An Ambitious Undertaking

It was in 2013 when Hanya Yanagihara made her debut with The People in the Trees. It was critically received and was even cited as one of the best books of the year. However, it was with the publication of her second novel, A Little Life, that she gained more global recognition. Published in 2015, the emotional rollercoaster of a book cemented the path for Yanagihara’s ascent to the zenith of literary success. Her sophomore novel was critically acclaimed, with literary pundits giving the book raving reviews. It was also an unexpected commercial success, exceeding her expectations. A Little Life won the 2015 Kirkus Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. The world has seen the birth of a new literary voice.

It was clear readers across the world wanted to read more of Yanagihara’s prose. It did, however, take some time before the gods of literature heeded the reading public’s growing clamor. In early 2022, seven years after the resounding success of A Little Life, Yanagihara made her literary comeback. Her highly anticipated third novel, To Paradise, was published. In her long-awaited literary comeback, Yanagihara pulled all the stops to remind her readers of the power of her prose. It was, on the surface, worth the wait because To Paradise was equally daunting, complex, and multi-layered as its predecessor but with enough distinctions to distinguish it from A Little Life.

Washington Square

To Paradise was further divided into three distinct but interconnected books. The first book, titled Washington Square, transported readers to 1893 Manhattan, New York City; it was also in Manhattan where most of the action in the succeeding books took place. But this is literature and writers possess a poetic license that allows them to distort realities as we know them. As such, we read of an alternate United States. The Continental United States was divided into the Free States, the North (The Republic of Maine), the American Union, the Western Union, and the Colonies. Manhattan formed part of the Free States. This part charted the story of David Bingham, the scion of a banking empire built by his grandfather, Nathaniel Bingham. David and his two younger siblings lost their parents when they were younger. They were raised by their grandfather in his luxurious Washington Square Park house.

“I know that loneliness cannot be fully eradicated by the presence of another; but I also know that a companion is a shield, and without another person, loneliness steals in, a phantom seeping through the windows and down your throat, filling you with a sorrow nothing can answer. I cannot promise that my granddaughter won’t be lonely, but I have prevented her from being alone. I have made certain that her life will have a witness.”

~ Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise

Book I introduced some of the elements that would trickle into the succeeding two books, particularly homosexual relationships. What set apart the Free States from the other territories was its recognition of homosexual relationships. Homosexuality was socially accepted. There no longer existed a stigma around the subject as several of the denizens of the Free States have chosen same-sex relationships. Yanagihara’s exploration of homosexual relationships was one of the most contentious elements of her last two works. With the rise of the #OwnVoice movement, many have been apprehensive about how a cisgender female will tackle a realm beyond her experience. Yanagihara’s response to the growing concern was succinct; she said she has “the right to write about whatever I want.”1

One prevalent practice in Yanagihara’s Free States is the arrangement of marriages, especially amongst the elite. For his part, Nathaniel made the conscious decision to choose a partner for his precocious eldest grandson; his younger grandchildren already found suitable partners. David’s past made it virtually impossible to find him a partner of similar stature. Nathaniel had no recourse but to lower his standards so long as the partner will embrace David fully. Charles Griffith, a widowed businessman from New England, fit the bill. What Nathaniel did not foresee was the chance encounter between David and Edward, a 23-year-old music teacher. The first book took the shape of a romance story wrapped up in suspense. Its conclusion seemed to allude to a structure reminiscent of Cloud Atlas.

Lipo-Wao-Nahele

Between the first book and the second book, one hundred years have elapsed. The year was 1993 but the readers find themselves in the same city and the same apartment in Washington Square Park. However, we meet a different David Bingham. He was working as a paralegal for one of the top law firms. He found himself caught in a love affair with his boss, a lawyer named Charles Griffith – the names are constant – who was older than he was. On top of their love story, the second book grappled with a seminal subject, AIDS which turned the world upside down in the late 1980s and early 1990s. AIDS, however, was never explicitly mentioned but simply referred to as “pandemic”. In this part, there existed undertones of irony. While homosexual relationships were accepted, AIDS was discussed only in hushed tones.

