With her most recent novel, Hanya Yanagihara’s legacy of suffering and empathy tilts inexorably not to paradise, but to darkness.
In To Paradise, Yanagihara has invented a newer, subtler way to torture her readers and her characters: loneliness, helplessness, and self-delusion. All afflictions that more easily land close to home than the operatic suffering of A Little Life.
“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.” –A Little Life
“I’m scared because I know my last thoughts are going to be about how much time I wasted—how much life I wasted. I’m scared because I’m going to die not being proud of how I lived.” –To Paradise
This is a long review because it’s a big long book. If you (likely) haven’t read it but are curious about how Yanagihara could possibly have out-depressed A Little Life, or if you’ve read it and you’re interested in a discussion of its content, have at it. If not, here are my five basic thoughts:
The writing is less dazzling. While Yanagihara’s writing will always be beautiful and incisive and easy to read, I underlined far less in this novel, and the tone was just less…interesting.
The messages are across-the-board depressing. Humanity is really, really delusional. The concept of paradise is a refuge of the desperate. There aren’t any moments of simple hope or happiness in the whole novel, making it feel sulky and lopsided.
It’s super chaotic. The same names are used in all three novels in an attempt to illustrate similar themes, personalities, and storylines. But there’s actually no relevant connection, so the name thing is just confusing. Same with the fixation on one house in New York and Hawaii. They just feel like canvases Yanagihara recycled because she was trying to write three novels in one.
The autocratic-dystopian-pandemic-ridden-America bit is chilling.
None of the themes besides the paradise-is-bullshit one are addressed enough. I can see the attempt at a “great American novel” but I think that’s just Yanagihara’s natural style—to include all the themes. Which I admire, but also I’m tired now and all it’s done is distract me. Plus, America has always been at least a little proud of its delusion. Yanagihara mocks it.
HANYA, WHY IS YOUR WORLD SO BEREFT OF JOY?
The reason A Little Life, Yanagihara’s most famous and most successful novel, got four stars from me instead of two was the way it managed to communicate the fullness of a life—including the joy. They were small moments, mundane, almost like interludes: Jude, the main character, sitting on a bench beside his partner on a beautiful day; friends committing to their friendships and helping those they love; feeling moved by art and artists. Sometimes Jude himself recognized these little happiness.
Sometimes the reader, breathless after a particularly jarring passage, just felt them, bone-deep.
To Paradise has no moments like that. A peaceful nighttime walk is riddled with anxiety, inferiority, and helplessness. Illness casts a long, insistent, all-eclipsing shadow across every scene of familial coexistence. The novel is also missing the brutal scenes of abuse and trauma A Little Life is known for—but that doesn’t prevent it from a different kind of brutality.
The result feels lopsided instead of all-encompassing, like spending a 700-page novel inside a depressed mind that can’t find any light. (Gish Jen from the New York Times has the opposite opinion, though, so go figure.)
To Paradise is split into three mini-novels that share themes and character names. At the end of each, a character plunges bravely to paradise. And in each, the reader (and the character, even) is fully aware that this “paradise” is no such thing. The self-delusion on the part of the characters is thin and frustrating. For me, the most common emotion rising from the pages of this novel is pity.
And the biggest message is that paradise is an absurd, childlike idea clung to by desperate people in denial.
Importantly, these characters flee from worlds of their own creation.
Mild spoilers from now on.
SILLY UTOPIANS, YOU’RE ALL IN DENIAL!
The David of the first part, set in 1893, is wealthy and privileged, but spends his life struggling with both physical and mental illness, as well as a sense of inferiority and obligation to his entire family. Inside the claustrophobic confines of his mind, New York gradually becomes an untenable place for him to be his best self. His solution—to flee with a fraudster using him for his money because this is the only man who makes him feel special—is an obviously tragic one.
In the second part, the older David (his son is also David, go figure) also lives a comfortable life with a lovely, healthy son, and chooses to flee it for similar reasons to the first David. This time, we see the false Paradise, and the destruction it wreaks.
