Unformatted text preview: ALSO BY HANYA YANAGIHARA The People in the Trees This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and
incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Hanya Yanagihara
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC,
New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House
DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random
House LLC. Jacket design by Cardon Webb
Jacket photograph: Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC. Courtesy
Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A little life : a novel / Hanya Yanagihara. — First edition.
ISBN 978-0-385-53925-8 (hardcover) —ISBN 978-0-385-53926-5 (eBook)
1. Families—Fiction. 2. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
v3.1 To Jared Hohlt
in friendship; with love Contents
Other Books by This Author
I LISPENARD STREET Chapter 1
II THE POSTMAN Chapter 1
III VANITIES Chapter 1
IV THE AXIOM OF EQUALITY Chapter 1
V THE HAPPY YEARS Chapter 1
VI DEAR COMRADE Chapter 1
VII LISPENARD STREET Acknowledgments
About the Author [I]
Lispenard Street 1
THE ELEVENTH APARTMENT had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass
door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man
sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it
was October, smoking. Willem held up a hand in greeting to him, but the
man didn’t wave back.
In the bedroom, Jude was accordioning the closet door, opening and
shutting it, when Willem came in. “There’s only one closet,” he said.
“That’s okay,” Willem said. “I have nothing to put in it anyway.”
“Neither do I.” They smiled at each other. The agent from the building
wandered in after them. “We’ll take it,” Jude told her.
But back at the agent’s office, they were told they couldn’t rent the
apartment after all. “Why not?” Jude asked her.
“You don’t make enough to cover six months’ rent, and you don’t have
anything in savings,” said the agent, suddenly terse. She had checked their
credit and their bank accounts and had at last realized that there was
something amiss about two men in their twenties who were not a couple
and yet were trying to rent a one-bedroom apartment on a dull (but still
expensive) stretch of Twenty-fifth Street. “Do you have anyone who can
sign on as your guarantor? A boss? Parents?”
“Our parents are dead,” said Willem, swiftly.
The agent sighed. “Then I suggest you lower your expectations. No one
who manages a well-run building is going to rent to candidates with your
financial profile.” And then she stood, with an air of finality, and looked
pointedly at the door.
When they told JB and Malcolm this, however, they made it into a
comedy: the apartment floor became tattooed with mouse droppings, the
man across the way had almost exposed himself, the agent was upset
because she had been flirting with Willem and he hadn’t reciprocated.
“Who wants to live on Twenty-fifth and Second anyway,” asked JB.
They were at Pho Viet Huong in Chinatown, where they met twice a month
for dinner. Pho Viet Huong wasn’t very good—the pho was curiously
sugary, the lime juice was soapy, and at least one of them got sick after every meal—but they kept coming, both out of habit and necessity. You
could get a bowl of soup or a sandwich at Pho Viet Huong for five dollars,
or you could get an entrée, which were eight to ten dollars but much larger,
so you could save half of it for the next day or for a snack later that night.
Only Malcolm never ate the whole of his entrée and never saved the other
half either, and when he was finished eating, he put his plate in the center of
the table so Willem and JB—who were always hungry—could eat the rest.
“Of course we don’t want to live at Twenty-fifth and Second, JB,” said
Willem, patiently, “but we don’t really have a choice. We don’t have any
“I don’t understand why you don’t stay where you are,” said Malcolm,
who was now pushing his mushrooms and tofu—he always ordered the
same dish: oyster mushrooms and braised tofu in a treacly brown sauce—
around his plate, as Willem and JB eyed it.
“Well, I can’t,” Willem said. “Remember?” He had to have explained this
to Malcolm a dozen times in the last three months. “Merritt’s boyfriend’s
moving in, so I have to move out.”
“But why do you have to move out?”
“Because it’s Merritt’s name on the lease, Malcolm!” said JB.
“Oh,” Malcolm said. He was quiet. He often forgot what he considered
inconsequential details, but he also never seemed to mind when people
grew impatient with him for forgetting. “Right.” He moved the mushrooms
to the center of the table. “But you, Jude—”
“I can’t stay at your place forever, Malcolm. Your parents are going to
kill me at some point.”
“My parents love you.”
“That’s nice of you to say. But they won’t if I don’t move out, and soon.”
