To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s vast, complex follow-up to her Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, is a novel of many faces. I could tell you, for instance, that it’s about colonialism and racism in America today; or that it’s a queer counterfactual history (and future) that asks what would happen if sexuality were destigmatised (and then restigmatised); or an elegy for the lost kingdom of Hawaii. Most readers, I think, will concentrate on the book’s longest section, the third, in which Yanagihara writes of a series of pandemics and the way they reshape society in the decades ahead.
To Paradise is arranged in three discrete but interrelated parts. The first, Washington Square, is set in the 1890s in a fictional New York. History has gone through a delicious skew, so that the north-eastern states have seceded from the rest of the US, part of a more general post-civil war rearrangement. Our hero for this section is David Bingham, the dreamy and foppish scion of a banking empire. He lives with his grandfather, Nathaniel, in a beautiful house in Washington Square. The “Free States” based their independence on the question of gay marriage – it seems that, with all stigma stripped away from homosexuality, around half of the citizens choose same-sex relationships.
This section is in essence a love story, as David, “still almost-young”, falls for the 23-year-old Edward, a music teacher. There is another potential suitor for David: the bluff, genial Charles Griffiths, a New Englander. As David attempts to choose between the two men, Nathaniel Bingham looks into Edward’s past and finds that all may not be as it seems. David is faced with a choice: the certainty of life in the Free States or a journey westwards, to California, to paradise.
The second part of the book, Lipo-Wao-Nahele is itself divided in two sections. The first is about another David Bingham, this one a junior paralegal carrying out a semi-illicit affair with his boss, the wealthy Charles Griffiths. It is the 1980s, deep in the heart of a pandemic (which we presume is Aids – it is never named). Even from Griffiths’s opulent Washington Square home (the house is one of the constants in the novel), there is the sense of a city under siege. Yanagihara has always been brilliant on the trappings of the good life, but here there’s an almost fetishistic caressing of material goods, a celebration of luxury as necessity at a time of crisis.
We discover in this second section that David Bingham is “from one of the oldest families in Hawai’i… If things had gone differently, I would have been king.” David is Kawika, heir to a throne that no longer exists. The dark history of the US annexation of Hawaii is too complex to unpack here, but it is one of the key themes running through the novel; how American capitalism warped and curdled Hawaii’s sense of itself. The drifting, gentle David/Kawika, and the narrator of the second half of this section, Wika, David’s damaged and dying father, are collateral damage in this half-forgotten act of colonialism.
The final part of the novel is Zone Eight. Again, the section is split in two, although these two parts interweave and reflect upon each other. One thread is set in the 2090s, two centuries after the novel opens, and is narrated by Charlie, who we learn is a survivor of one of the terrible zoonotic pandemics that swept the globe in the course of the 21st century. She is a strangely blank, affectless character: she fell ill as a child in the pandemic of 2070 and the experimental drug that was used to cure her has half-destroyed her mind. Charlie lives, again, on Washington Square, although the house has been divided into apartments. The world is ruled from Beijing and all the marks of classic dystopia are there: the internet has been shut down, the press is state-controlled, books are banned, the secret police spy on people using insect drones.
This narrative is intercut with letters from another Charles Griffiths, Charlie’s father, who is writing to Peter, a fellow scientist in “New Britain”. His letters begin in 2043 and take us through the dark years of the second half of the 21st century, where each new wave of disease becomes an excuse for increasingly totalitarian modes of control. It’s brilliant and horrifying in equal measure, particularly if, like me, you’re temperamentally disinclined to worry too much about the loss of freedoms in the face of a pandemic. I’m not about to burn masks in Parliament Square, but this is a novel that really forces you to examine your woolly liberal assumptions about the motives behind lockdowns.
Put together, the three sections of the novel combine to deliver a series of powerful statements about progress and utopia, about those who are excluded from our visions of a better world. Yanagihara asks us in particular to move beyond binary configurations of sexuality, race and health, to challenge any political movement that seeks to privilege one group or another based on narrow definitions of identity. We are all multiple selves in the world of To Paradise.
Nabokov said that names carry “coloured shadows” in a novel and the repetition of names across the three sections is on one level quite simple: this is a multigenerational family saga, showing how fortunes rise and fall over centuries, questioning the idea of inheritance and examining ideas of family that extend beyond blood ties. There’s something more than this, though, something that chips away at the verisimilitude of the novel, that asks us to engage in a complicated way with the very idea of characters in a book: these are figures facing similar challenges in different times, but the points of correspondence reveal essential truths about what it means to be human at a time of crisis.
Sometimes literature takes time to digest momentous events: the great novels of the Napoleonic wars, of the Holocaust, of the plague, weren’t published until decades after the episodes they describe. Occasionally, though, a masterpiece emerges from the white heat of the moment: The Great Gatsby, The Decameron, The Waste Land. There’s something miraculous about reading To Paradise while the coronavirus crisis is still playing out around us, the dizzying sense that you’re immersed in a novel that will come to represent the age, its obsessions and anxieties. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to review a masterpiece, but To Paradise, definitively, is one.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is published by Pan Macmillan (£20, AU$32.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply