I found Yanagihara's first novel, The People in the Trees, intellectually compelling. A Little Life is better. It's emotionally compelling. Unlike the repulsive characters in The People in the Trees, A Little Life is full of people that I would be honoured to spend time with in real life. (There are also a few who are true villains, whom I'd never want to meet.)
Jude St. Francis and three other guys meet in college and remain close for the rest of their lives. They come from mixed ethnic backgrounds and have diverse sexual identities and career paths. The focus on their remarkable bonds of friendship that last over decades is one of the reasons that this book so wonderful. There are mysterious, heartbreaking circumstances in Jude's past that are slowly revealed, propelling the plot forward. The main story, however, is that of people's ordinary lives and the importance of human connections.
"And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved ___. It was the fact of him, of course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day."
There was a part that reminded me of the excellent essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed (Meaghan Daum, ed.):
"But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one's status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt."
Here's another example of Yanagihara's introspective style:
Details about food preparation are always a hook for me. In the following passage, Harold has asked Jude to teach him to cook.
"And so he did. [...] My main problem, it emerged, was a lack of patience, my inability to accept tedium. I'd wander away to look for something to read and forget that I was leaving the risotto to glue itself into a sticky glop, or I'd forget to turn the carrots in their puddle of olive oil and come back to find them seared to the bottom of the pan. (So much of cooking, it seemed, was petting and bathing and monitoring and flipping and turning and soothing: demands I associated with human infancy.)"
A Little Life is currently on the Man Booker shortlist. The only other title on the list that I've read so far is Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I'm glad I'm not a judge choosing between these two because they are both outstanding. The winner will be announced on October 13.