I want to emphasize that the message isn’t that these men tried something brave and noble and failed; rather, that they knowingly dove into delusion that was clearly bound to fail because they felt that was their only natural recourse—that it was the best they could do.
The final book is a little more nuanced.
In this one, the main characters are both Charles (one Charlie). Sigh—Charleses also show up in the first two novels, with no clear reason or connection besides…chaos. (Seriously, Jordan Kisner of the Atlantic gave up and guessed that Yanagihara just wanted to show us a little chaos. Maybe she’s right.)
The older Charles is at least complicit, at most instrumental, in transforming 2093 America into an autocratic dystopia. And so, with some degree of remorse (but the privileged kind of remorse that says, “well, shit, nevermind, I screwed that one up so now I’m just gonna slowly walk away), he seeks to get his daughter out of his America to the paradise of “New Britain.”
When I was an undergraduate, a professor of mine had said there were two types of people: those who wept for the world, and those who wept for themselves. Weeping for your family, he said, was a form of weeping for yourself. “Those who congratulate themselves on their sacrifices for their family aren’t actually sacrificing at all,” he said, “because the family is an extension of their selves, and therefore a manifestation of the ego.” True selflessness, he said, meant giving of yourself to a stranger, someone whose life would never be entangled with our own.
Spoiler. The book ends with his daughter, Charlie, getting caught as she flees. No paradise there, just death.
This isn’t all necessarily a bad thing. The unique mental situation of each character is thoroughly addressed throughout the novel, and the result is deeply uncomfortable. It forces the reader to sit with realities of illness and divergence, whether that be mental, physical, or global.
Facing these realities is something America is really bad at, and that seems to be one of Yanagihara’s fixations. And while I whine about how unsatisfying it is, it does put me face to face with situations I wouldn’t have thought about—or empathized with—otherwise.
That said, a trend I’ve noticed in all of Yanagihara’s main characters is economic privilege. The Davids of the first two books are wealthy enough that they don’t have to work, and they inhabit the world with a sense of security I think many would find hard to relate to. Yanagihara doesn’t ignore this—all the privileged characters in the novel are well aware of their privilege and struggle with other issues such as race and sexuality—but it still leaves the nagging sensation that this is a super specific cross-section of people we’re following around. Not an everyman in sight.
SURVIVAL IN ZONE 8
Information has a way of finding its way around bans, and once the population discovers they’ve been lied to, or at the very least kept ignorant, it’ll only lead to greater mistrust and suspicion, and, therefore, an even greater panic. But the government will do anything to delay confronting and correcting the actual problem: Americans’ scientific illiteracy.
The political story of the third book has little to do with the first two in a concrete way, aside from a few tie-ins to Hawaii. And the story Yanagihara paints of the world, and specifically of America, in the near-future…my skin crawled. It is brutally realistic. The writing style—the inexorable kind of atmosphere—reminded me of Atlas Shrugged (not the philosophy, though, gosh no). It was like watching the Titanic sink in slow-motion. It isn’t a style I personally go for, especially given our world today, but that’s also part of Yanagihara’s point: we’re just so damn denialist.
Did you like A Little Life? To Paradise? Hate them? Drop a comment!
From the author of the classic A Little Life, a bold, brilliant novel spanning three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, about lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia.
In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.
These three sections are joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another: A townhouse in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; illness, and treatments that come at a terrible cost; wealth and squalor; the weak and the strong; race; the definition of family, and of nationhood; the dangerous righteousness of the powerful, and of revolutionaries; the longing to find a place in an earthly paradise, and the gradual realization that it can’t exist. What unites not just the characters, but these Americas, are their reckonings with the qualities that make us human: Fear. Love. Shame. Need. Loneliness.
To Paradise is a fin de siècle novel of marvellous literary effect, but above all it is a work of emotional genius. The great power of this remarkable novel is driven by Yanagihara’s understanding of the aching desire to protect those we love – partners, lovers, children, friends, family and even our fellow citizens – and the pain that ensues when we cannot.
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