The Ambitious and Overstuffed World of Hanya Yanagihara

The Ambitious and Overstuffed World of Hanya Yanagihara

Grand Ambitions

Hanya Yanagihara’s überfiction.


Contemporary novelists have adopted an intriguing strategy to counteract the waning cultural interest in literary fiction: They depict what a camera can’t—or won’t. Much has been made about one method novelists have employed to achieve this objective: the attempt to contract the ambitions and scope of the literary novel to a single focal point, the author-protagonist. These novels, often termed autofiction, are characterized by their commitment to burrowing into the core of an author’s biographical world, where an entirely new and previously undetectable universe might be found—one that would, in any case, be difficult to render onscreen.

Other novelists have settled on an entirely different method: They have opted to expand the coverage of the novel to encompass the past, present, and future; globetrotting and historically ambitious, these novels seek to tame and corral time itself. They include multiple genres and multiple methods of conveying temporally capacious narratives. These novelists, in other words, are attempting to write übernovels. I’m thinking of recent books like Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell—and one of the ur-texts of these kinds of books, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

There is a common, surprisingly straightforward formula for übernovels: Write a historical novel, a contemporary literary novel, and a science-fiction novel, and make them sections of a larger novel. These sections need not be part of the same story; one series of events might be followed by another series of events in a completely different setting and time, and the threads between them might be subtle—sometimes a theme, or maybe just a name, or perhaps simply the fact that the events of the novel are housed between the same two covers. (Part of the allure of these novels is the opportunity to divine the unstated connections.) Unlike autofiction, which seeks to reveal the hidden depths of an individual life, these books seek to dramatize many lives while surfacing the submerged links that tether the past (or versions of the past) to many possible futures. The resulting stories might not be impossible to film, but they would be incredibly expensive to film well, and their authors aren’t constrained by such quotidian concerns as budgets and actor availability.

The irony of the übernovel is that despite its grand ambitions, its attempts to overcome the constraints of the novel and swallow time itself, it often shows us more about its author—her tastes, her ambitions, even her biography—than autofiction ever could. This is because no matter how large their canvases are, how many people populate them, or even how many years they traverse, übernovels, more than any other kind of novel, externalize the narrative choices their authors have made. Of course, every novel depends entirely on its author’s narrative choices, but in most novels these choices serve the narrative. A reader might be able to glimpse the seams in the narrative, the moments when some aspect of craft briefly (and sometimes not so briefly) overshadows the story, but usually the story remains paramount; at some point (hopefully) the story reasserts its hold. In an übernovel, however, the narrative serves the choices.

Although one section of an übernovel might resemble a historical novel and another a sci-fi novel, as readers we are temporary visitors to each literary realm; we are whisked away well before the narrative possibilities have been exhausted or even meaningfully explored—well before the story might be said to have reached a satisfying conclusion. In other words, rather than adhering to internally consistent narrative line, the stories in an übernovel follow some other purpose the writer has in mind.

Hanya Yanagihara’s new book, To Paradise, is an übernovel, and it demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of the budding genre. Starting in the 19th century, it concludes in a late 21st century in which a pandemic has ravaged the world and democratic governments have been replaced by authoritarian regimes. It is a broad, ambitious tale that engages with contemporary life in audacious and occasionally compelling ways. Yet it also falls prey to the very form it is trying to master. Yanagihara looms over every section of this novel, constantly reminding us of her presence through her authorial choices. We rarely have a chance to inhabit the narrative she has so carefully composed.

At the beginning of To Paradise, we find ourselves in the late 1800s, in a timeline that seems similar to our own. David Bingham, a scion of a lavishly wealthy New York City family, is in an unnerving situation. He is the eldest of his siblings, yet the least successful. His younger siblings, Peter and Eden, are accomplished professionals and have started families. David, meanwhile, lives with his grandfather in a well-appointed house on Washington Square.

By this point in the story, we’ve come to realize we are in a completely different world. David, his two siblings, and his grandfather are all gay—not an uncommon situation in the 1800s, of course, but in Yanagihara’s New York homosexuality is more or less accepted. Peter and Eden are happily married and have adopted children with their partners. David, though, has been unable to find a partner and has rejected the ones his grandfather has selected for him.

