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The remarkable worlds of Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘To Paradise’

(Julia Terbrock/The Washington Post; iStock)

Almost seven years have passed since Hanya Yanagihara published “A Little Life,” a devastating story about four friends in New York City. The novel earned a large audience and widespread critical acclaim — all deserved — but even readers who loved “A Little Life” may still feel traumatized by the plot’s unrelenting agony.

Brace yourself.

Yanagihara is back with a daunting new book titled “To Paradise.” The emotional impact of this novel is less visceral than “A Little Life,” but only because the author’s scope is now so vast and her dexterity so dazzling. Presented as a triptych of related novellas, “To Paradise” demonstrates the inexhaustible ingenuity of an author who keeps shattering expectations.

Calling the three parts of “To Paradise” novellas is stretching the term and calling them related is an act of faith. The last one, at almost 350 pages, could have been published as a stand-alone novel. But the way these disparate stories speak to one another across 200 years through a chorus of echoes makes their subtle coalescence all the more tantalizing. Keep that in mind: This isn’t a novel to be sampled 10 pages at a time before bed. Yanagihara makes strong demands on her readers; those who forsake all else and let this epic consume them will find it most rewarding.

Book Review: ‘A Little Life,’ by Hanya Yanagihara

The first section, “Washington Square,” immediately signals its debt to Henry James’s story about a wealthy young woman whose father doubts the sincerity of her dashing suitor. Yanagihara delivers an uncanny homage to James’s ever-parsing style as she re-creates the refined world of 19th-century New York, but the context has been systematically transformed.

In her version of “Washington Square,” the sheltered heir is a young man named David Bingham with a history of “nervous troubles.” While his successful siblings have moved out, David still lives with his loving grandfather in a domestic situation that’s comforting if slightly humiliating, like being a figurine in a Victorian terrarium. “He felt at times as if his life were something he was only waiting to use up,” Yanagihara writes, “so that, at the end of each day, he would settle into bed with a sigh, knowing he had worked through a small bit more of his existence and had moved another centimeter toward its natural conclusion.”

David’s entombed life is finally rattled when his grandfather gently prods him to consider marriage. Given the rumors about his emotional stability, this is not an easy match to arrange, but David is a single man in possession of a good fortune, and his grandfather thinks he may have found the perfect gentleman for him to marry.

You read that right.

How deftly Yanagihara weaves this radical social innovation into her version of 19th-century New York. But the acceptance of same-sex marriage isn’t the only variant she introduces. Although the romantic drama of David Bingham takes place after the Civil War we know, the history of the United States in these pages has followed a very different path and resulted in a continent now fractured into separate territories with violently different attitudes about the rights of Black people and gay people.

The result is a fascinating alt-history that forces us to consider that the social and political order we consider inevitable is, in fact, the result of innumerable variables that could have evolved entirely differently. And in the foreground of this reconceived land, Yanagihara stays close to the tender, frightened efforts of David Bingham to imagine a kind of freedom beyond his grandfather’s prudent arrangements. “To live a life in color, a life in love,” David thinks, “was that not every person’s dream?” In this exquisitely paced, achingly sympathetic story, that dream could save him — or kill him.

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The second part of “To Paradise,” called “Lipo-wao-nahele,” abandons that plot and picks up in the late 20th century with a story that possesses its own distinctive tone. But the grand house in Washington Square persists along with the characters’ names. A young paralegal — a different David Bingham — is in a pleasant though dependent relationship with a wealthy older man. “He knew he should feel infantilized by how obviously unequal their life together was,” Yanagihara writes, “and yet he didn’t — he liked it, he found it relaxing. It was a relief to be with someone so declarative; it was a relief not to think.” It’s not, though — not really. And that’s the tension Yanagihara keeps drawing tighter throughout “To Paradise.”

