The reason I really chose this place was because of its name: Davids Island. Not singular – David’s – but many, as if this land were inhabited not by an ever-changing population of (mostly) children, but by Davids. My son, in duplicate, at all different ages, doing all the things my son had liked to do at various points in his life. … There would be no misunderstandings, no concerns that the younger Davids might be somehow different, somehow strange, because the older Davids would understand them. There would be no loneliness, because… they would only know one another… they would never know the agony of wanting to be someone else, for there was no one else to admire, no one else to envy.
Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise has already attracted wildly divergent critical reactions – everything from ‘it’s a masterpiece’ to ‘it’s a boring, incoherent mess’. I suspect that even among those of us who like this novel, there will be little common ground. Yanagihara gives us so much to think with that we’re bound to come out thinking very different things.
To Paradise consists of two novellas and a novel. The first, ‘Washington Square’, is set in an alternative version of our nineteenth century where the territories that make up the United States are configured differently, with a few northeastern states making up the ‘Free States’, where same-sex marriages are legal and acceptable but white supremacy still rules. The second, ‘Lipo-Wao-Nahele’, starts with a young gay man weathering the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s Manhattan, but flashes back to tell the story of his father, a descendant of the last king of Hawai’i, who is convinced by a charismatic friend to try and start a new community on a scrappy bit of land that still belongs to him. The third, ‘Zone Eight’, flashes back and forward in a pandemic-ravaged twenty-first century, narrated alternately by a grandfather and his granddaughter living in an increasingly totalitarian state. The links between these three sections are delicate and speculative rather than solid, and I can understand why many readers have found this frustrating. Why do protagonists called David and Charles continually reoccur, alongside secondary characters called Edward, Peter and Eden? Does it matter that all three narratives centre on a house in Washington Square? However, I like questionably interconnected stories (Nina Allan’s work also comes to mind), and the way it’s left to the readers to figure out their own theories about why these three stories sit together.
One big clue, I think, is in the passage I quoted at the start of the review. All three stories feature narrators whom Yanagihara is careful not to label as cognitively disabled or mentally ill, but, for their different reasons, are unable to interact with the world with the kind of motivation felt by a ‘normal’ person. Yanagihara suggests that there are possible worlds in which these disconnected, directionless people would be happy, but that society is not built for them, and so they are cursed to eternal loneliness or to desperately seeking human connection, whatever the cost. The reader’s own impatience with these characters is, I think, part of the point; breaking all the ‘rules’ of fiction-writing, they are characters without agency, who let life happen to them. However, I don’t think this is just about how we treat social outcasts or what kind of sympathy we owe them, although those themes are present. As each of these characters is taken to their own version of ‘paradise’ at the end of their book, Yanagihara shows us how seductive the idea of surrendering control and letting someone else decide our destiny is, even for those of us who think we are moving steadily onwards into the future we planned. This is perhaps especially the case when the world is falling apart; as Charles, the once hugely-ambitious grandfather in ‘Zone Eight’, reflects as his society descends into chaos, ‘The past is no longer relevant; the future has failed to materialise’.
Having said this, I think I would agree with other critics that there is a problem in the structure of To Paradise. I found the second section by far the weakest (I struggled to get through it, whereas the other two had me gripped), and I’m still not clear why Yanagihara included the lengthy party sequence, which seems divorced from the broader themes of the novel except insofar as it deals with impending death. While the segment at Lipo-Wao-Nahele was much more thematically relevant, I’m relieved it wasn’t any longer, as I found it almost too miserable to read (which leads me off on a bit of a tangent about books being ‘depressing’ or ‘miserable’; for me, the presence of terrible events in a novel does not automatically make it depressing, whereas novels that are about very banal things can feel blackly awful. A Little Life was absolutely heartbreaking, for example, but I didn’t find it as grim as Lipo-Wao-Nahele).
There have also been a number of reviews that suggest that Yanagihara presents yet another cliched dystopia in ‘Zone Eight’, and that this section brings nothing new to the table. While I’m very sympathetic to those who hate literary writers appropriating SF tropes and pretending they’ve reinvented the wheel (I’m looking at you Ian McEwan), I felt Yanagihara’s approach here was closer to Ishiguro’s strategy in Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun – the granddaughter’s blank affect even mimics Ishiguro’s prose style. The worldbuilding is not especially detailed – although Yanagihara is horribly convincing on strategies for containment of a global pandemic – but I don’t think it was intended to be. What Yanagihara does so well here, especially in the grandfather’s sections, is to show how a society gradually descends into dystopia rather than starting with the dystopia itself. And, unlike many boring dystopian novels I’ve read, she’s not afraid to find elements of the utopic within the dystopia – as the grandfather reflects, there is a place and a purpose for his granddaughter in this society, whereas there might not have been had she lived elsewhen. A world of ‘Davids’ would have no hope, no joy, but it might also have less longing, less pain.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.