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Reading, of course, is a solo activity. But occasionally a book forces demands on you that are so immense you need consolation from others.

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January is proving to be a very bleak month. So why has it struck such a chord?

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How much suffering and abuse can one character believably endure? Not so here. Sometimes books come along that match the times.

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A Little Life is the perfect chronicle of our age of anxiety, providing all its attendant dramas cutting, binges and childhood sexual abuse as well as its solaces: friendship, drugs, travel, love affairs and interior design. The piece referred to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a new prevalence of cases in which seemingly trivial things a mouse in the dorm room, for instance caused great upset to the young people involved, leading them to seek counselling.

Generalised anxiety and dread is in the atmosphere, after all. On Sept.

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Published in , the book became a worldwide best seller; it won the Kirkus Prize in Fiction and was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It initially looks like the story of four college friends — Jude, Malcolm, Willem and J. But it narrows to focus on Jude, who was discovered as a newborn in the trash and over the course of his life is continually subjected to horrendous abuse by a series of sadists.

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Theater is there to represent the actual reality outside. Eventually, Jude is liberated from Brother Luke, but by then he appears to be marked for sexual violation.

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And, for a long time, Jude believes him. Novels that deal with these matters often fade out when the violence begins. You are more likely to find sustained and explicit depictions of depravity in genre fiction, where authors seem freer to be less decorous. It is not included for shock value or titillation, as is sometimes the case in works of horror or crime fiction.

But that novel, at a mere two hundred pages, is a slim silver dagger, not the broadsword that Yanagihara wields.

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One of the reasons the book is so long is that it draws on these lighter stretches to make the darker ones bearable. It gives us a moral universe in which spiritual salvation of this sort does not exist. In this godless world, friendship is the only solace available to any of us. Of course, atheism is not uncommon in contemporary literary novels; with notable exceptions, such as the works of Marilynne Robinson, few such books these days have any religious cast.

But perhaps that is why they rarely depict extreme suffering—because it is a nearly impossible subject to engage with directly if you are not going to offer some kind of spiritual solution. Later, during one of his worst episodes of suffering, Jude turns to a concept known as the axiom of equality, which states that x always equals x.