Monday, February 14, 2022

Microreview: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Three looks at the nightmarish side of the American Dream

The multi-timeline epic saga is in vogue these days. However, even if this is still a somewhat nascent tradition, what Hanya Yanagihara has done in her new novel To Paradise is already a leap forward. Very much unlike such established referents as The Actual Star or Cloud Cuckoo Land, the characters in each section of To Paradise are not directly connected to one another: they are not descendants, or reincarnations, or admirers, or followers of previous characters. The three timelines might not even share the same world. So, instead of reading this novel as one continuous plot across three centuries, one could read it as a mythical cycle, a retelling of itself with a common cast of characters repeatedly cast in archetypal slots. What links these timelines is not causal succession, but thematic resonance.

The three sections of To Paradise are actually telling the same story: the story of America's contradictory nature as the place that makes you want in, but would rather keep you out. The choice of setting is indicative of that tension: on one hand, New York City, the symbol of America par excellence, the iconic entry point for newcomers from the whole world, and at the same time a dizzyingly elitist competitive jungle; on the other hand, Hawaii, the last piece of land snatched by America's insatiable hunger, and thus a place where painful questions of belonging, welcoming, rootlessness and exclusion are still part of living memory.

America is still too drunk on its own myth, too reluctant to look at itself honestly. It takes an outsider (or, in this case, an American who has spent her life being treated like an outsider) to present America with this unflattering mirror. For Yanagihara, this was a book she simply couldn't not write.

In the first section, set in 1893, the sensitive and pampered David, the eldest and only unmarried heir of a banking dynasty descended from the revered founders of a queer utopia in New York, is torn between the gentlemanly and predictable love of Charles, the respectable suitor his grandfather has found for him, and the spontaneous and volcanic love of Edward, a penniless musician who may or may not be bad news for his family's fortune and reputation.

In the second section, set in 1993, another David, the last member of the Hawaiian royal lineage (not that anyone would care to ask him about it or believe him if he spoke) is a joyless paralegal at a New York law firm, not quite settled among the inaccessible social elite of his absurdly privileged boyfriend/boss Charles, and secretly ashamed of the childlike simplicity of his estranged father, who let himself be dragged, years earlier, into the utopian nationalist deliriums of another Edward.

In the third section, set in 2093, our last David, a disaffected youngster pushed by racist bullying to the dangerous road of political extremism, is seldom present in the plot, but the evidence the reader gathers of his thoughtless actions suffices to explain the lasting consequences endured by his father Charles and his daughter Charlie, who try their best to keep a clean conscience as willing accomplices of an authoritarian dystopia.

Each section is told from one primary perspective that corresponds to its present time and one secondary perspective that provides extensive backstory. In 1893, it's via personal letters and detective reports; in 1993, it's in a lengthy internal monologue; in 2093, it's through clandestine confessional mail. These commentaries take up a sizable portion of the novel, but they're integral to building a full picture of the events. We learn the deep reasons for grudges our main characters are loath to admit, and the true stakes behind choices other characters find indefensible. There's no action without a cost, and a question that persists across the novel is whether making it in America is ultimately worth it.

In each section, the main character has to give up the benefits of family origins in order to pursue their own form of happiness. This requisite of renunciation becomes one of the key themes of the novel. The spiel America likes to tell about itself says that it's founded on the rejection of aristocracy, and that all merits it offers shall be earned with effort. To Paradise suggests that the myth twists what really happens: America demands that you give up something precious about yourself, and buy into the search for a dubious mirage, before it will consider welcoming you. This can refer to any individual who tries to become American, but also, in the second section of the novel, to the process by which Hawaii became American.

In her interview with Goodreads, Yanagihara explained that she chose the title To Paradise to openly challenge America's claim to be one. The taint of sin in America's heart ("One group of people sent away from their land; another group of people stolen from their land") runs against the myth that America is any sort of refuge that everyone ought to aspire to reach. To become American is therefore to accept a part in that taint of sin. Worse still, there's no escaping it: as the second section of the novel implies, to attempt to build your own American Dream apart from America is to fall into the same trap.

It's one thing to pursue happiness; that's a universal human impulse. But the danger of America, in every century, is that it pushes people to take unreasonable risks in order to feel accepted, to attain a semblance of belonging. America is hard to impress. And people who have been told enough times that they will never belong may look for other, less advisable spaces to fulfill that need. One of the key points this novel makes is that those less advisable spaces are no less part of America than polite society. If, like Anna Karenina, each unhappy society is unhappy in its own way, the special cruelty of the social system that is America is that it teaches you to desire the utmost recognition and prestige, and then punishes you for not having it.

It's curious to see how starkly divided the reception of To Paradise has been. In the unfavorable reviews, a common thread can be discerned: a lamentable unwillingness to receive the novel in the terms it sets for itself. The New Republic asserts that it "shows little interest in the big questions it asks," but that reproach comes from applying to the novel a rigid set of political expectations it never promised to play by. To Paradise is a story that uses individual characters to explore a collective theme. We can debate how effectively that device works, or doesn't, but it's unfair to fault it for using the device in the first place. The review in The New Republic looks at these characters crushed by circumstance and stretched thin between competing desires and mistakes them for "flattened characters."