What distinguished the second book from its predecessor was its exploration of the history of Hawaii, the island where the author was born and raised. Laced in nostalgia and heartbreak, we learn in the second part of the book – the book had two parts – narrated by his father that David was from Hawaii. He descended from the former royal family and was called Kawika, which literally translated to David. David was in direct line to the royal throne but it no longer existed. Colonialism, driven particularly by capitalism, made the old families of Hawaii forget about their ancestry and identity, leading to the decline of the royal family. In the process, they also lost their lands. This resulted in the inevitable annexation of Hawaii by the United States. The below passage perfectly encapsulated this event.

“Or is it because you’ve let yourselves sleep, because you let yourselves forget you live in a land not of milk and honey but of sugar and sun. You’ve become complacent on it. And what’s happened while you surfed and sang and swayed your hips? Your land, your very soul, has been taken from you, bit by bit by bit, right beneath your brown noses. While you watched it happen and did nothing – nothing – to stop it. Anyone watching would think you wanted to give it all up.”

~ Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise

Zone Eight

Occupying almost one-half of the labyrinthine tale was the third book, Zone Eight. The story again zoomed forward one hundred years to 2093. The most substantial and the most extensive of the three books, Zone Eight captured vivid images of the times we are currently living in. We read of a dystopian society where a totalitarian state seized control of every facet of daily living. The rest of the world was ruled by Beijing. Every action must conform to the expectations of the state. Lifestyle was regimented and there was no liberty. There were drones hovering in the air, spying on the actions of every denizen. Procreation was regulated and enemies of the state were sterilized. The internet has been shut down and books were banned. It was a claustrophobic state where the voices of the public were muted. It was reminiscent of a literary classic, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with the horrifying images too vivid for comfort.

We experience Yanagihara’s vision of the future through the lenses of Charlie Griffith, who also happens to be the only prominent female voice in the story. Just in case you are wondering, there are also characters named David and Nathaniel in Book Three. What distinguished Book Three was its tackling of pandemics, providing for a timely discourse on the handling of pandemics and how they can potentially alter the course of the coming years. Living in the time of COVID19, the discourse was not only timely but seminal as well. Charlie was herself, a victim of one of these pandemics in 2070. Through her grandfather, Charles Griffith who was an influential scientist, an experimental drug helped cure her but with a steep price: Charlie became mentally incapacitated.

The Washington Square Park house was again the center of the story’s action. However, it has been divided into apartments, one of which was occupied by Charlie and her husband. Zone Eight was also a world where moral choices played a significant part. With lines blurred, important choices must be made. One ethical question revolved around the isolation of infected individuals: should the welfare of many be compromised for the convenience of the few? The third book was also the most engaging. There was an interplay between Charlie’s first-person point of view and the epistolary structure comprised of letters by Charles, with the earliest written in 2043. As the story moved forward and the letters got darker, we learn of how new diseases were pivotal in the rise of a totalitarian state.

What is Paradise?

Utopia was the main theme of the novel. Each of the novel’s main characters has their own understanding of what paradise means. They all wanted a better world; it was an ideal place they didn’t know they were looking for until they come across a quandary. These internal struggles made them cognizant of a change of landscape. For David of Book One, paradise meant moving to California with the person he loves despite his grandfather’s disapproval. However, to get to that conclusion, he had to make a crucial choice: the comforts of the Free States or the paradise that California and the west represented.

“What he wouldn’t know until he was much older was that no one was ever free, that to know someone and to love them was to assume the task of remembering them, even if that person was still living. No one could escape that duty, and as you aged, you grew to crave that responsibility even as you sometimes resented it, that knowledge that your life was inextricable from another’s, that a person marked their existence in part by their association with you.”

~ Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise

Paradise, however, comes at a cost. Abandoning the Free State meant diving into the heart of uncertainty. Kawika’s father would also have his own rumination. For him, paradise entailed trading heritage and his motherland being exploited; Lipo-Wao-Nahele literally means Forest Paradise. Charlie’s paradise, on the other hand, was the most logical: an escape from the totalitarian state that has suffocated her. In the end, the definition of paradise was singular. In Yanagihara’s book, paradise meant escaping the current landscape. To pursue paradise, one must set out of one’s comfort zone. In its tackling of utopia, the novel also subtly underlined the voices of those who are often excluded from our grand visions of the world. Slavery was also a recurring theme.