This second David is haunted by his peculiar experiences as a child when he lived in Hawaii. Much of the section is presented as a letter from David’s estranged father, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty who once believed that the restoration of the kingdom was imminent. The plot here is sometimes frustratingly oblique, and the letter format can feel artificial for such a lengthy and literary deathbed confession, but it allows Yanagihara to explore in detail the fantastical delusion that David’s father was in thrall to. Once again, she explores the dream of freedom that lures all these characters to risk everything for a paradise they desire but can barely envision.

No matter the setting — past, present or future — the allure of “To Paradise” stems from the hypnotic confluence of Yanagihara’s skills. She speaks softly, confidentially, with the urgency of a whisper. She draws us into the most intimate sympathy with these characters while placing them in crises that feel irresistibly compelling. And those forces reach a fever pitch in the novel’s last book, a medical dystopia called “Zone Eight.”

Plagues have long infected novelists. Daniel Defoe — by some measures the first English novelist — published “A Journal of the Plague Year” 300 years ago this March. And, of course, the canon of modern-day flu-fiction was spreading long before covid-19. Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” — now a series on HBO Max — appeared in 2014. Last year, while we were still bickering about lockdowns, Gary Shteyngart, Jim Shepard, Louise Erdrich and others published covid-related novels.

More of these unsettling stories are surely developing in febrile imaginations around the world. But none is likely to be as devastating as what Yanagihara presents here. “Zone Eight” depicts the disease-ravaged hellscape that is the United States in the late-21st century. Get ready to feel nostalgic for social distancing.

Yanagihara moves back and forth across several decades to tell the story of a researcher named Charles who serves as a powerful adviser to the government during an era of successive pandemics. In the national petri dish of fear, scientific illiteracy and xenophobia, America becomes something like “1984” but with better-fitting masks.

In response to each new virus, Charles helps impose increasingly stringent regulations until the United States has been transformed into a police state of total surveillance. The infected are sent to “relocation centers”; the dying are subjected to experiments. I’ve endured nothing so unnerving about the slippery slope of moral expediency and social decay since I saw Cecil Philip Taylor’s classic play “Good” about a professor gliding toward Nazism.

This final section is a blistering analysis of what an endless cycle of pandemics can do to a society. With allusions to the AIDS epidemic, Yanagihara illustrates the way, given a surfeit of fear, acceptance of others gradually reverts to deadly prejudice. “Of all the horrors the illnesses wreaked, one of the least-discussed is the brisk brutality with which it sorted us into categories,” Charles writes to a friend. “The disease clarified everything about who we are; it revealed the fictions we’d all constructed about our lives. It revealed that progress, that tolerance, does not necessarily beget more progress or tolerance.”

In some ways, “To Paradise” concludes with an elaborately dramatized vision of the loss of civil rights that today’s conservatives have been predicting throughout the coronavirus pandemic with its capricious lockdowns, vaccination mandates and work restrictions. The government that Yanagihara imagines feeds off the interaction of disease and dread to suck up ever more power unto itself, creating “a comprehensive welfare state.” How ironic that this spectacular queer novel could become the rallying cry of the MAGA crowd. (There is no chance of that happening.)

But what really makes “Zone Eight” so gripping is its focus on Charles’s granddaughter, Charlie. She’s a young woman physically and mentally impaired during one of the plagues that swept across the country. Despite his callous disregard for most people, Charles is wholly devoted to protecting her, even if that means trapping her in a place without love.

In alternate sections, Charlie describes her own life in a voice perfectly calibrated to sound almost simple, almost without affect, odd but not exotic. For an author, this is a delicate, perilous act of creation. One slip and Charlie could have become a fount of touching insight, like the sappy environmental prodigy in Richard Powers’s “Bewilderment.” But Yanagihara breathes real life into a young woman who, despite all evidence to the contrary, dares to believe that she deserves love and freedom. Her story, equally terrifying and poignant, reverberates through our current crisis with such force that it’s almost unbearable.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

To Paradise

By Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday. 708 pp. $32.50

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