Stuck Somewhere Around Purgatory in “To Paradise” – Chicago Review of Books


Hanya Yanagihara is not merely a maximalist; she is more specifically a writer of extremity. In internet terms, her novels are a lot: long, serious, and interested in the psychology of horrible people, or of un-horrible people trapped in horrible situations. They attempt to be less stylistically or conceptually dense than emotionally dense. A Yanagihara novel does not test our ability to untangle long, looping sentences, or follow abstract arguments, but rather to withstand illustrations of emotional and physical distress, which pop up implacably like boxing dummies. The difficulty in a Yanagihara novel lies not in figuring out what’s going on, but in seeing clearly what’s going on, and turning the page anyway.

What makes the page-turning easier in her first two novels—The People in the Trees and A Little Life—is precisely their resemblance to page-turners. Yanagihara is an excellent storyteller; she understands the obsessive feeling that a good mystery produces, and at her best, the cruelty and violence her characters constantly suffer and inflict give the mystery a threatening bite. 

It helps too that she’s essentially a fabulist. Unbound to the strictures of realism, the signature of the Yanagihara novel is the single, pointed swerve into the speculative. There’s a kind of principle of fantastical parsimony at work: a Yanagihara novel does not depart from the real gratuitously, but rather with purpose, as a method of intensification. Her fidelity is not to realism, but to narrative and emotional effect. In The People in the Trees, a scientist discovers turtles whose meat grants a kind of eternal life; the novel becomes so mesmerizing because the vein of fantasy powers an otherwise familiar narrative world. Likewise, in A Little Life, the characters inhabit a charmed world of professional and material success that frees their attention (and the novel’s) from the demands of history and politics.

At first, To Paradise, Yanagihara’s third novel, appears to hold with the pattern. Over three sections and 700 pages, familiar Yanagiharan interests reappear: the novel is set in New York, populated by scientists and gay men, and obsessed with experiences of deprivation and pain. The key difference between To Paradise and Yanagihara’s earlier novels isn’t that To Paradise wants to be about ideas and politics in a way the other novels do not, or that its ambition overruns its capabilities, although both are true. Instead, the key difference is that To Paradise is boring.

Split into three asymmetrical sections (the third is the size of the first two combined), To Paradise imagines three versions of the United States set in 1893, 1993, and 2093. The three versions do not occupy a shared timeline or universe, although the third section includes a metafictional retelling of the first, in which parts of New England split from the Union after the American Revolution to found the “Free States,” a semiautonomous entity with civil and legal protections for queer people (or gay men and lesbians, anyway). The second is set in a familiar United States, and the third takes place in a post-democracy surveillance state beset by a century of pandemics. 

Across the sections exists a set of characters whose iterations share names and personalities. Something like archetypes, these characters reappear and rearrange themselves. David is young, and ambivalently attached to his family and his past. Charles is older and gentle, sometimes David’s mentor, sometimes his partner or pursuer. Edward is cunning, energetic, a generator of uncertainty and narrative energy. They form asymmetrical triangles of power and desire, and these always-shifting triangles refer back (blurrily) to the novel’s triangular structure: “if you were observing them from above, the three of them would have appeared to be a single organism, a twelve-limbed, three-headed creature […] kept alive by a single, enormous heart.” This is the novel’s image of itself: something at first bizarre, and then interesting, but finally vague.

Put bluntly, the novel’s sections do not work alone, nor do they work together. Given the space of a whole novel, either of the first two sections could bloom. Both begin to generate the narrative velocity present in The People in the Trees (and, to a lesser extent, A Little Life). But as they stand, the three sections don’t succeed at telling a story or being parts of a novel. Rather, they feel like beacons we’re meant to triangulate, dots we’re supposed to connect, in order to see in the negative space whatever Yanagihara’s point is. 

Even though a great deal happens in the novel—for me, keeping track of characters and relationships and histories of the narrative worlds required not-insignificant marginalia—each section feels porous, full of gaps and winks that become deflating rather than beguiling. To Paradise resists claims that it falls short on its own terms because those terms remain fuzzy, at once buried beneath the novel’s mass and hidden in the empty spaces towards which it constantly gestures and nods. Although The People in the Trees and A Little Life are both long novels, they work much better because their apertures are tight: they take a single, sharp narrative artifact, and examine it with an apparently illimitable attention. When narrative attention is so focused, 700 pages can take a story, exactly as Yanagihara prefers, to the borders of extremity.

To Paradise, in contrast, sprawls. Just as the novel begins stories it leaves unrealized, it lays out ideas without saying much about them. Each section, for example, ends with the words “to paradise,” and the phrase “America is a country with sin at its heart” always appears. Read alongside the novel’s suggestion that the US might (not) change under different historical circumstances, these lines signal that To Paradise wants to be about Americanness in a serious way. The legacies of American imperialism become especially important vis-à-vis the (re)appearances of Hawaii: the second section’s David is descended from Hawaiian royalty, and in the third section a version of Charles bristles at white characters’ collections of Hawaiian memorabilia. Likewise, AIDS—conspicuously absent from A Little Life—gets oblique mention, another instance of American political cruelty. But these references don’t coalesce into something more complex, a claim or a knot. Imperialism, racism, homophobia, stratifications of class—these structures of power are related, but they aren’t identical, and the novel shifts between them in imprecise ways. 