In a way, Yanagihara’s prose was its own form of paradise. With her third novel, she has demonstrated her capabilities as a writer. Her writing held all of the book’s complex and different elements together. Beautiful but equally powerful passages abounded throughout the novel, further underlining Yanagihara’s writing prowess. She also has this inimitable and uncanny ability to make the readers connect with the character’s thoughts and emotions. The descriptive quality of her prose made her world-building scintillating, vividly capturing the transformations that took place with the passage of time.

Ambitious Undertaking

To Paradise was labyrinthine and it didn’t take long for its weaknesses to surface. The main characters were mostly passive. The David of Book One, for instance, has a limited view of self-love which he cannot separate from the concept of romantic love. Kawika’s voice was equally weak. The representation of AAPI gay men was built on stereotypes, particularly in the second book. The story was not at par with the emotional power displayed in A Little Life. Moreover, the Cloud Atlas-like conclusion was never realized as all three books concluded in ambiguity, leaving the readers to conclude. All three books could have been published separately without affecting the overall impact of the story since the threads connecting the three parts were tenuous at best: the repeated use of names, the Washington Square park house, and homosexual relationships.

Without a doubt, To Paradise was an ambitious undertaking. While it crumbles under the weight of its ambitions, the vast landscape that Yanagihara built was nonetheless breathtaking. She grappled with several timely and seminal subjects, including homosexual relationships, the ills of capitalism, the poignancy of memory, the evils of colonialization and totalitarian states, and the weaponization of pandemics. The convergence of romance, history, and dystopia rendered the story an exciting landscape and an atmospheric setting.

Beyond all of these, the novel was about the concept of paradise but subtly woven into the story was an even more powerful and seminal message about challenging our established notions of sexuality, race, and, in general, identity. Our voices should be raised against forms of politics that seek to stymie or mute us. We should refuse to be put in a box based on narrow definitions. To Paradise had its blunders but it was, overall, a powerful homage to the times we are living in.

“He had come to realize that it was when you were dying that people most wanted things from you – they wanted you to remember, they wanted reassurance, they wanted forgiveness. They wanted acknowledgment and redemption; they wanted you to make them feel better – about the fact that you were leaving while they remained; about the fact that they hated you for leaving them and dreaded it, too; about the fact that your death was reminding them of their own inevitable one; about the fact that they were so uncomfortable that they didn’t know what to say.”

~ Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise
Ratings

56%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 
13%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

When I obtained a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life back in 2016, I didn’t have any iota of what the book was about. It was sheer curiosity that drew me into the gray image of a man who was in palpable pain. For reasons I cannot fathom, there was something about the book that stirred something within me, hence, its inclusion in my 2017 Top 20 Reading List. Lo and behold, the book was a marvelous one. Sure, trauma and abuse abounded but the emotional connection I had with the characters felt so real. When I learned late in 2021 that Yanagihara was releasing new work in 2022, I didn’t hesitate to add the book to my growing reading list. Again, I didn’t have an iota on what To Paradise was although I did read that the book confused a lot of readers. Still, I wanted to know what the blurb was about. After reading the book, I began to understand where the confusion originated. Yanagihara’s prose was still stellar. However, the story was underwhelming. The connection between the novel’s three distinct sections was ephemeral at best. It also didn’t help that most of the characters were passive. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the third book as it grappled with the most timely and seminal subjects. Despite this underwhelming experience, I still want to read Yanagihara’s first book, and her succeeding works as well.

Book Specs

Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 704
Genre: Historical, Speculative, Dystopian

Synopsis

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people live with 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 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 marvelous 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.

About the Author

To learn more about Hanya Yanagihara, click here.

References

1. Armistead, C 9 January 2022, Hanya Yanagihara: ‘I have the right to write about whatever I want’. Accessed 06 May 2022, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/jan/09/hanya-yanagihara-to-paradise-interview-a-little-life>.