“Explores grand human concerns” – To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

IMG_3Dec2021at111350Yanagihara is best known for her Pulitzer-winning doorstop of a novel, A Little Life: a seven-hundred page behemoth exploring abuse, pain, love and endurance; a book so unflinching in its exploration of trauma that it exhorted from its readers a level of emotional engagement that generated its own backlash, with reviewers suggesting that its focus on privilege and its characters’ near-saintly support of their suffering friend stretched readers’ empathetic credulity. The counterargument, of course, was that in this book Yanagihara was demonstrating to us that degrees of pain and trauma exist such that no amount of money, power or friendship can overcome them. To Paradise is operating in similar territory: here we have three interlinked novellas (to stretch the term: they’re still quite long!) that each examine the various intersections of oppression and freedom, drawn around sexuality, poverty/privilege, race, nationalism, and health/disease. Paradise for one, as the tagline goes, is not paradise for all, and while it is towards some conceptualisation of paradise that Yanagihara’s characters (and readers) all strive, paradise remains ever elusive – much as did recuperation for A Little Life’s Jude.

The three novellas, then, are linked by theme and association rather than chronology or plot: repeated character names (Charles, David, Edward), a recurring central location (a grand house on Washington Square), a common focus on homosexuality and racialised identities (Black, Asian, Hawai’ian). Part One, set in 1893, introduces an alternative New York that has, with several other states, seceded from America to form the (politically contentious) Free States in order to offer legal haven for same-sex couples. Here, David is the scion of a Founding Family, but he’s fallen in love not with Charles, the kindly widower his grandfather has found for him, but with an impoverished pianist, Edward, whom his family suspect is planning to con him out of his riches. In Part Two, we’re in more or less contemporary times: it’s 1993 and the AIDS crisis in in full swing. This David is the great-grandson of the one-time Hawai’ian Queen, but he’s living in NYC as a kept man; his partner Charles is much older, white, and rich, and has been diagnosed with HIV. In parallel to their story, we hear about David’s father, Wika, a fearful and manipulable man, who fell under the spell of his schoolfriend Edward, a bitter Hawai’ian nationalist who builds a dangerous fantasy world around Wika’s royal heritage, and in the process alienated father from son. In Part Three, we’re in 2093, in a New York that’s locked-down and militarised, as one pandemic after another (not to mention climate change) ravages the world. Our narrators here are Charles, a government scientist, and Charlie, his frail granddaughter, a childhood survivor of the infamous 2070 outbreak. Heterosexual marriage has been made mandatory, meaning Charles has had to hide his own desires; meanwhile Charlie’s diminished world is a function of the state-control partly instigated by her grandfather as he tried to respond to the escalating global threats in the second half of the twenty-first century.

All three are captivating narratives. Yanagihara’s prose style is smooth and her narrators are convincing; while they are, by and large, as critics of A Little Life rightly noted, either financially privileged or with access to similarly enabling wealth via friendships, marriage, or sexual relationships, they are presented as engaging to a broader readership by virtue of their struggles with issues around, for instance, the oppression of sexual desire. As with the earlier book, the point might be that racism, homophobia and, in the third part, totalitarian state control, is oppressive no matter one’s class status. Now, whether or not that argument convinces – and I’m not sure it does – this is nonetheless a superbly-told story (side-note: perhaps that smoothness is the very thing that elides the political veil drawn over those of lesser privilege?). Yanagihara’s writing is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s: elegant, contemplative, and quietly poignant. Like Ishiguro’s most recent work, too, To Paradise explores grand human concerns (the ability or right to love and live freely) in a speculative context: a past or future version of our world where such concerns are thrown into sharp relief due to widespread legal and or technological constraints. The final section, tightly plotted around the spread of virulent pathogens and the political and ideological disputes that arise around strategies of contagion and containment, is particularly affecting (I’m typing this as the UK government debate the legality of enforced mask-wearing and so-called vaccine passports), but all three are compelling: Yanagihara’s characters’ grace, intelligence and charisma, combined with her imaginative rethinkings of historical and contemporary political configurations, make To Paradise a hypnotising text.

Any Cop?: Less unremittingly grim than A Little Life, but equally fascinating, this is excellent story-telling (but it won’t cheer you up if you’re hoping the Covid crisis is a passing phenomenon).

Valerie O’Riordan

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