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The first question most readers will have about Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel, to paradise, is whether it repeats the appeal of her surprising bestseller, 2015’s A little life. The answer is no or not much. A polarizing doorstep that begins as a four-college-friends-in-New-York soap opera and turns into a saga about the extensive physical, sexual, and emotional breakdowns of a character named Jude St. Francis, A little life has a cloistered, obsessive quality reminiscent of fanfiction. It is the rare product of a complex, acute private fantasy life that successfully communicates the intensity of this life on the page. When I read it, I was often reminded of a fanfiction subgenre known as “wound / comfort”, where a character’s suffering provides a pure emotional gain when the character’s beloved rushes to comfort him, as Willem does for Jude again and again in A little life.
The fetishistic aspect of this scenario means that it fascinates some readers while exposing others, sometimes to a point of moral indignation. But the literature is full of fetishistic charms of one kind or another. It is one of the things that makes it comfortable and we all have our own preferences. With the wound / comfort, the tension is not (typically) sadistic. It’s just that the extremes of the wounded character’s misery are required to remove the greatest worry, tenderness and care from the comforting character, close the circle, and confirm their love. That’s what makes it a story, because the eroticism in the wound / comfort is an eroticism of story, not pain.
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With to paradise, Yanagihara toys, dominatrix style, with her readers’ desire for narrative fulfillment. The novel consists of three “books”, each almost the length of the average novel, the first and third of which create considerable tension about what will happen to their central characters and then refuse to solve it. All three parts are to varying degrees inspired by the short Henry James novel Washington Square. This is most evident in the first part, which is set as Washington Square, in New York City in the late 1800s. To Paradise‘s alternative version of the city, however, belongs to a political entity called the Free States, where same-sex marriages are common and women practice the same occupations as men. Other parts of the North American continent, which are divided into different nations, are not so enlightened.
Like Washington Square,To Paradise is basically about class. For David Bingham, the central character of the 19th century part of the novel, his family’s wealth and status is both a fortress and a prison. Binghams not just have money, they have old money, and arranged marriages within their set are not remarkable. Unlike his enterprising married siblings, David is enterprising and psychologically fragile. David, along with the grandfather who raised him after his parents’ death, refers to his “confinements,” which sound like the downward fluctuations of bipolar disorder. David is safe in the townhouse in Washington Square, where he lives with his grandfather, but he is isolated from the rewards of life as well as its risks. Until, that is, he meets Edward, a charming bohemian music teacher he falls in love with. Edward invites David to help start a silk farm in California, but David’s grandfather, who has found evidence that Edward is a fortune hunter , threatens to make David hereditary if he accepts. To complicate matters, the two men will have to hide their relationship on the west coast, where homosexuality is illegal.
With to paradise, Yanagihara plays with her readers’ desire for narrative fulfillment.
Despite some clumsy and anachronistic language, this is the most engaging of To Paradise‘s three parts, and it is with a frustrating wrench that the reader submits to the transition to Book II, which takes place in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis. Book III is set in the middle and end of 21st century in which America has been reduced to a totalitarian dystopia after a series of pandemics. Throughout, the Washington Square House serves as a haven, provided by a loving older figure who nevertheless separates a younger, protected person from some essential vitality. Characters named David, Edward, and Charles (an adoring older suitor rejected by David Bingham in Book I) recur in ever-changing patterns. In Book II, David is a younger Hawaiian native who lives in New York with his older lover, Charles, and mourns his father, also called David, who fell, catastrophically, under the spell of a radical Hawaiian nationalist named Edward. . Both of these Davids are descendants of the Hawaiian royal family, who are deposed by Western colonists, rich and privileged among their own people, but also trapped in an outdated identity. In Book III, a Hawaiian epidemiologist named Charles accepts a prestigious job in New York that will ultimately ruin him as he oversees the establishment of containment camps for the infected.
This kaleidoscope of Davids, Edwards and Charleses is posted by two stories of people having to choose between security and insecurity, whether they want to stay home or strike out after the unknown. Yanagihara apparently despises simplified imperatives. Perhaps the ambitious epidemiologist should have stayed in Hawaii, where he would have died in a pandemic, but not ended up with blood on his hands, and perhaps the Hawaiian prince should have left the islands, where he “knew that what I was would always be more significant than who I was – yes, what I was was the only thing that made me who I was at all significant. ” This choice feels most sharply drawn for the novel’s original David, which is located between Washington Square and what sounds like a pretty bad bid in the original Edward, but convinced that “This was happy, this was life, ”when he was in his lover’s arms.
The novel ends with Charlie, the granddaughter of the epidemiologist, also in the middle of the adventure. As a child, she survived the “disease” thanks to a substance that changed her physically and mentally, leaving scars on her skin and dampening her emotions and spirit. Even as her grandfather mourns this loss, he wonders if it might actually be a blessing that perhaps “her lack of affection is a kind of pride,” or that she has “evolved and become the kind of person who is better suited” to our time and our place. ” The future New York in Book III is a relentlessly grim place where food and water are rationed and books and television are banned. In this world, no one would want to feel more than a drone does, especially when Charlie’s grandfather reflects, “If we have lived, it is because we are worse than we ever thought ourselves to be, no better. “We are the leftovers, the waste, the rats fighting for bits of rotten food, the people who chose to stay on earth, while those who are better and wiser than we are have left.”
But Charlie is offered one out. Will she make it? It is only fair to warn potential readers about To Paradise that those who, with the fate of the original David, will never know it. Yanagihara will even mock them for it. Charlie listens to a storyteller who tells a story “about a man who had lived here, on this very island, on this very place 200 years ago, and who had left his family great riches to follow the person he loved all the way to. California, a person his family was sure would betray him, “but the storyteller is arrested by the authorities, leaving her for years wondering what happened. It’s Yanagihara’s merit. To Paradise arouses such a desire in its readers, even though the novel is too broad and diverse to satisfy the wounded / comfort fans who worshiped A little life. Leaving this desire unsatisfied, however, seems hoarse and even a little cruel. Seven hundred and twenty pages gives a very long tease.
By Hanya Yanagihara. Double day.
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