Davids, Edwards, Peters and Charleses (and one Charlie) abound in To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s sprawling third novel. Across three sections, each set a century apart, different characters bearing identical names live at the same New York City address. The world is in flux, but in each century a relationship echoes one from the last: a naive individual meets someone far more charismatic, and so follows them in their pursuit of utopia. Do they ever get there? Yanagihara doesn’t let on, though I’d guess they don’t. All she wants us to know is that “America is a country with sin at its heart” – a phrase that becomes the novel’s recurring motif.
Readers of A Little Life, the bestselling 2015 novel that gave Yanagihara a reputation as a purveyor of “misery porn”, will not be surprised to find that To Paradise is also full of suffering. But here she does not tend so closely to her anguished characters; at the end of each discrete section she leaves them behind. Reading To Paradise it feels as though Yanagihara initially set out to write a generation-crossing web of a novel (in the vein of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex) but grew tired when it came to actually developing such a complex world. Instead, she wrote three variations on the same themes – legacy, liberty and nationhood – with the repeated names gesturing to a deeper meaning that she has not managed to rigorously create.
The first of the book’s three sections is set in 1893 in a reimagined New York in the “Free States” of America, where same-sex marriage is commonplace but racism abounds and a stiff class system is established. David Bingham, a descendant of the nation’s founding fathers, is under pressure to marry Charles Griffith, a gentleman from a suitable family – but instead he becomes enamoured with Edward Bishop, an impoverished pianist.
In the second part, set a century later, another David Bingham – this one a descendant of Hawaiian royalty – is in a relationship with another Charles Griffith during the Aids crisis (known in Yanagihara’s world, which fluctuates oddly between extreme specificity and bland vagueness, only as “the disease”). This David receives a letter from his estranged father – also named David Bingham – that recalls David senior’s relationship with another Edward Bishop, and the futile mission the pair embarked on to attempt to refound the precolonial Hawaiian state.
The third and most substantial part of the novel is set between 2043 and 2093, in a society where a sequence of fatal viruses has resulted in a totalitarian regime that has banned the internet and films, restricted reading materials, and forbidden – ostensibly due to an underpopulation crisis – homosexual marriages. Citizens who get sick and don’t recover are moved to “relocation centres”. Here meek science technician Charlie Griffith (the granddaughter and daughter of people whose names really are getting boring now), meets a man who promises to smuggle her to a freer life in New Britain.
There is always a better life somewhere else, Yanagihara seems to be saying, in her imprecise yet relentless way – but it’s unclear whether we’ll ever get there. The author, who is also the editor-in-chief of T, the New York Times’s style magazine, has a writerly penchant for luxurious food stuffs – a “misshapen brick of dark chocolate, scarred and dusty in parts like an oversize car battery” is crucial to one small plot point – and for interior design. Plush furnishings – “carpets so thick they felt like pelt beneath the foot” – act as a softening counterpoint to the characters’ trauma.
But the construction of these stories is utterly unconvincing. Letters make up significant chunks of the second and third parts, but the form does not bring anything to the narrative that could not have been achieved in the third person. There is a tonal disparity too in the parts of the third section narrated by Charlie, who describes countless things as “odd” or “strange”. She flits between seeming to address someone who understands her society and someone with no concept of the contemporary world at all.
In the second section, Peter, who is dying of Aids, realises that as his friends say “goodbye” to him, he must be the one to comfort them. So he uses the same few phrases: “Yes, I remember. No, I’ll be fine. No, you’ll be fine. Yes, of course I forgive you.” “Dying meant repeating the same things again and again,” he opines. In To Paradise, life means that too.
Picador, 720pp, £20