I first picked up A Little Life almost two years ago. The novel follows a group of four men in who originally meet in college into their middle-aged years, and their personal journeys in their respective fields to eventual success. Their friendship is affected greatly by the main character, Jude, who suffers from increasingly severe physical disabilities and has an extremely traumatic past that is slowly revealed to the readers throughout the piece.
A Little Life is immensely powerful, and is one of the best novels I have ever read. However, much has already been written about its brilliance. What prompted me to choose to write a review about it for the Literature Corner Blog is a little broader than the book itself. Its greatest lasting impression on me has less to do with the content of the novel itself. Oddly enough, after finishing the novel, I was reminded of Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha’s genre-bending book Dictée. While this comparison may seem like a stretch, after sitting for some time processing both pieces, the central question I found myself left with was, ‘is this an Asian American piece?’ Yanigahara identifies as Korean American, and does not explicitly touch on Asian American concepts in the novel. On the other hand, Cha’s book of avant-garde poetry does touch on some Asian American concepts, but they are alongside a wealth of other themes and concepts that it is hard to describe the piece as a whole simply as a piece of ‘Asian American literature.’ After exploring some of the literature adjacent to both A Little Life and Dictee, it became clear that the former is generally not studied or written up in critical literary discourse as an Asian American piece, while the latter is heavily so. Dictee, published originally in 1982, underwent a major reclamation after its original release by a specifically post-colonial, Asian American, feminist school of thought, arguably making it key to contemporary Asian American discourse. In comparing these two pieces, I was brought to hard question: does literature ‘become’ Asian American when depending on its consumption and subsequent ‘use’ by an audience? I found myself wondering for a long time after finishing Yanigahara’s novel if I would be doing it a disservice by reviewing it through an Asian American lens, as it seems to be distant from the label, and even resisted writing a review of it as an Asian American piece because of this reason. Arguably, the larger question at hand is about the politics of assigning a identifier to a piece of work at all, whether it be an Asian American or otherwise. Speaking to my own experience, I did not personally approach the novel and its themes as an Asian American piece, but also wonder if a reader who did not identify as Asian American would. On the other hand, when reading Dictee, much of its salience comes from its positionality, and therefore becomes less accessible without that lens of approach because of its close association with the field.
As much as I am left with questions about about A Little Life in terms of its Asian American dimensions, it is made up for by things that are identifiable about the book. The most clear is a deep and abstract sorrow that is embedded throughout the entire piece. It was an extremely difficult read because of this reason, and took me several departures and returns to it to finish. Because of the novel’s sizable length (over 800 pages!), all four of the central characters and many of the adjacent ones have fleshed out lives that contribute greatly to a sense of understanding their quality of mind. A Little Life contains elements that lie parallel to many Asian American conversations, such as intergenerational trauma, the immigrant experience, and the complexities of male kinship. While A Little Life‘s positionality as an Asian American novel remains in conversation, it is an excellent read, and provides a necessary platform for thinking about literature by Asian American authors that may or may not be identified as such.