Hanya Yanagihara's Haunted America
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
Her new novel experiments with alternative versions of history, upending personal and national destinies.
By Jordan Kisner, Illustration by Soomyeong Kim

While reading To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s gigantic new novel, I felt the impulse a few times to put down the book and make a chart—the kind of thing you see TV detectives assemble on their living-room walls when they have a web of evidence but no clear theory of the case. To Paradise, which is in fact three linked novels bound in a single volume, is constructed something like a soma cube, with plots that interlock but whose unifying logic and mechanisms are designed to baffle. The first book, “Washington Square,” takes place in the early 1890s in a New York City that the reader quickly realizes is off-kilter. There the prominent Bingham family runs the primary bank of the Free States, one of a patchwork of nations (including the southern Colonies, the Union, the West, and the North) sustaining an uneasy coexistence after the War of Rebellion. In the Free States, homosexuality and gay marriage are perfectly ordinary, but Black people are not welcomed as citizens—the Free States are white, and committed only to giving Black people safe passage to the North and the West. David, the sickly grandson of the Bingham clan, falls in love with a poor musician named Edward, though his grandfather is attempting to arrange his marriage to a steady older man named Charles.

Book 2, “Lipo-Wao-Nahele,” also follows a David Bingham, this time a young Hawaiian man living with his older lover, Charles, in the same house on Washington Square owned by the Binghams in the previous book. David is a descendant of the last monarch of Hawaii, whose legacy is defended by a Hawaiian-independence movement. It is the 1990s, and AIDS is ravaging David and Charles’s world in New York, an erasure of a generation that is counterposed to David’s ambivalent denial of his homeland, his lineage, and his father— who narrates half the book.

Book 3, which, at nearly 350 pages, constitutes almost half of the entire novel, tells the story of a United States that slides into a totalitarian dictatorship in response to recurrent pandemics and climate disasters. “Zone Eight,” as it’s titled, unfolds from 2043 to 2094, again in Greenwich Village (now Zone Eight), and is narrated, alternately, by Charles, a Hawaiian-born virologist and influential adviser to the government, and Charlie, the daughter of Charles’s son, David. Charlie survived one pandemic as a child but lives with lasting neurological effects. These are, I promise, the barest possible bones of the trilogy.

To Paradise, though its plots are too various and intricate to even begin to capture in summary, moves smoothly and quickly. Yanagihara’s previous novel, A Little Life, also a bulky page-turner, amassed critical praise and a near-frantic fandom on the strength of her gift for mapping deeply felt lives on an epic scale, and for dramatizing the way that people are driven, and failed, by their love for one another. To Paradise shares these qualities. Yet Yanagihara avoids the gratuitous violence and abjection that set the tone of A Little Life, a dark saga of four college friends who make their tormented way into middle age. To Paradise is a softer book, with a classic, almost old-fashioned set of plot arcs (a wealthy, fragile man is taken in by an opportunistic lover; a father longs for the son he alienated; utopian dreams produce a dystopia). It is executed with enough deftness and lush detail that you just about fall through it, like a knife through layer cake.

BUT WHAT is Yanagihara doing with all these Davids and Charleses?

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