Another unfair accusation is that To Paradise fails to deliver a resolution for its three timelines. According to the Irish Independent, "Like all ambitious, utopian projects, it feels nothing like Utopia, really." AV Club complains, "What’s almost lost in all the noise is that none of the characters ever make it there." In Slate we read, "Seven hundred and twenty pages makes for a very long tease." All three agree, in similar wording, that To Paradise demands too much of the reader in proportion to the (supposedly) meager reward it offers.

What these remarks allude to is the fact that each section of To Paradise ends just before the main character takes the decisive step that will seal their fate, so we never know whether their desire for heaven on earth is fulfilled. What is it, reader: the lady, or the tiger? However, to focus on plot resolution is to analyze this novel on the most literal level, and that's not the level at which ambiguous endings operate. To find the same device three times should have been enough of a hint that Yanagihara is trying to say something more important than the conclusion of a particular journey. For a novel about the experience of loneliness and rejection in America, it's only fitting that the denial of satisfaction is part of its aesthetic arsenal. The outsider's experience in America is defined by never being certain of your place, never knowing for sure whether you've "made it," never reaching a stable condition. The way each section of the novel ends serves to convey a fleeting sample of a sensation that is much more long-lasting for those whose survival depends on earning the approval of American society.

What Yanagihara achieves with this structural choice is to make the reader feel the same uncertainty, anxiety and frustration that afflict her characters. You're supposed to feel uneasy about America's seductive promise. It's not a defect of the novel; it's its core message. This is the reason why the most absurd criticism made of To Paradise is the one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, which has the embarrassingly wrongheaded title, "Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel proves her reputation for ‘empathy’ is all wrong." The article joins the peculiar ongoing trend of accusing Yanagihara of torturing her characters for perverse fun. I can't speak for her previous novels, which I haven't read, but To Paradise is an emotionally and morally aware story through and through. If it's difficult to read, it's because it follows aesthetic conventions of an earlier era of novel writing. This is a novel that sincerely means what it says, no tricks hidden up its sleeve.

Maybe it's what it says that has rendered literary reviewers so disoriented.

The characters of To Paradise face the fundamental injustice that the path to happiness exacts an unacceptably high toll. To remain where it seems safe means to forgo their unique individuality; to chase after a dream means to open themselves to every form of hostility. In the queer utopia of 1893, "the house felt oppressive [...] a place that possessed him as much as he did it." In the sophisticated decadence of 1993, "life was something that David wasn't experiencing but was, rather, having bestowed upon him." In the totalitarian prison state of 2093, "their happiness would be complete, because they would never know the agony of wanting to be someone else."

The malaise that pervades these three eras is the self-negation demanded of those who would aspire to America. To earn a place in America, to truly become American, is to drastically deform yourself into something you no longer recognize. But the alternative isn't any more tolerable: if you try to keep true to yourself, America will never stop reminding you that you're a wrong version of you.

In 1893, David can be said to have been born in the best possible circumstances: he has all the money, prestige and safety he could wish for. What bothers him is that the free republic that solved homophobia has not solved classism, which prevents him from living in full honesty. His society is more divided and restrictive than it proclaims, and ends up failing the promise of freedom even for the most privileged. The situation becomes so impossible that David finds he will have to exit the safest place in the world for gay people in order to take control of his life. Paradise just comes with too many conditions.

In 1993, this other David resents the years his father lost in a quest to restore the Hawaiian kingdom in an empty lot of land that would never grow food or sustain a dwelling. Hawaii didn't ask America to come to it, but it came anyway, and Hawaii was dragged into the American experiment, and what that meant for Hawaiians is that their own projects suddenly became irrelevant. This is a different kind of relationship to paradise: it's a paradise that takes its desirability for granted, regardless of what you have to say about it. But what does David want? He doesn't know. He was never allowed to explore that question on his own. His father tried to build his own miniature paradise, and failed in the most shameful way. At least David had the courage to leave, but what is left for him in mainstream society is to try to fit, never perfectly, in a space that was not made for him.

In 2093, Charlie is prisoner of decisions she didn't make. The gradual rise of dystopia through successive lethal pandemics has ended up trapping her as a cog in the machine of state repression. Her grandfather was declared a public enemy by one regime, and her father likewise by another, and her position now is one of precarious immobility. However, her grandfather has made sure that she can be the kind of person who can thrive in this environment. She has a good job and a kind husband, she obeys the rules and respects the system, but she still needs to do the hard work of realizing that's not what happiness consists of. There are forms of happiness she has never known are possible. There are other, freer ways of living she has never known exist out there.

At one point, her grandfather writes, "I have always wondered how people knew it was time to leave a place."

A key part of becoming American is leaving your old place, both physically and mentally. The tacit assumption in the Americanization process is that you're never going to need to leave America, but that's the unspeakable scenario Yanagihara broaches in this novel. When is America too much to bear? When does it start asking too much of you? How much of yourself do you have to lose in order to turn into the kind of person who can thrive in America?

Several times in this novel, characters fantasize about another life they'd rather be living. Their dead friends are back, their unruly children are polite, their faraway parents are just within reach. It sounds so simple when put like that. It sounds so doable.

If only.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +2 for an uncompromising artistic vision.

Penalties: −1 for some, let's say, strange choices of wording.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Yanagihara, Hanya. To Paradise [Doubleday, 2022].