To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara begins with an America that is hard to recognize and yet unsurprising, given recent exposés of our historical and current prejudices, works as an obvious device for a novel of social commentary and is smack in the middle of Yanagihara’s wheelhouse. The Northeast section, NYC is called the Free States. Then there are the Colonies which include Southern states and Texas and Oklahoma. The current states east of the Rockies, north of the Colonies and including the Midwest are called America, the west coast is known as the West. You can find copies of the maps on Google Images. The social mores of Americans have been changed along with Hanya’s changes in the map of America.
Although it is only the end of the nineteenth century same sex marriages are totally legal and acceptable if you live in the Free States. Same sex relationships are illegal elsewhere. There are also male-female marriages but the relationships we are concerned with for the most part involve two men, and these are not casual relationships, they are marriages, and these couples adopt children to become families. These relationships are hardly perfect; same sex couples experience the same challenges all marriages present. Couples may stay compatible for their entire lives or may drift apart because their partner is not who he seemed to be, or because of infidelity, or just from plain disappointment.
This is a family saga with a time-travelling family tree that has some large gaps and, at the end, a big leap forward into the future. The Bingham family is wealthy, and the family is given credit for the founding of the Free States, so they are famous. They live in a mansion on Washington Square. The children live with their grandfather because both parents died. John, Eden, and David are grown now. John’s partner is Peter, Eden’s partner is Eliza. Learn the names because they come up in every era to mark characters in the Bingham family line. Charles Griffith has been matched with David Bingham, but David meets Edward Bishop and falls in love. He does not want to settle down on Washington Square, or in a stodgy marriage. Edward offers love and adventure although he is a slightly louche character. Remember those names also because there will be several incarnations of Charles and a few of Edward. Adams pops up over and over as the butler. It’s a very interesting and unique way to connect stories that could be lacking in continuity.
Book II involves a sojourn in Hawai’i, a colony, once a kingdom, that lost its culture to mainland invaders. Our next David is a member of the sidelined royal family. He is known by the native name Kawika. All the David’s have difficulty with social adjustments. Perhaps they would be placed on the autism spectrum today or diagnosed with Asperger’s. They just do not have a grip on their own life or identity. David does not know that he might be a homosexual in this future story. He meets Alice and she has a son who he becomes responsible for. For the most part the son is raised by the grandmother. He is called Wika. Then Edward, a young man Kawika went to school with arrives in his life as a grown man with a fire in his gut to return Hawai’i to its former glory. There is a Charles Griffith; he’s the family lawyer. Here the family blood line adds Asian-Hawaiian genes to its DNA.
In Book III we pop up in Zone Eight and travel back and forth in time between 2050 and 2094. Zone Eight centers on Washington Square in the same mansion where the story began. The Bingham family still owns the house for a while. Nathaniel and Charles are married and have just moved to Zone Eight from Hawai’i. Nathaniel, who studies and collects artifacts of his homeland is not at all happy to be in Zone Eight. Charles has an important job at a Research Center. The world has been rocked by one virus after another, and in what used to be New York and Washington, DC plans to contain diseases as they arise are changing America beyond recognition. So is climate change which is making cities so hot that people must own cooling suits to go out-of-doors at times.
We focus on Charlie, a child who recovered from one of these viruses but with cognitive damage. Charles is protective of her and when he realizes that he will be arrested by the state, he finds her a husband and teaches her how to be a wife. Charles writes to the man he loves in New Britain whose name is Peter. It is so friendly to meet these familiar family members as we time travel through a culture like ours with this family. Many of these family members have dark skins so racism is not the issue in this book, but homosexual relationships become illegal once again. Hanya Yanagihara has a sort of mission to normalize LGBT+ relationships and make them as acceptable as heterosexual relationships or even staying single.
In the future the author subtly suggests that the government of the once Free States is somehow now ruled from Beijing, so we can only assume that Beijing has taken over as the world’s most powerful nation. The Free States are no longer free. The fear of viruses that repeated in 2050, 54, 70, and now in 94 has allowed the government to control the population by promises to cure the viruses as they spread if the people will do as they are told. It may sound like residents have a choice, but their choices dwindle as new viruses continue to threaten. All is done in the name of keeping people healthy and safe. Since so many people are dying or being removed to containment areas or rehab centers, there is a big push for relationships to produce offspring. Homosexuality still exists but it must be kept secret and can lead to arrest. Fortunately the David in this timeline is focused and sure of himself.
“There were some people who thought the scientists were creating the sicknesses in our labs, because they wanted to eliminate certain kinds of people or because they wanted to help the state maintain control of the country, and these were the most dangerous people of all.” Pg. 383 “Back then, the Square (Washington Square) had been planted with trees and covered with grass, and the pit in the center had been a fountain, where water erupted in bursts and then fell back into the pit again. Over and over the water exploded and fell, exploded and fell, for no other reason than because people liked it. I know it sounds queer, but it’s true; Grandfather showed me a photograph of it once.” Pg. 388
Is Hanya against mandates, is she an antivaxxer, or does she think that the temptation towards authoritarian solutions to problems that affect the lives of everyone must be considered very carefully to balance freedom and health measures? Clearly the world did not solve climate change. Are there still places in the world that have handled things in better ways with less disruption of normality while holding on to freedom and human rights? Clues suggest there are. I would have liked to go to New Britain to see what they did differently. You will have to decide where Yanagihara stands and even where you stand on these matters, but whatever you decide you will most likely agree that To Paradise is another Hanya Yanagihara tour de force.