Hanya Yanagihara’s critically-acclaimed “A Little Life” was an intimate, close-up portrait of four men and their love, shame, and existential loneliness. Her new book, “To Paradise,” is a sprawling, yet similarly intimate epic that is also focused on love, shame, and existential loneliness. Other than these shared themes (and heft), the two books have little in common besides Yanagihara’s masterful, transfixing writing, and her ability to plumb the depths of her characters at their most despicable and at their most tender.
“To Paradise” is more or less three novels in one — a triptych — that begin in the years 1893, 1993, and 2093 respectively. Each section has a different plot, and takes place, at least in part, in a different version of New York City, and each explores the possibilities and limitations of idealism and conviction in both the personal and political spheres.
Book I, “Washington Square,” takes place in 1893, in an alternate history in which New York State and several others have long seceded from the Union, or America, and formed the Free States. The Free States, as we learn in the first few pages, allow for same-sex couples and adoptee heirs. The young nation’s prominent families also use arranged marriages in order to maintain their assets and consolidate their power. The Free States, in other words, while free to gay people, is not a truly free or classless utopia. This becomes clear in a rare moment of explicit political backstory, which describes how in its infancy the Free States had had “the Indians driven west in hordes or slaughtered, quietly, in mass roundups in the very forests they had once terrorized [and] the native-born Negroes who had not assisted in [the Free States’] fight to gain control over the land (as well as refugee Negroes from the colonies) ferried to Canada or west in caravans.”
The man at the heart of this book, David Bingham, is a descendant of one of the Free States’ founders, and is immensely proud of his homeland. Despite his status and wealth, he is largely idle and unsatisfied, drifting through his life without a sense of who he should be or what he should do — until, that is, he meets a man named Edward Bishop who awakens a liveliness long absent from David’s heart. Their entanglement leads to turmoil, which feeds David’s existing instability; for years, he has suffered attacks of a kind of mania that lead him to disastrous, obsessive behaviors, followed by bouts of melancholia that send him to bed for days at a time. His vulnerabilities, and his acute awareness of and insecurity over them, make it difficult to avoid loving David and sympathizing with him.
Book I reads like a Henry James novel, complete with long and grammatically impeccable sentences and careful attention paid to unfolding, layer by layer, David’s psychology and emotional depth. Book II, “Lipo-Wao-Nahele,” which is divided into two parts, reads more like a contemporary literary novel. The first part stars another David Bingham, but appears to take place in our version of 1993 New York City. This David, born Kawika in Hawai’i, is living with a man 30 years his senior, Charles (there is a Charles in Book I as well), who is throwing an end-of-life party for his dear friend Peter, who is dying — not of AIDS-related complications, like many men both David and Charles have known and mourned, but of cancer. David is the descendent of the Hawaiian royal family that was overthrown in (note the date) 1893, a fact that he keeps to himself. Book II’s second part is narrated by David’s father, also named Kawika, and details his emotional devastation at the hands of another, different, Edward, whose utopic vision of restoring the Hawaiian monarchy leads him to actions that express an attempt to feel control and power in an unjust world rather than addressing the rights or realities of Kānaka Maoli people.
Book III, “Zone Eight,” is the longest and also, perhaps, the most difficult to read right now, since it takes place in a pandemic-ravaged future (Yanagihara was already writing the book when COVID-19 hit) in which the United States has eroded into a truly totalitarian state in the name of containing waves of viral epidemics. Here we meet Charlie, in 2093, a woman with cognitive damage due to the experimental life-saving drugs she was given as a child during the 2070 pandemic. In alternating chapters, we also meet her grandfather, Charles, a scientist eventually turned government official. Book III’s setting is familiar, not because of our own pandemic (although that doesn’t help), but because dystopias tend to resemble each other, a fact the narrative itself addresses: “Data, investigation, analysis, news, rumor: A dystopia flattens those terms into one… It is why all dystopias seem so generic in their systems and appearances; there is the removal of the vehicles of information.” What makes Yanagihara’s take effectively disturbing is that, via Charles, we’re privy to the lengthy process of authoritarian rule becoming cemented. Charlie, meanwhile, finds a certain amount of comfort in the state’s predictability and its rigid rules, but she is aware, too, although she cannot always articulate it, that there is more to life than what she has been exposed to and what she has experienced.
On the surface, what ties the three books together are the repetition of character names (David, Charles, Edward, etc.) and the house on Washington Square Park that appears in each book in one iteration or another. But there are deeper, more ineffable ties, in the form of moral and political questions: What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be protected? Does the latter preclude the possibility of the former? Are gilded cages any less restrictive for being gilded? “To Paradise” doesn’t definitively answer these questions, but revels in ambivalence rather than moral absolutes, making it a rich, emotional, and thought-provoking read.
Ilana Masad is a book critic, doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the novel “All My Mother’s Lovers.”
By Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday, 720 pages, $32.50