On the bookshelf
By Hanya Yanagihara
Double day: 720 pages, $ 33
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Writing a novel is in part an act of manipulation and seduction, an exchange, a dance. In 2015, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara seduced millions of people. He was a finalist for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. T-shirts bore the names of the four main characters. I read the novel, an 816 page melodrama of New York Friends that turns into almost constant pain and trauma, on a plane, and sobbed. Unlike her 2013 debut “The People in the Trees,” Yanagihara’s follow-up had beautiful people, Harvard, the New York art world, money, fashion, architecture. And so much pain. Elif Batuman aptly compared it in The New Yorker to “Sex and the City” but with pain.
“Empathy” was the word most often used in reference to the novel. Empathy isn’t the only or even the most interesting goal of art, but it’s worth exploring what critics have decided to be a defining attribute of Yanagihara’s work. In fact, the feelings in “A Little Life” were mostly flat and blunt – the same notes hit hard over and over again. It was almost chemically addicting, but it lacked the complexity and texture of an empathetic work of art. “In Paradise”, Yanagihara’s third novel (released next week), appears as further proof that his greatest strength lies in finding new ways to appeal to his readers, while further questioning the value or purpose of lure.
“In Paradise” is divided into three sections over three centuries: 1893, 1993, 2093; in everyone the world is ours but inclined. In none of them are the 50 American states united; societal precariousness and authoritarianism increase over time. In each section, Yanagihara has an anthropological genius for compiling and disseminating objects, signifiers, settings. She can establish, immediately and captivatingly, both our characters and their worlds. And while in “A Little Life” we are gradually trained to be trapped in trauma, in “To Paradise” the players and the conflict are exposed, the grim conclusion beforehand suggests itself – then we move on to another. moment. Each section ends with the words ‘in Heaven’ and whenever we know the characters are probably headed the opposite way.
In the first section, we meet David (30 years old, rich, orphan, lives with his grandfather). He has a disease; sometimes he goes to bed. He is the oldest of his three siblings, but the only one still single, and his grandfather has set up a possible arranged marriage for him with Charles, an older and wealthier man. One of the ways this world is tilted is that in this New York City, David can marry the person whose gender appeals to him the most. New York is a member of the Free States, which are sexually “liberal” but still classist and always racist (at least that sounds familiar). Problem is, he falls in love with Edward – broke and aberrant, charming, younger, almost certain to break his heart.
The second section opens in the same way, and with similar names: a lost young David, an older and wealthier Charles. They aren’t visibly related to their namesakes, except that the action revolves around the same townhouse in Manhattan’s Washington Square (and Henry James). It is 1993 and AIDS is rife. Charles throws a party for a dying friend. David receives a letter that evokes memories of his childhood in Hawaii.
In the final section, we are in 2093, and the dystopia ravaged by the pandemic is both proximal to ours and much more extreme. There are two braided timelines, a Charles and a Charlie. The world is dark, authoritarian. Charlie (female, 30) is in an arranged heterosexual marriage, sterile and emotionally distant from a drug that saved her from a virus that was especially brutal to children 24 years earlier. His grandfather, Charles Griffith, is perhaps the most complicated character in the whole book. The architect of some of the state’s most nefarious projects, Charles is also Charlie’s devoted and loving protector. He is one of the few in the novel to be drawn both as a victim and as an author.
Because every story shatters like, in another book, it would step into the specific mud and darkness of life – daily interactions, contradictions, complexity, consequences – it seems important to consider how each section works (if that is) is the case) towards a greater whole. In part, Yanagihara explains these irresolutions through the repetition of names and concepts across time lines: the David and Charles but also Edwards (charming and seductive) and Peters (the lovers become intimate); long letters unfolding events and relationships; children often raised by grandparents. Through it, we experience the pleasure of recognition and a certain mockery of connective tissue, even though when we step back, the impact or importance of that whole connection never really matters.
Almost every David has at least one opportunity to break out of the suffocating system he lives in – to escape his family for a lover or a revolution – but, in each case, the book denies these characters intelligence, the agency. or the page count to do so. Their stories come less to resemble people making choices, taking action, and more like settings moved through the architecture of the book to converge on a pre-established point.
What “To Paradise” mainly seems to support is that paradise is an absurd, exclusive and dangerous concept and fatally self-delusion. This is clearly displayed in the only section of “To Paradise” in which we actually glimpse a paradise. The second half of the middle part is the only time we’re not in New York: a flashback to David’s 20th century childhood in Hawaii in which his father (also a David, though they both use the Hawaiian version, Kawika) was tricked by an Edward into giving up his life to live on family wasteland.
This particular Edward is supposed to be an attractive character. He’s a revolutionary, a Hawaiian secessionist. The elder Kawika is forced by him from childhood, but his choice to give up his whole life, including his son and his mother, because this idea makes no sense even to him. “We were inessential in every way,” he later wrote to his son. “We were acting, and because our pretense didn’t affect anyone – until it did, of course – we could be as forgiving as we wanted. … In reality, we didn’t do anything – we didn’t even try to plant the forest we wanted.
This is the unique opportunity for Yanagihara to make Heaven more than a concept, destructive and absurd as it is – to make us understand its hold on the desperate psyche of the Davids and to see not only their weaknesses but the thrill. of their compulsions, so that the book could remind us that these same compulsions, these same frailties, are also sometimes ours. Instead, the section borders on the comedic. David’s choice is so blatantly absurd, evidence of such deep willful ignorance that his follower, Edward, seems to die of madness and his disciple, David, ends up wanting to be motionless and blind.
I haven’t finished reading “A Little Life” on this plane. The book is long. Back home, when I read the scene near the end in which a pivotal and beloved character died for what didn’t seem like a good reason, I threw the book against my bedroom wall. . I had used this book for a long time because it offered so much feeling – the trauma as a gateway to a deeper understanding of something about the human being. But that moment helped me see how simplistic, seemingly disinterested “A Little Life” really was about real humans. turned out to be.
The sheer reach of “To Paradise” also makes it feel big and important, like he has no choice but to say something about who and what we are. But here’s the thing with seduction, at least the type I like: questions are asked, new layers are added, space is made for the reader to feel uncertain, uncomfortable; there is room – an imperative, even – for surprise. What Yanagihara offers instead is the version that feels good until you look too closely, until you wake up the next morning – like after a Lifetime movie or a date. Tinder late at night – and find that the endpoint was predetermined and that there is little of value in its wake. It was Bigness, of course, full of noise and fury, but devoid of specificity or self-doubt or, indeed, empathy.
Strong is the critic and author, most recently, of the novel “Want”.