"To Paradise," Hanya Yanagihara's ambitious follow-up to "A Little Life," a National Book Award finalist, is an epic in size and scope. The novel is divided into three books, each featuring characters with the same names living in the same house in New York City but in different dystopian eras.
In Book One, "Washington Square," Yanagihara envisions an alternate 19th-century history for the U.S. The protagonist, David Bingham, lives in the Free States, roughly equivalent to the Northeastern states today, where same-sex marriage is legal and wealthy white families practice arranged marriage, the better to perpetuate their privilege.
But David cannot quite imagine a future with the elderly, sweet but dull man, Charles Griffith, chosen for him by his grandfather. Instead he is drawn to Edward, an impoverished but clever man around his own age. Channeling both Henry James and Edith Wharton, this section focuses on a man of privilege bridling against the conventions of his era in order to feel real love, perhaps to his peril.
Book Two, "Lipo-Wao-Nahele," most closely resembles actual U.S. history. Taking place in the mid-20th century, one thread explores how a member of the royal family of Hawaii chooses love over security while his grown son leaves the island to live in New York City with his much older, wealthier lover amid the AIDS crisis.
Yanagihara addresses multiple forms of oppression: the colonization of Hawaii and marginalization of the native people, homophobia and discrimination, as well as multiple forms of resistance and resilience.
Book Three, "Zone Eight," is a suspenseful and terrifying glimpse of a future New York City set amid endless waves of pandemics. A new authoritarian government has banned travel, the internet, same-sex marriage and most civil liberties, all in the name of supposedly maximizing the surviving humans' ability to procreate.
Dr. Charles Griffith, a once important government scientist, cares for his granddaughter, Charlie, who has survived a childhood bout of an unnamed virus but has been left severely injured. When Griffith is reclassified as a state enemy, he must race against time to find a way to protect Charlie. Here Yanagihara brings to fruition the novel's themes: how queer men's networks formed to enable their love and to resist oppression by society can become the very life force by which civilization (meaning art, human connection, love itself) in America might be sustained. I must admit that I cried pretty much continuously while reading the riveting final 100 pages.
Ultimately, the novel is a cri de coeur about the revolutionary power of love and choice to fight oppression and despair. As one character proclaims as he decides to join a lover rather than remain safely at home: "That was someone else's Heaven, but it was not his. His was somewhere else, but it would not appear in front of him; rather it would be his to find."
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of "Useful Phrases for Immigrants," winner of a 2019 American Book Award. Her new collection, "Tomorrow in Shanghai & Other Stories," is forthcoming in August.
By: Hanya Yanagihara.
Publisher: Doubleday, 720 pages, $32.50.