What, exactly, is the sin at America’s heart? And is the utopian striving the characters perform in every section a rebuttal to that sin, or its fuel? The pointedness of Yanagihara’s earlier novels loosens into vagueness, an admirable conviction to be about politics but a failure to have anything political to say. As a result, To Paradise feels like a novel of ideas without the ideas.

Yanagihara’s depiction of gay characters is controversial—praised by notable queer writers like Garth Greenwell and Alexander Chee, but decried by others—but the political problems of To Paradise extend beyond identity. The third, dystopian section is the best illustration. It’s split between the story of Charlie, a lab tech rendered effectively muted by a viral illness, and letters written by her grandfather Charles, a prominent scientist and eventual state administrator who helps organize camps used to exterminate the sick. We never see this happen, never understand how Charles is chosen or recruited, or witness the ethical calculus that leads him to accept the position. The dystopia of 2093 isn’t captivating as a dystopia, a narrative of the political and social possibilities that approach the horizon of the imaginable, because while we’re given a mess of details and tropes we lack a way of fitting them together. It’s not frightening because we’ve seen these tropes worked out, often with greater intricacy, in other novels. The emphasis on genetic and social engineering feels very Margaret Atwood. The collision of the terrifying and banal textures of the apocalypse is the whole point of Ling Ma’s Severance. The late-novel swerve into the apocalyptic and dystopian is classic David Mitchell. Even the name of To Paradise’s third section, “Zone Eight,” and more generally the slicing-up of New York into zones of control, recalls Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One.

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All this would be forgivable if the long third section finally made the novel’s point—if the dystopian narrative set out a sophisticated argument or revealed that the novel is a triptych of something. But its political critique is incomprehensible. Politics are mediated through the death-camp designer Charles, the “architect of the solution,” whose sympathies are unsubtly fascist. Charles paraphrases the claims of anti-surveillance-state protestors as “exclamations of horror and righteousness, their declaring to themselves what monsters the state had become […] how there was a price to be paid for the control of these illnesses, but it couldn’t be the price of our collective humanity.” Moments later, he dismisses the protestors’ conspiratorial thinking, their claims that “the disease wasn’t an accident at all but something engineered in a lab.” Obviously we ought to distrust Charles’s narrative reliability and his moral reasoning. However, because the protestors mix legitimate political grievance with conspiracy theory and rhetoric familiar in the COVID-context of the novel’s publication, it’s difficult to say from what position we’re meant to ironize things, where we’re supposed to end up.

Most generously, we might say that Yanagihara wants to make a claim about how thinking and language are stressed and deformed in times of political and bodily precariousness. To face down an infectious threat that imperils both the political body and the individual’s body at once makes us doubly anxious; it reveals the fragility of the democratic state and democratic attitude. It produces Charles as well as a terrified public incapable of effective speech or political action. Monstrosity becomes easier at every scale. But the confusion of the third section leaves this reading as extrapolative as any other, and in general the novel’s gaps and absences do not produce a political critique but something more like a political shape or container left for the reader to fill. Like the novel’s tripartite structure, the third section doesn’t actually know what it’s about, and a dystopia that doesn’t know what it’s about becomes less a story than a rearrangement of tropes, which cannot support either a strong narrative or salient political ideas. 

Plus, the political shape of the third section leaves plenty of room for an aggrieved reading, an exaggerated comparison drawn between ameliorative state measures in the time of COVID-19, and a fascist regime with total power over life and death. Take this bit: “People in a young dystopia crave information—they are starved for it, they will kill for it. But over time, that craving diminishes […] You become freed of the burden of knowledge; you learn, if not to trust the state, then to surrender to it.” This isn’t to say that the novel somehow performs harm for casting a suspicious eye over the biopolitical power of the state, its attempts to manage contagious illnesses and regulate public access to information. Instead, it’s to say that, when a dystopian narrative—a fundamentally political form—lacks precision, it’s easy for skepticism to become fuzzy paranoia. Critique collapses into conspiracy.

The more satellites a novel launches, the denser its gravitational pull must be to wrestle them all into alignment. Sprawling, full of gaps and gestures, To Paradise lacks that core. Of course, the work of filling gaps can be good reading, and novels can sprawl their way to success. But this has never been Yanagihara’s method, and even the best sprawling novels are rooted in something: an overriding philosophical or political or theological concern, a workable stylistic or structural conceit, something. To Paradise proceeds as if it possessed that center; it implies rootedness. And because Yanagihara’s narrative dexterity is irrepressible, at times the novel threatens to pull itself together. But it never does, and To Paradise ends up, to put it in other generic terms, like a mystery with plenty of clues but no murder.

FICTION
To Paradise
by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday Books
Published January 11th, 2022



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