Malcolm was the only one of the four of them who lived at home, and as
JB liked to say, if he had Malcolm’s home, he would live at home too. It
wasn’t as if Malcolm’s house was particularly grand—it was, in fact, creaky
and ill-kept, and Willem had once gotten a splinter simply by running his
hand up its banister—but it was large: a real Upper East Side town house.
Malcolm’s sister, Flora, who was three years older than him, had moved out
of the basement apartment recently, and Jude had taken her place as a shortterm solution: Eventually, Malcolm’s parents would want to reclaim the unit
to convert it into offices for his mother’s literary agency, which meant Jude (who was finding the flight of stairs that led down to it too difficult to
navigate anyway) had to look for his own apartment.
And it was natural that he would live with Willem; they had been
roommates throughout college. In their first year, the four of them had
shared a space that consisted of a cinder-blocked common room, where sat
their desks and chairs and a couch that JB’s aunts had driven up in a UHaul, and a second, far tinier room, in which two sets of bunk beds had
been placed. This room had been so narrow that Malcolm and Jude, lying in
the bottom bunks, could reach out and grab each other’s hands. Malcolm
and JB had shared one of the units; Jude and Willem had shared the other.
“It’s blacks versus whites,” JB would say.
“Jude’s not white,” Willem would respond.
“And I’m not black,” Malcolm would add, more to annoy JB than
because he believed it.
“Well,” JB said now, pulling the plate of mushrooms toward him with the
tines of his fork, “I’d say you could both stay with me, but I think you’d
fucking hate it.” JB lived in a massive, filthy loft in Little Italy, full of
strange hallways that led to unused, oddly shaped cul-de-sacs and
unfinished half rooms, the Sheetrock abandoned mid-construction, which
belonged to another person they knew from college. Ezra was an artist, a
bad one, but he didn’t need to be good because, as JB liked to remind them,
he would never have to work in his entire life. And not only would he never
have to work, but his children’s children’s children would never have to
work: They could make bad, unsalable, worthless art for generations and
they would still be able to buy at whim the best oils they wanted, and
impractically large lofts in downtown Manhattan that they could trash with
their bad architectural decisions, and when they got sick of the artist’s life—
as JB was convinced Ezra someday would—all they would need to do is
call their trust officers and be awarded an enormous lump sum of cash of an
amount that the four of them (well, maybe not Malcolm) could never dream
of seeing in their lifetimes. In the meantime, though, Ezra was a useful
person to know, not only because he let JB and a few of his other friends
from school stay in his apartment—at any time, there were four or five
people burrowing in various corners of the loft—but because he was a
good-natured and basically generous person, and liked to throw excessive
parties in which copious amounts of food and drugs and alcohol were
available for free. “Hold up,” JB said, putting his chopsticks down. “I just realized—there’s
someone at the magazine renting some place for her aunt. Like, just on the
verge of Chinatown.”
“How much is it?” asked Willem.
“Probably nothing—she didn’t even know what to ask for it. And she
wants someone in there that she knows.”
“Do you think you could put in a good word?”
“Better—I’ll introduce you. Can you come by the office tomorrow?”
Jude sighed. “I won’t be able to get away.” He looked at Willem.
“Don’t worry—I can. What time?”
“Lunchtime, I guess. One?”
“I’ll be there.”
Willem was still hungry, but he let JB eat the rest of the mushrooms.
Then they all waited around for a bit; sometimes Malcolm ordered jackfruit
ice cream, the one consistently good thing on the menu, ate two bites, and
then stopped, and he and JB would finish the rest. But this time he didn’t
order the ice cream, and so they asked for the bill so they could study it and
divide it to the dollar.
The next day, Willem met JB at his office. JB worked as a receptionist at
a small but influential magazine based in SoHo that covered the downtown
art scene. This was a strategic job for him; his plan, as he’d explained to
Willem one night, was that he’d try to befriend one of the editors there and
then convince him to feature him in the magazine. He estimated this taking
about six months, which meant he had three more to go.
