By Helen T. Verongos Special for the Post-Dispatch
When “A Little Life” arrives in 2015, the novel’s intimacy is so intense that it leaves its author – and its fictional characters – vulnerable to criticism, even derision. For some, the fate of Jude, the abused protagonist, was so dark it was unbearable.
Similarly, the emotional weight of Hanya Yanagihara’s second book flattened readers who felt connected to Jude. As a child, when he sought security, he found cruelty. When an oasis of hope appeared, it turned out to be another, more savage attacker determined to break it. Readers who have felt or seen the effects of this kind of trauma and debasement might feel empathy for Jude and gratitude for Yanagihara’s unflinching authenticity. She understood.
His new novel “To Paradise”, however, is another story, spanning centuries and only illuminating the lives of its myriad characters at a glance. It has similarities, however, in that the important characters are almost exclusively male and gay.
The first of three heavy sections is set in 1890s Manhattan, centering on the Bingham family’s Washington Square mansion in an alternate America. Child orphans, David Bingham, his brother and sister lived with their grandfather, Nathaniel, a banker and founding pillar of the Free States. They live in one of the mosaics of autonomous regions formed when the South, having lost the civil war, seceded anyway. The grandfather and the children are all homosexual.
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While David’s siblings are married and have children, he remains single, introverted, and prone to periodic illnesses, possibly emotional in nature, that keep him bedridden in his grandfather’s house. While the others have careers, he only works briefly in the family business, then goes into charity work. On occasion, he dates a suitable potential partner arranged for him, but only half-heartedly.
But when his life takes a sharp turn, he learns that his freedoms have limits. He falls in love with a man who is handsome, attractive and, by his grandfather’s standards, utterly unacceptable. His grandfather prefers a duller, less than dashing match, Charles Griffith, who is generous and kind and misused by David.
David, the heir to the house, must choose between his family and his love. One offers security and the other a future in the uncharted territory of California.
The middle book of “To Paradise,” set in the 20th century, bounces between Hawaii and New York. It opens during the AIDS crisis, with a wealthy lawyer Charles Griffith becoming close to a young man in the office, David Bingham. David, somewhat awkwardly, settles into the rarefied surroundings of Charles, where a butler, caterers and florists set the stage for dinner parties with sophisticated friends. (These characters share names with those in Book 1, but their connection, if any, is unclear.)
David is from Hawaii, but does not talk about it, where his royal family is, or was, before becoming a state. The Hawaiian backdrop shimmers from generation to generation, sometimes too quickly, plunging into arts and culture subsumed by statehood; the xenophobia that stratifies families there; and seismic fractures caused by these forces.
The glimpses of David growing up with his father are particularly intriguing and seem essential to the puzzle that is the overall story. The father is strangely passive and prone to convulsions and illnesses. He loses custody of David when he follows a savage friend on a misguided quest to establish a new monarchy on a remote and inhospitable coast. The passages that the father tells us are difficult to grasp. It is unclear whether the father is an unreliable narrator, a victim of delusions, or both.
Book 3 moves to a late 21st century so austere that thirsty people pluck leaves from trees in Washington Square to make tea. Food, such as horse meat and nutria, is strictly rationed, as well as pleasures such as books. This section is also filled with David and Charles and other familiar names from previous books, although my attempts to draw a family have come to no definite conclusion.
This time there is an original female character, Charlie Bingham-Griffith. She grew up under the care of her grandfather, Charles Griffith, a virologist working for the (increasingly) totalitarian state. He cares for little Charlie during one of the serial pandemics that claimed the lives of thousands of children. An unprecedented treatment spares her life, but its side effects dull the contours of this bright, curious and talkative child, while disfiguring her skin and damaging her hair. His grandfather tries to compensate for his losses with complementary therapies.
As a young woman, Charlie is further limited by the fact that her father, a revolutionary, has been declared an enemy of the state. Pulled out of college before graduation, she works in a lab and, thanks to her grandfather, she has a husband, found through a marriage broker, in a match designed for her. protection.
In the epistolary part of this section, consisting of the grandfather’s letters to a friend in London, pages and pages of exposition unfold the very detailed inner thoughts and regrets of the correspondent. Instead of reading some bureaucrat’s backpedal in letters whose answers we never see, I’d much rather spend more time inside Charlie’s head as she seriously maneuvers a world that bewilders her.
“To Paradise” contains many issues and ideas as it expands in time and space. Many strands are never neatly linked or even revisited, which is not an unexpected technique in American fiction. But in this case, most of the characters are abandoned before we’re ready to see them go, and their fates remain unclear.
Despite its flaws, none of which are fatal, this sweeping job does not disappoint, but rather leaves me wanting more. Paradise would be three fully developed novels in an interlocking series designed to hold it all together.
Helen Verongos is an editor at The New York Times. (She doesn’t know Yanagihara, who is editor of T Magazine at The Times.)