Just Yanagihara’s new novel To Paradise boldly rewrite America’s past, present and future. With three separate end of century periods – 1893, 1993 and 2093 – and spans 700 pages, the result is a spectacular three-part fiction. Here is an alternative country in which profound questions about family, heritage, sovereignty, identity and above all the meaning of freedom, are brilliantly kept before the light.
In the book’s last, most prophetic section, set in 2093, an elderly scientist – one who is partly responsible for the cruel draconian measures taken by the US in the face of recurring pandemics and environmental crises – writes to his only confidant, far away in what is now “New Britain”.
“The disease has clarified everything about who we are; it revealed the fiction we have all constructed about our lives. . . No law, no arrangement, no amount of love was stronger than our own need to survive, or, for the more generous among us, our need for our people, whoever they were, to survive. ”
These rules stand out as a statement of fact and a warning, and also underscore Yanagihara’s authorial obsession with community. The author’s previous novel A Little Life (2015), shortlisted for the Booker and Women’s Prize, was an ensemble piece focusing on a group of four male graduate friends who turned into a challenging and controversial study of sexual abuse, addiction and trauma. To Paradise is, like its predecessor, a complex work of intertwined human relations, but it is also sublimely readable.
Yanagihara, like many American writers before her, is concerned here with a concept of utopia, of collective and individual freedom, at whatever price and however it is interpreted. And yet she constantly emphasizes the fact that “paradise” is accessible only to the privileged couple.
Every century of the book’s environment revolves around the same physical and emotional touchstone: a large townhouse in New York’s Washington Square. The spirit of Edith Wharton and Henry James’ stories of upper-class New York influences the first section, which is a mannered, self-conscious pastiche in style. Rather as in James’ short 1880 novel Washington square, the nervous, shy heir of the house is seduced by a possible trust-trickster whom their guardian disapproves of.
The stark contrast is that in Yanagihara’s 1893 New York version, same-sex marriage is not only encouraged, but the norm. In this alternative America, the post-civil war settlement divided the country rather than united it; New York is one of the Free State, which has separated from the rest of the country. While homosexuality is legal here, the Free State is riddled with classicism and racism. There is no social mobility. Black people were banished to the areas known as the North and the West.
David Bingham, heir to the house, is expected to enter into a regular marriage. But instead of accepting Charles Griffith, an older man of his own class, David falls in love with a younger, free-spirited musician named Edward Bishop, despite his grandfather’s convincing evidence that he is a swindler. Edward encourages David, along with his fortune, to embark on a new life in California – where same-sex relationships are forbidden – leading to the reckless dilemma David finds himself in when this part of the novel ends.
Throughout the novel’s three periods, Yanagihara twists the same names for both main and minor characters, a pattern that provides the book’s sense of continuity, as well as life’s fragility and reconfiguration.
Another David Bingham, this time a young Hawaiian working as a lawyer in a New York law firm, is 1993’s offer. This David becomes the lover of an older man, also Charles Griffith, a senior partner in the firm, and moves into his Washington Square home.
The 1993 section palpates with great love and great sadness as the city is plagued by an AIDS-type disease that is never mentioned. The centerpiece is a party for Charles’ former lover Peter, who is dying – not of this new disease, but of cancer: “you were always behind the curve”, one acquaintance remarks.
With the change of pace, this section then turns to David’s estranged father, also called David, an epileptic who had been assigned to an asylum years before, who is also a descendant of the last kings of Hawaii. Here, Yanagihara draws on her own knowledge of the state where she spent part of her childhood telling the story of older David – of error and apathy, of accepting life as one of the colonized while America in the late 1960s erupted in protest. This is a sad and not entirely successful intermezzo.
The last and longest section of To Paradise redeemed the novel completely with a sharp remake of America in 2093: a dictatorship, its states divided into prefectures and New York City into zones; shrines once devoted to birds, now extinct, replaced with internment camps.
Charlie – the novel’s only female narrator – lives in Zone Eight in a unit carved out of the Washington Square house where she once lived with her grandfather Charles, a prominent virologist. Charles, whose correspondence over several decades has mapped out the disintegration of a world with increasingly scarce resources and curtailed freedoms, had been executed by the state a few years earlier. Charlie, meanwhile, suffered neurological damage in a previous pandemic; her simple perspective fits in with the novel’s themes of illness and otherness.
The final of To Paradise is a masterpiece, at the same time thrilling and intensely gripping, even if it describes a grim outcome for the American experiment. It emphasizes Yanagihara’s intentions for the novel as a whole, as expressed by the words of scientist Charles: “the truth of who we are, our essential self, the thing that emerges when everything else is burned away.” In an unpredictable, insecure world, the only certainty offered, apparently, says Yanagihara, who and what of us will survive.
To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara, Picador £ 20 / Doubleday $ 32.50, 720 pages
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