Every so often, a book comes along which reflects its reader so powerfully, so poignantly, that the reader in question not only recognises that reflection, but is inspired to change. It’s an experience which I myself have felt only a handful of times: aged eighteen, reading The Journals of Sylvia Plath, a collection which opens with a depressed eighteen-year-old Plath feeling undeserving of her place at college; later, at university, reading the life of the disenchanted Cambridge student in Jacob’s Room; later still, recovering from a major overdose, reading Bao Ninh’s account of PTSD in The Sorrow of War. All these novels held a special resonance with me, but all were nevertheless written about subjects which themselves feature regularly in literature: depression; trauma; youth.
Throughout the eight-hundred-year-old canon of English literature, few novels feature physical disability. Even fewer allow the disabled character to take centre stage. The first novel I’ve ever read in which the disabled character is not conveniently stored in an attic bedroom or miraculously ‘cured’ by a heroic protagonist, A Little Life brought me to tears.
The antithesis of the meek disabled sidekick, or the ‘inspirational’ disabled hero of Facebook memes, Jude does not accept disability without a fight. It does not ‘make him who he is’; his scars are not ‘tattoos with a story’. Like many people living with degenerative disabilities, he stubbornly clings to the idea of walking long after it has ceased to be feasible. He pushes his body further than it can go and experiences agonising pain as a result, and his friends despair because they don’t understand why he wouldn’t just use a wheelchair; why he wouldn’t just ‘take painkillers’. Sometimes he can walk, and sometimes he has to crawl from his bed to the bathroom to vomit out of sheer pain, and the only explanation for this is that he must, at one point, have ‘overdone’ it; he tried to do what everyone around him does so easily, and now he pays the price. As petty as it may seem, it is so, so frustrating to hear able-bodied friends suggest you ought to know better than to expect the same things from your own body that they expect from theirs.
Jude remembers running. He remembers how it felt to walk. He hates his scars because they remind him of traumas he never deserved, traumas that nobody ever deserves. Later, having accepted their essential uselessness, Jude becomes apathetic towards his legs; ‘the bastards’, Andy calls them, with the gallows-humour so commonly adopted by those whose brains are carried by bodies which refuse to play ball.
And yet the gallows-humour is a thin disguise for a brutal fact: Jude’s disability hurts. I’ve written about pain before, because I’ve always felt it needs to be written about: chronic pain is isolating, and lonely, and sometimes it just makes life really fucking hard. As much as we cripples need role models who win Paralympic medals and climb mountains and make astonishing comebacks from pioneering new surgeries, sometimes we also need to hear about those who wake up every morning and try to work out, without moving a muscle, the state in which their body is going to make it out of bed today.
Narratively, A Little Life is a little lazy; as a friend of mine put it, ‘the same bleak things happen over and over again for six hundred pages’. Everything that could possibly go wrong goes as wrong as it could possibly go, pushing every form of human pain to such an extreme that critics have labelled the novel ‘abuse porn’.
Cynicism aside, however, Yanagihara’s writing is beautiful, and his descriptions of life inside a failing body, of excruciating pain, are sheer and raw and breath-taking in their accuracy. I want all my doctors to read it. I want all of anyone’s doctors to read it. A passage:
‘He felt in those minutes his body’s treason, how sometimes the central, tedious struggle in his life was his unwillingness to accept that he would be betrayed by it again and again, that he could expect nothing from it and yet had to keep maintaining it. So much time, his and Andy’s, was spent trying to repair something unfixable, something that should have wound up in charred bits on a slag heap years ago. And for what? His mind, he supposed. But there was – as Andy might have said – something incredibly arrogant about that, as if he was saving a jalopy because he had a sentimental attachment to its sound system.’
Yanagihara writes about things which are difficult and upsetting, and many of his readers got upset about that. Here’s the thing: difficult, upsetting things happen. It’s hard being disabled, or in pain, or mentally ill; it’s hard to recover from abuse, or violence, or trauma; it’s hard to stay alive for the sake of those around you when every bone in your body wants to call it quits. But knowing you’re not alone – knowing someone else knows how you feel, understand the complexities of your little life – well, maybe that makes it a little less hard.
Literature has the capacity to teach us about the unfamiliar, and that’s important. And yet, perhaps just as important is its capacity to put into words those things we already know.