It’s only taken me 3 months to read this 711-page book, with reading 6 or so books in between. Yikes. I’m really slacking this year.
I truly believe that Hanya Yanagihara is one of the best novelists of our generation, and if you’ve read a lot of my work then you know that I regard A Little Life as one of the best books I’ve ever read, and ultimately, one of the best works out there.
I also realized recently that I was one of the first people to read her first book all the way back in 2013, which was called The People In The Trees, which was also a shocking novel. It played with your emotions, and made you reconsider your stance on your morals – something that is hard to do in a world where our morals are constantly reinforced and our opinions confirmed (which is why there is such a huge divide in political systems in the world right now).
Out of the three novels by Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise just might be the spookiest, but in my humble opinion it is also the worst. In the scale being that A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I’m not saying it’s a badly written novel – not by a long shot – but I think it’s her most badly written novel.
The mammoth book is broken up into 3 separate parts (books in themselves, I suppose) which are each set around 100 years apart. The first part follows a young man named David Bingham in his quest to break away from the family name and the life already set out for him. The second details a young Hawaiian prince, also named David Bingham, having already broken away from his family, in the search of romantic love and the dealing with the grief of being estranged from his father. The third follows a young woman named Charlie, set far in the future, where pandemics rage and society looks quite different because of it.
Be forewarned: in each different part, all the characters – although being completely different characters in a different time – have the same names, so reading it altogether can be increasingly confusing as characters merge into one in the mind. At the end it becomes clear why the author has chosen to do this, although I think it is clunkily done. If your reader is confused – you have made a wrong turn.
In a novel that seems to be, at first glance, three separate stories, it comes together in parallel narratives that make you re-evaluate family heritage, following your heart, loneliness and love, the weak and the strong, doing what’s right, and above all, the idea of paradise, and what that really means.
It is slow going, and a slow burner. At first glance, To Paradise seems to be 3 separate stories, as the worlds the characters inhabit seem wildly different – yet think back to 100 years ago today. What did the world look like then? Could they have imagined our life now?
The novel is meant to be a commentary of an alternate reality of America, and at first, I couldn’t quite figure out how, considering this America had seemed to have become a hellscape version of its true self, separated into different states and territories that are very different to the 51 States we know well today. America is often considered by many to be a paradise, so it is perhaps apt that the American characters in this novel are searching for paradise that they cannot find in their own lives.
The scariest aspect of this novel is that it was written before the world had ever heard of Covid-19. When Yanagihara was proofing the final edit with her publisher, some unknown virus had just hit the news, yet it wasn’t yet clear how serious it would become. Cut to a few months later and Covid-19 had changed the face of the world we knew, and looked scarily similar to the dystopia that Yanagihara had dreamt up.
The third “book” is my favourite because it’s by far the most engaging. At first glance it seems like a wild dystopia that is at once both spookily similar to the world we know today (or knew, we are no longer in lockdown) and a world that seems authoritarian and unfamiliar to us, but as the book goes on, it becomes apparent that it’s easy to see how it got that way. Like all important changes, it comes slowly rather than all at once, and suddenly you open your eyes, and the world seems very different to how you last remember it.
If anything, it shows the stubbornness of the human race. That even though we know that the pandemic is speedily spreading through humanity, and more and more viruses like the coronavirus will continue to pop up and mutate until it becomes a way of life (monkey pox, anyone?), we still revert back to the lifestyle we know and are used to. We are creatures of habit, after all.
What become apparent during lockdown is that we have to change the way we live our lives. It’s true for climate change too – it’s only going to get worse, and our habitat will become unliveable and unviable to us if we continue the way we are going. I have no doubt that the two are related.
But what do we do? Lockdown ends, and we end up just the way we were, ignoring the problem rather than fixing it or changing the way we work. The NHS is still struggling, and banging pots and pans on Fridays didn’t change that. The world is still dying before our very eyes, yet we still buy oil to pump into our cars and buy plastic bottles of Smart Water to keep us going.
Yanagihara creates a parable that perfectly encapsulates this cycle of frustration, and it’s called “The Lizard and the Moon.” The lizard eats and eats and is always hungry, until the earth is laid bare and there is nothing for him to eat. His only option left is to eat the moon, but the moon will always rise, no matter if it’s swallowed, so once the lizard finally eats the moon, it continues to rise and the lizard explodes into dust and grit. The earth restores itself, and the process starts again, but this time with a he mea helekū – a thing that goes upright, i.e. us – who begins the process once more.
“For a long time, I assumed that it would be a virus that would destroy us all in the end, that humans would be felled by something both greater and much smaller than ourselves. Now I realise that that is not the case. We are the lizard, but we are also the moon. Some of us will die, but others of us will keep doing what we always have, continuing on our own oblivious way, doing what our nature compels us to, silent and unknowable and unstoppable in our rhythms.”-p658
By the end, it is pretty clear how America shines through (is it not currently turning into a hellscape before our very eyes?). Through small changes that have big implications. In the futuristic third novel, the narrator’s lover gets mad at him over his fear that homosexuality will become outlawed, and is afraid that he – a gay man – may have created the future that has allowed these violation of rights to happen.
“When I once suggested the inevitable conclusion – that, despite the Committee’s promises, the Marriage Act will only lead to the eventual criminalization of gayness on moral grounds – he contradicted me with such a fury that I had no choice but to gather my things and leave. “What’s the point of that?” he asked me, again and again, and when I said that the point was the same wherever and whenever homosexuality was criminalized – to create a useful scapegoat on whom the fortunes of a faltering state could be blamed – he accused me of being bitter and cynical.”-p640
Didn’t a man (who shall not be named, he knows who he is) on the Supreme Court the other day mention that it is his goal to “restore” the sanctity of marriage to heterosexual marriages only? Isn’t this absurdly similar to the banning of abortion, and retraction of women’s rights?
Shortly after on page 649, the narrator muses that perhaps:
“…our internalised shame and guilt at being unable to reproduce had led to a dangerous kind of compensatory patriotism.”
Isn’t this exactly a reflection of America right now? What dystopia of America? This is America NOW. In our divided world, what paradise really means to some is meaningless to others, and the search for it to spread to others is futile if it all is not aligned in tandem.
Sure, I don’t think On Paradise is Yanagihara’s best work, but it is a look into what America could become in a parallel universe, or in a hundred years’ time, maybe our own, too, in our increasingly divided world on what paradise really means. Does it exist? Is it worth trying to find out?