JB wore a perpetual expression of mild disbelief while at his job, both
that he should be working at all and that no one had yet thought to
recognize his special genius. He was not a good receptionist. Although the
phones rang more or less constantly, he rarely picked them up; when any of
them wanted to get through to him (the cell phone reception in the building
was inconsistent), they had to follow a special code of ringing twice,
hanging up, and then ringing again. And even then he sometimes failed to
answer—his hands were busy beneath his desk, combing and plaiting snarls
of hair from a black plastic trash bag he kept at his feet.
JB was going through, as he put it, his hair phase. Recently he had
decided to take a break from painting in favor of making sculptures from black hair. Each of them had spent an exhausting weekend following JB
from barbershop to beauty shop in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and
Manhattan, waiting outside as JB went in to ask the owners for any
sweepings or cuttings they might have, and then lugging an increasingly
awkward bag of hair down the street after him. His early pieces had
included The Mace, a tennis ball that he had de-fuzzed, sliced in half, and
filled with sand before coating it in glue and rolling it around and around in
a carpet of hair so that the bristles moved like seaweed underwater, and
“The Kwotidien,” in which he covered various household items—a stapler;
a spatula; a teacup—in pelts of hair. Now he was working on a large-scale
project that he refused to discuss with them except in snatches, but it
involved the combing out and braiding together of many pieces in order to
make one apparently endless rope of frizzing black hair. The previous
Friday he had lured them over with the promise of pizza and beer to help
him braid, but after many hours of tedious work, it became clear that there
was no pizza and beer forthcoming, and they had left, a little irritated but
not terribly surprised.
They were all bored with the hair project, although Jude—alone among
them—thought that the pieces were lovely and would someday be
considered significant. In thanks, JB had given Jude a hair-covered
hairbrush, but then had reclaimed the gift when it looked like Ezra’s father’s
friend might be interested in buying it (he didn’t, but JB never returned the
hairbrush to Jude). The hair project had proved difficult in other ways as
well; another evening, when the three of them had somehow been once
again conned into going to Little Italy and combing out more hair, Malcolm
had commented that the hair stank. Which it did: not of anything distasteful
but simply the tangy metallic scent of unwashed scalp. But JB had thrown
one of his mounting tantrums, and had called Malcolm a self-hating Negro
and an Uncle Tom and a traitor to the race, and Malcolm, who very rarely
angered but who angered over accusations like this, had dumped his wine
into the nearest bag of hair and gotten up and stamped out. Jude had
hurried, the best he could, after Malcolm, and Willem had stayed to handle
JB. And although the two of them reconciled the next day, in the end
Willem and Jude felt (unfairly, they knew) slightly angrier at Malcolm,
since the next weekend they were back in Queens, walking from barbershop
to barbershop, trying to replace the bag of hair that he had ruined.
“How’s life on the black planet?” Willem asked JB now. “Black,” said JB, stuffing the plait he was untangling back into the bag.
“Let’s go; I told Annika we’d be there at one thirty.” The phone on his desk
began to ring.
“Don’t you want to get that?”
“They’ll call back.”
As they walked downtown, JB complained. So far, he had concentrated
most of his seductive energies on a senior editor named Dean, whom they
all called DeeAnn. They had been at a party, the three of them, held at one
of the junior editor’s parents’ apartment in the Dakota, in which art-hung
room bled into art-hung room. As JB talked with his coworkers in the
kitchen, Malcolm and Willem had walked through the apartment together
(Where had Jude been that night? Working, probably), looking at a series of
Edward Burtynskys hanging in the guest bedroom, a suite of water towers
by the Bechers mounted in four rows of five over the desk in the den, an
enormous Gursky floating above the half bookcases in the library, and, in
the master bedroom, an entire wall of Diane Arbuses, covering the space so
thoroughly that only a few centimeters of blank wall remained at the top
and bottom. They had been admiring a picture of two sweet-faced girls with
Down syndrome playing for the camera in their too-tight, too-childish
bathing suits, when Dean had approached them. He was a tall man, but he
had a small, gophery, pockmarked face that made him appear feral and
They introduced themselves, explained that they were here because they
were JB’s friends. Dean told them that he was one of the senior editors at
the magazine, and that he handled all the arts coverage.
“Ah,” Willem said, careful not to look at Malcolm, whom he did not trust
not to react. JB had told them that he had targeted the arts editor as his
potential mark; this must be him.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Dean asked them, waving a
hand at the Arbuses.
“Never,” Willem said. “I love Diane Arbus.”
