Many a reader wondered how Hanya Yanagihara, part-time novelist and full-time editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, would step from the long shadow of her 2015 sensation A Little Life. Would she continue to write about gay men in New York? (As it turns out, yes.) Who suffer? (Of course.) Most importantly, would her long-awaited follow-up conjure the emotional gravity of its predecessor?
Where A Little Life cast an unblinking spotlight on loss, Yanagihara’s newest work To Paradise treads the boundaries of despair, piloting characters to various precipices before abandoning their futures to conjecture. The loss here is implied rather than explicit, but possibly a cause for optimism.
Told in a narrative triptych, To Paradise is broken up into three sections, each separated by a century. In the first, 1890s New York is one of nine “Free States” making up an alternate Northeastern Seaboard – one where gay marriage has been legalized yet patriarchal obedience still rules the day. In the second, Yanagihara details an uneven romance in 1990s white-collar Manhattan, as well as a shortsighted and ultimately tragic Hawaiian sovereignty movement based on Oahu.
In the course of these two acts, Yanagihara exhibits her distinct ability to spin plot-driven tales brimming with interior life. Invoking the Beats, she describes a character’s desire to be “drunk and wild and hopeless, his life burning away, with no one to have dreams for him, not even himself.” Describing the features of an aged and “mesmerizingly ugly” past love, she writes, “It was as if every aspect of his face was determined to be a soloist, rather than a member of an ensemble.”
Despite some early peaks, it’s the final act of To Paradise – one incorporating approximately half of its 700 pages – that will stick with readers. Though the novelist completed much of this novel prior to the pandemic, her closing section echoes the ravages of COVID-19, and recounts lockdown conditions in excruciating detail. Set in a disease-ravaged and thoroughly dystopian America, Yanagihara’s finale leaves us with a sour aftertaste. According to the author, if our world were assaulted by three or four more pandemics, the national order would crumble to dust. Indeed, it practically took just one.