By Hanya Yanagihara
Can an Asian American Woman Write a Great American Novel? Should a great American novel go from New York to Hawaii, skipping the Midwest? Can he go from realism to dystopia? And – most important of all, perhaps – can he focus on gay men?
It is to Hanya Yanagihara’s credit that her new novel raises these questions. At over 700 pages, with a duration of 200 years, “To Paradise” begins in New York in 1893. We are given a patriarch, wealth, children; there is an arranged marriage, an inheritance, true love, a class divide, and a significant twist. Skilfully paced and judiciously detailed, the tale is authentic with the conventions of the nineteenth century novel. But that’s not all. With breathtaking audacity, Yanagihara rewrites America, the Civil War having produced, in this narrative, not a united country but a conglomerate of territories, including one called the Free States. In this nation within the nation, same-sex marriage is allowed – although, to qualify the picture, arranged marriages are also allowed.
Yanagihara continues to rewrite history in other centuries as well, even as she moves the action from New York to Hawaii and back again, negotiates three major and nine minor time lags, and, most strikingly, brings her characters out of focus. the stage to bring them back, to other times and in other forms, again and again. To give just one of many examples, David Bingham, the heir to a mansion in Part I, returns a century later as a legal assistant, passionately in love with a certain Charles Griffith. (We’ve met Charles before, as an older, unruffled suitor who was rejected by the Part I David Bingham. Now he’s an even older but dashing and worldly partner in David’s cabinet; David, in addition, once fair complexion, is now mixed.)
There are dozens of other reincarnations of this type, and they are both dazzling and disconcerting. If, in a Russian novel, it is difficult to know who is linked to whom, here we have difficulty in knowing who has become who, especially since Yanagihara also masterfully reuses themes, situations and motifs. It is not just arranged marriages and class differences that recur. Pandemics, mansions, triangles, diseases, abandonments, deaths, letters and heirlooms also reappear kaleidoscopically, as do grandfathers, lovers, invalids, guardians, utopians and more. .