to the extent to which they seem to rise above the rapacious individualism that Yanagihara imagines in the world of sexual violence. A Little Life is full of priceless small gifts: books and drawings and artisanal cookies and cases of wines and crates of heirloom narcissus bulbs. Together they signify the "decades of affection, of approbation" shared among the novel's central characters.16

But in this fashion such individual gifts are merely tokens of the larger charitable exchanges that organize the life of Jude and his friends and that allow them, as they think, to rise above "the real worldthe world that sputtered along on money and greed and envy."17 Thus, Jude's doctor Andy devotes lifelong care to his special patient not for remuneration or professional recognition but solely out of love. (Andy's wife reports that, when she was first dating her future husband, it was this disinterested care that convinced her that Andy, unlike other aspiring surgeons, was not "a self-absorbed douche bag.") Jude reciprocates his generosity by giving Andy "a safari vacation for him and his family, to go on whenever he wants."18 Harold and Julia adopt Jude and selflessly take him and his sorrows into their lives. Jude and his lover Willem return their generosity by setting up Harvard fellowships in Harold and Julia's names. Following much the same logic, when Malcolm dies in a tragic automobile accident, his wealthy parents assuage their grief by creating a scholarship in his name for a young architect at the American Academy in Rome.19

These patterns of generosity are all examples of what the IRS might properly call "charitable giving" and are thus continuous with the other, more ordinary forms of donation that are crucial to the lives of Yanagihara's characters. As A Little Life notes without particularly remarking, its characters prosper in part because they are endowed with gifts that are donated to them by fortunate benefactors. There are parents who pass on property to their children and provide the encouragement and support necessary for their expensive educations, just as there are parents who can help finance second mortgages and tuitions to private schools. There are friends who attend gallery openings and theater performances, but also friends who are able to bring a firm valuable business. There are friends and associates who have the numbers of the best pediatricians and immunologists and neurologists in their rolodexes. All are nodes in the social networks of privilege, and their acts of benevolence are directed almost exclusively to members of their own class. Jude perceives the "firmament of friends" as a "different species" characterized by "generosities." But those generosities are importantly all gifts from the privileged and talented to the privileged and talented. "'I know my life's meaningful," Willem remarks in one key passage that solemnizes this principle, "becauseand here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued'because I'm a good friend."20

It is not the case that Yanagihara's novel seems untroubled by the insularity of such self-regard. But A Little Life also suggests that there are no meaningful alternativesno role to be played, for example, by appeals to democracy or social welfare or the public good. That the "Axiom of Equality" turns out to refer to the inevitability of social inequality is one way of making this point. So, too, is the fact that another of the novel's books is given the ironic title "Dear Comrade." Alluding to inside jokes about Cold War spy thrillers, the phrase refers both to the fact that Yanagihara's characters chuckle at the kitsch of state socialism and to the way that they create a more meaningful private socialism of their own. In one telling passage, Harold remembers his desperation about a sick child and the many advantages on which he and his wife were able to call in a moment of terrible crisis. Though briefly troubled by the inequitable distribution of those advantages, Harold quickly puts his concerns aside.

At times I would think of how difficult, how impossible it must be for parents who didn't have the connections we did, who didn't have . . . scientific literacy and knowledge. But that literacy didn't make it easier to see Jacob cry . . . and all those connections didn't protect him from getting sicker.21

Although he is adopted, Jude, too, is Harold's sick child, and as he, too, tragically gets sicker rather than well, his story demonstrates still more dramatically the powerful allure of the socialism of the rich and its profound necessity to the maintenance of privilege. By the same token, Jude's story, too, raises and then sets aside the ethical concerns that Harold briefly perceives in this passage. That problem and its resolution are treated most directly in Jude's professional career and in the one brief moment that, as an adult, he steps out of the care provided by his friends.

As noted above, A Little Life represents predation and injustice in the traumatic subjects of sexual abuse. On the reverse side of its equation, it figures the gift economy of the wealthy above all in its vision of the world of art–a realm, as Yanagihira conceives, it of disinterested generosity. As Yanagihara's main characters all become extraordinarily successful, they are also all, with the exception of Jude, in various ways artists. "They spent their days making beautiful things."22 It is fitting, then, that Jude, who remains convinced of his abjection and who, despite desperate efforts can never fully assimilate the socialism of the rich, is the only one of his friends who does not turn his considerable talents to a career in the arts. His only professional connection to the world of beautiful things comes in the pro bono work he does for a non-profit serving struggling artists. He considers this labor fittingly his small gift to the gifted. The work is his "his salute to his friends."

Jude's career, like his life in general, thus marks the boundary between disinterested art and ruthless predation, between the generosity of the supremely fortunate and the "real world" of "money and greed and envy." A Little Life most dramatically marks the significance of Jude's marginal position in the one major episode in which we see him as an adult leave the shelter of his friends' benevolence. Despite the fact that he responds to his history of sexual abuse by maintaining an almost completely celibate life, midway through the novel Jude engages in a brief, destructive affair. His lover Caleb, is another corporate lawyer, who, unlike every other major character in the novel, treats Jude's injuries not with mercy and compassion, but with a crude contempt for weakness. Like Jude, in other words, Caleb marks the crucial divide between the world of selfless generosity and that of brute rapacity. By the same token, like Jude's, his career defines the boundary between a vision of art as a world of disinterested beauty and one of art as a subject of "money and greed and envy." He is the CEO of a high-end fashion label appropriately called Rothko.

In all other respects, however, Jude and Caleb are contrary figures. Jude's erotic life is defined by a masochistic obsession with self-harm. Caleb's tastes, by contrast are sadistic. He dominates, beats, and abuses Jude and thus reminds Jude of his deep sense of worthlessness and of his inextricable conviction that all sex is predatory. Fittingly, as well, where Jude is a litigator who must thus be concerned mainly with liabilities and contracts, Caleb is a corporate manager who has taken only one lesson from his studies in the law. This principle, which he associates with Civil Procedure, is that to manage other people, especially artists, one must "construct a system of governance... and then make sure it's enforceable and punishable."23

In these respects, Jude and Caleb are nearly allegorical renditions of concepts famously articulated by Gilles Deleuze in his consideration of the implications of masochism and sadism. For Deleuze, those two forms of erotic life point to two fundamental kinds of human relation and thus to two models of political life. "The sadist is in need of institutions," Deleuze writes, "the masochist of contractual relations."24 Where sadism envisions a total environment shaped by hierarchical power and statist control, masochism fantasizes a libertarian world of persuasion and free choice. Where Caleb wants to control others, Jude wants to own himself. His addiction to self-harm "made him feel like his body, his life, was truly his and no one else's."25

For Yanagihara, however, both these kinds of association have come to seem perverse and inadequate, and each implicitly represents a political as well as an erotic vision that can no longer provide what is needed to prosper in the world. Not incidentally, both Jude and Caleb die at a midpoint in their careers and before the novel's conclusion, each with the implication that his life has represented a failure to fully realize his talents. The network of Jude's loving friends survive them. They loathe Caleb's cruelty and mourn Jude's tragically inevitable destruction and take sad pleasure in their own benevolence and regret.

For the fortunate and privileged, Yanagihara's novel thus implies, what matters most to the project of a successful life is neither the powers of the state nor the liberties of the market. The crucial factor rather is the way the wealthy guard their status by mutually caring for and protecting and extending benefits to each other. "Life was scary; it was unknowable," Jude considers at one point. "Even... money wouldn't immunize him completely."26 It is only when he falls outside the protection of his friends that he realizes how precious and rare his taste of immunity is and how fleeting it will be. As they witness the unhappy end of his life, his friends, by contrast, mourn his inability to take advantage of what they longed to give him. The pathos of A Little Life is the sadness with which the fortunate watch the unfortunate falling through the net.

 

Sean McCann is Professor of English at Wesleyan University. He is the author of A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (2008) and Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (2000). 

 

  1. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (London: Picador, 2015) 146. []
  2. Adalena Kavenagh, "A Stubborn Lack of Redemption: An interview with Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life" Electric Lit, May 21, 2015 (http://electricliterature.com/a-stubborn-lack-of-redemption-an-interview-with-hanya-yanagihara-author-of-a-little-life/), retrieved March 31, 2016. []
  3. "Exclusive Interview with Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life," PrideLife (November 11, 2015), http://pridelife.com/a-little-life/, accessed, April 1, 2016. []
  4. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Other America" (speech delivered to local 1199, March 10, 1968), All Labor Has Dignity, ed. Michael K. Honey (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 157. []
  5. Hanya Yanagihara, "How I Wrote My Novel," Vulture (April 28, 2015), http://www.vulture.com/2015/04/how-hanya-yanagihara-wrote-a-little-life.htm, retrieved March 30, 2016. []
  6. Yanagihara, A Little Life, 560. []
  7. Yanagihara, "How I Wrote My Novel" []
  8. A Little Life, 561, 568 []
  9. Ibid, 560. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Yanagihara, "How I Wrote My Novel." []
  12. Ob cit., 621. []
  13. Ibid, 339, 340; this principle is made literal in Jude's damaged body. His friend JB at one point considers that "striving for . . .success," for both the fortunate and the unfortunate, demands constant exertion"running" or "running in place" (256). Jude, we are told, was fleet of foot in his childhood, but can barely walk in his adult years because of the injuries done to him by his final captorappropriately as the boy tried to run away. The running for success done by other character is thus literally no longer available to Jude. []
  14. Ibid, 674. []
  15. Ob cit., "How I Wrote My Novel." []
  16. Ibid, 205. []
  17. Ibid, 218. []
  18. Ibid, 590 []
  19. Ibid, 244. []
  20. Ibid, 687. []
  21. Ibid, 343-44. []
  22. Ibid, 244. []
  23. Ibid, 311. []
  24. Gilles Deleuze, "Coldness and Cruelty," Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty and Venus in Furs, trans. Jean McNeil (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 20. []
  25. Ibid, 490. []
  26. Ob cit., 500. []