I can’t remember how I came across Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I was possibly looking at the short-listed novels for the Man Booker prize. I may have read about it in a blog post or something. I can’t remember. But it was described as this ode to friendship. Even better, it was supposed to be devoted to male friendship. I was excited that a novel would focus on this theme, especially in a non-bro sort of fashion. This wasn’t some novelized bro-comedy or something. This was a serious work of literature devoted to this theme of friendship.
It’s a long book. It’s massive in scope, really. It follows four friends just after they’ve graduated college, where they became best friends. Malcolm is an architect, JB a painter, Willem an actor, and Jude is a lawyer. The story really pivots around Jude. Half the book really only alludes to a very sad childhood and never gives a ton of detail. We do know that Jude is a cutter, though. And he has severe pain and trouble walking, at times. The story finds its center around his journey into old age.
The book is full of very good writing. Some passages are achingly beautiful and made me cry. I mean, there are some really, really beautiful things about this book. I began to be annoyed, though, by a couple things. For one, Willem and Jude had the closest relationship, so we get more content around them individually and together. But, at some point, possibly a few hundred pages in, Malcolm drops out of the story altogether. Just… disappears. No explanation. Up until that point, there was narrative from every character’s perspective on a sort of rotating basis. But then… Malcolm’s voice is gone. JB pretty much disappears as well. There’s no real explanation for this. And seeing how this book was advertised as being about four friends, I found it baffling. The other annoying thing that broke the power of suspended disbelief (the kind you must have for every novel, to one degree or another) was the fact that all four of these men are profoundly, absurdly successful. They don’t just manage to make a living out of what they do, they become some of the best in their field. The odds that four friends become four titans of their industry just struck me as ludicrous and unbelievable. What, the super-friends met up at college? They’re not this successful right off the bat, but the reality is that the odds of ONE of them being as successful as they are is extremely unfavorable. But all four? Come on.
Those things are really annoyances, though. The thing that disappointed me the most is the sudden shift from the realm of friendship to that of romantic love. Willem and Jude are very close. They live together off and on for various reasons. But after some traumatic event, their relationship shifts from intimate male friendship to romantic love. Now, this is complicated by Jude’s past, and their romantic love is not exactly a storybook romance, but the category is definitively shifted into a different arena.
I was so, so, SO disappointed by this. I felt betrayed and incredibly let down. I really thought Yanagihara was on to a very important story about a very important, little-examined topic. All the ingredients were there. But then… Willem just really wants to kiss Jude. The physical side of their romantic relationship is very much complicated by Jude’s past, but they are “together,” no doubt. The last half of the book (pretty much) is about the two of them together. There are still incredibly beautiful portions to the story. I was just very, very disappointed.
And, let me just say, it’s not because this was the love story of two gay men. I think people may assume I was disappointed purely because the characters were gay. That really isn’t even an accurate descriptor, because Willem exclusively dated women beforehand and still mostly has sex with women after his relationship with Jude starts (content monitors: no. None of that is described in detail). But even if it was an entirely accurate description, no, that’s not why I was so disappointed. Yeah, I’m a Christian that believes the traditional sexual ethic of the Bible (sex is for married heterosexual people) is still what God intends. I understand that many people don’t agree with that, and I actually appreciate the opportunity to make sure that my understanding of their sexuality doesn’t put people in boxes in my mind and in my heart. You know what I mean? I don’t want to ever put a collection of individuals in a box somewhere and say, “Oh you know gay people blah blah blah.” My gay friends are individuals with stories and I don’t want to ignore their stories. Even their love stories. Even if that’s a point of contention between us.
No, what I found so disappointing is yet another example of our culture’s insistence on sexualizing everything. We now assume that all relationships are sexual or about to be sexual or longing to be sexual or about to disintegrate because the people in them long for them to be sexual. Dating relationship that are not sexual are not legitimate dating relationships at some point. You’re not fully who you are if you are not having sex with someone.
This ability to sex everywhere is damaging to many people. Middle schoolers are hurt by it. Young girls are sexualized far too early. But the realm of friendship is one of the most disastrously affected areas of modern life. And I’d like to argue that particularly male friendship has most tragically been affected by this. The sexual connotation to everything has made more and more men uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy with another man. Because we assume that all intimacy is sexual intimacy.
This is a very serious mistake. Not all love is erotic love waiting to happen. Platonic love between two men used to be a cherished and praised ideal, but now we look back in history and every close male friendship now becomes code for “secretly gay.” It’s like we cannot believe, culturally, that men can be intimate friends with each other without being in an illicit relationship. And I think men become afraid of this judgment from others or have been so crippled by the assumptions and expectations that go along with this.
Men need friends. Men need deep friendships. Men need intimacy, platonic intimacy, with other men. And should heterosexual men be more confident in their sexuality so that they shouldn’t be afraid of what other people are thinking about their friendships? Sure. Of course. But we also need to stop doing this from the other side of the equation. We have to stop assuming that every relationship has a sexual element to it.
Sex is glorious. Wonderful. Truly. I’m a married man and I’m not ashamed of talking about sex. It’s not dirty or cheap or secret. There’s nothing embarrassing about sex. But sex is not all there is. I can tell you that I need friendship. My wife is my best friend. She knows me best. She lives with me. She talks with me the most. Of course she’s my best friend.
But I need male friendship. I have known so many men that would acknowledge, openly, that they don’t really have good friends. Many times in my life, that would be me. And we shrug this off and figure that it’s normal. But it’s not normal. For centuries, male friendship was praiseworthy and sought after. Now? We laugh at stupid bro-movies, guys being idiots together, or we whisper about whether those guys are gay. Go and Google “David and Jonathan.” I would bet that the first few pages of results would have more articles about how this was a homosexual relationship in the Old Testament (which is nonsense for a number of reasons) than about how this is a model for sacrificial love for a friend.
I was disappointed by A Little Life not because of the capabilities of the author. I was disappointed because it went down the same path I thought this book was departing from. Friendship is a wonderful gift from God. We need to celebrate it and seek it out. We need real, intimate, honest, deep friendships to be a priority in our lives, both male and female. I find it increasingly common that those kinds of friendship are celebrated between two women or even between a man and a woman. But that kind of friendship between men is a treasure. We should treat it as such.
Men need friends. We need more stories about real male friendship. And we need more living examples of that truth. I know that I hope to leave my son a legacy of valuing friendship with other men. I hope that that portion of his life is rich and full. I hope I can, somehow, show him the way.