We are never truly present in the current moment. When we’re not mulling over the past, we’re dreaming of the future. We map a course for our imminent future, but sometimes those around us swerve our plans. We think we dictate our lives, but the truth of the matter is that we have limited say in what happens to us, what we do, who we are. From the moment we are born, our environment and the people we meet subconsciously push us towards one direction. Given this one life, we have no choice but to believe that this is the life we’re meant to take, that our deepest truth goes so far as we can reach.
I finished reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a while ago, and the plot disrespects the common traits that define a book. On the surface, the story follows the lives of four characters in their 20s living in New York, slowly but surely making their way to the top of their fields. The book focuses specifically on Jude, a brilliant lawyer who’s also a mathematician, cook, musician, among other things. His very twisted and traumatic past is revealed to us in a series of flashbacks intertwined into the chapters. There’s no clear plot, not exactly a clear climax, and an ending that leaves you wishing you never opened the book in the first place.
If there’s something that this novel wants to convey, it’s that our relationships define us. The relationships that we have with our families (or lack thereof), our friends and enemies, our colleagues and acquaintances. They are the core of our existence. Yanagihara claims that our closest friendships are the only ones that subvert any rules and expectations imposed by society, and thus are the most powerful kind of relationship because they are limited only by the participants. It can be beautiful, messy, disastrous.
When you are a spouse, a parent, an employee, a citizen, you live by certain rules, some of them dictated by law, others by social expectations. But friendship is the one relationship available to us in which the laws and limits are defined only by the participants.
Something that Yanagihara asks the characters, albeit discreetly, over and over again is, What is your life purpose? Why are you here? Why do you exist? Who are you existing for?
There are snippets and themes of this novel that remind me of the sitcom Friends. A group of friends in their 20s, figuring out their lives in New York City. Most of them remain childless, at least for the earlier portion of their adult lives, which means that their social circle is essentially their second family. Some then go on to form their own circles or families, while some find their partner within this circle. Friends conveyed the idea of an alternative lifestyle, one in which your friends were all you needed. A Little Life seems to convey a similar message, but also shows the omnipresence of societal pressure and the eventual acceptance of this lifestyle.
This novel followed the characters from their early adulthoods to their last stages in life, and though my own life is distinct and free from so many of the challenges these characters had to face, I couldn’t help but see myself facing those challenges too. Fiction books have the power of transforming you into a character you didn’t know you could be – that’s why I love reading so much. Yanagihara allowed me to see what’s in it for me in the next few years to come, but most importantly, she allowed me to think beyond what I have already imagined for myself. While she was telling Jude’s story, she was also asking me those pressing existential questions.
What kind of life do I want to have? This is the question I ask myself most often nowadays. Not What’s my life purpose? nor Why am I here? I think they essentially guide us down the same path, but the way we ask ourselves that question can help us manifest our goals better. I don’t think about what my purpose in life is, because I think it’s constantly evolving. I don’t think about why I’m here, because I’d rather appreciate the gift of being here. I think about the kind of life I want to lead, because it makes me focus on the values that I have and the messages I carry into the world. It makes me ponder about my insecurities and how my actions are a direct reflection of the past I have. It shows me that I may still be uncertain about my own decisions (and very insecure about my actions), but so long as I know that it’s the life I want to lead, I will do it.