Dean stiffened, and his little features seemed to gather themselves into a
knot in the center of his little face. “It’s DeeAnn.”
“DeeAnn. You pronounce her name ‘DeeAnn.’ ”
They had barely been able to get out of the room without laughing.
“DeeAnn!” JB had said later, when they told him the story. “Christ! What a pretentious little shit.”
“But he’s your pretentious little shit,” Jude had said. And ever since, they
had referred to Dean as “DeeAnn.”
Unfortunately, however, it appeared that despite JB’s tireless cultivation
of DeeAnn, he was no closer to being included in the magazine than he had
been three months ago. JB had even let DeeAnn suck him off in the steam
room at the gym, and still nothing. Every day, JB found a reason to wander
back into the editorial offices and over to the bulletin board on which the
next three months’ story ideas were written on white note cards, and every
day he looked at the section dedicated to up-and-coming artists for his
name, and every day he was disappointed. Instead he saw the names of
various no-talents and overhypes, people owed favors or people who knew
people to whom favors were owed.
“If I ever see Ezra up there, I’m going to kill myself,” JB always said, to
which the others said: You won’t, JB, and Don’t worry, JB—you’ll be up
there someday, and What do you need them for, JB? You’ll find somewhere
else, to which JB would reply, respectively, “Are you sure?,” and “I fucking
doubt it,” and “I’ve fucking invested this time—three whole months of my
fucking life—I better be fucking up there, or this whole thing has been a
fucking waste, just like everything else,” everything else meaning,
variously, grad school, moving back to New York, the hair series, or life in
general, depending on how nihilistic he felt that day.
He was still complaining when they reached Lispenard Street. Willem
was new enough to the city—he had only lived there a year—to have never
heard of the street, which was barely more than an alley, two blocks long
and one block south of Canal, and yet JB, who had grown up in Brooklyn,
hadn’t heard of it either.
They found the building and punched buzzer 5C. A girl answered, her
voice made scratchy and hollow by the intercom, and rang them in. Inside,
the lobby was narrow and high-ceilinged and painted a curdled, gleaming
shit-brown, which made them feel like they were at the bottom of a well.
The girl was waiting for them at the door of the apartment. “Hey, JB,”
she said, and then looked at Willem and blushed.
“Annika, this is my friend Willem,” JB said. “Willem, Annika works in
the art department. She’s cool.”
Annika looked down and stuck out her hand in one movement. “It’s nice
to meet you,” she said to the floor. JB kicked Willem in the foot and grinned at him. Willem ignored him.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” he said.
“Well, this is the apartment? It’s my aunt’s? She lived here for fifty years
but she just moved into a retirement home?” Annika was speaking very fast
and had apparently decided that the best strategy was to treat Willem like an
eclipse and simply not look at him at all. She was talking faster and faster,
about her aunt, and how she always said the neighborhood had changed,
and how she’d never heard of Lispenard Street until she’d moved
downtown, and how she was sorry it hadn’t been painted yet, but her aunt
had just, literally just moved out and they’d only had a chance to have it
cleaned the previous weekend. She looked everywhere but at Willem—at
the ceiling (stamped tin), at the floors (cracked, but parquet), at the walls
(on which long-ago-hung picture frames had left ghostly shadows)—until
finally Willem had to interrupt, gently, and ask if he could take a look
through the rest of the apartment.
“Oh, be my guest,” said Annika, “I’ll leave you alone,” although she then
began to follow them, talking rapidly to JB about someone named Jasper
and how he’d been using Archer for everything, and didn’t JB think it
looked a little too round and weird for body text? Now that Willem had his
back turned to her, she stared at him openly, her rambling becoming more
inane the longer she spoke.
JB watched Annika watch Willem. He had never seen her like this, so
nervous and girlish (normally she was surly and silent and was actually a bit
feared in the office for creating on the wall above her desk an elaborate
sculpture of a heart made entirely of X-ACTO blades), but he had seen lots of
women behave this way around Willem. They all had. Their friend Lionel
used to say that Willem must have been a fisherman in a past life, because
he couldn’t help but attract pussy. And yet most of the time (though not
always), Willem seemed unaware of the attention. JB had once asked
Malcolm why he thought that was, and Ma...
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