As their tale unfolds, Yanagihara gradually zooms out to reveal why the 19th century they inhabit is so inclusive: The United States is no longer united. In Yanagihara’s alternative history, what we know as the United States has split into five independent countries: the Republic of Maine, the Free States (including New York), the Western Union, a country called America that mostly comprises states in the middle of the continent, and the Colonies to the south. The Free States, we learn, was founded by a Utopian sect to guarantee egalitarianism among its citizens, which includes marriage equality for gay couples. In other parts of this fictional America, homosexuality remains illegal. A steady stream of child refugees, many of them orphaned during their treacherous journeys from the restrictive Colonies, arrives in the Free States. Some are adopted by gay couples, like David’s siblings, while others are housed together in orphanages. David, who is otherwise listless and unoccupied, offers some of these children art lessons once a week at a school for orphans. One day, before delivering a lesson, David meets Edward, a charismatic fellow tutor who is down on his luck but bursting with schemes and ambition. David is quickly besotted.

David pursues a relationship with Edward even as his grandfather tries to persuade him to marry another man, Charles, an older new-money entrepreneur who has genuine affection for David. Edward eventually asks David to accompany him to California, a wild, uncultivated land where industrious men can make a fortune and where, as it happens, homosexuality is illegal. And so, as this section of the novel ends, David finds himself at one of the more familiar crossroads in literature: He can follow his head and settle down with the more reliable and boring person or abandon everything he knows and follow his heart out West.

In the second section, we meet David again, but a different David inhabiting a different time. It’s 1993, and this David is from Hawaii. He works as a paralegal at a powerful New York City law firm. He is surreptitiously dating a partner at the firm, a man named Charles. Charles lives in a mansion on Washington Square, and David lives in a squalid apartment with his best friend, Eden. Though he is broke, his family was wealthy once; in fact, David is descended from royalty, though he wants nothing to do with his past.

Yanagihara devotes the second half of this section to David’s father, who also is David but goes by the Hawaiian version of the name, Kawika, and resides in an assisted-living facility in Hawaii. He writes a letter to his son in which he explains his earlier decision to reject his wealth and establish an unspoiled, precolonial version of Hawaii by moving to a barren piece of land with his son, his friend Edward, and not much else. Indeed, this portion of the novel, with its many narrative echoes, labored and otherwise, of the first section, could be read as a sad conclusion to the cliffhanger of that tale.

Usually by this point in a novel, a reader has developed an understanding of what the story is about, even—as in the case of many autofiction novels—in the absence of plot. Yet it’s difficult to figure out what Yanagihara is getting at here, despite the many pages of intricate plot she’s unfurled so far. One could argue that To Paradise is a meditation on freedom; after all, each protagonist—the David of the late 1800s, the David of the 1990s, and his father, Kawika—ponders (and, in the case of the David of the 1990s and Kawika, succeeds in) escaping the environment in which he was raised. Yet Kawika does not act on his own initiative; he follows the lead of his friend Edward, who persuades him to abandon his life and start over.

One could also contend that the book is a meditation on love: The David of the first section considers upending his life because of his love for the Edward in the same section, while the David of the second section constantly reflects on his love for Charles, especially how long it might last considering their differences in age and status and whether he cares more for Charles or vice versa. Again, however, Kawika is an outlier: He seems obsessed with (his own section’s) Edward, though, based on what Yanagihara tells us, it’s hard to describe this obsession as love, and Edward is certainly not in love with Kawika, though perhaps one could say that Edward is in love with what Kawika represents because of his royal lineage. So what are we to make of these not quite intersecting stories? It is not always clear what Yanagihara herself makes of them. The only real connection between these narratives, the thread that keeps them tethered to each other despite themselves, is the various names that recur across the text: Eden and Adams and Edward and Charles and David.

By the beginning of To Paradise’s third section, the narrative has leaped ahead 100 years into a dystopia. The narrator of this segment is a lab technician named Charlie; she works at Rockefeller University in New York City and is married to a kind man named Edward who has no interest in being intimate with her. They live in an apartment building—formerly a house—on Washington Square. Like the novel’s earlier protagonists, she is content to let life happen to her, and she feebly labors against a backdrop that will be familiar to anyone who has read or watched dystopic stories: The government has grown more powerful after a series of crises (here, pandemics), and people are no longer free to live as they wish. The government decides where you work, how much food you can buy, and so on. Some people are sent away to camps from which they will never return, and others are executed publicly.

Charlie’s segments alternate with a series of letters her grandfather sends to his friend Peter in the United Kingdom starting 50 years earlier, in 2043. We’re privy to only one side of this years-long correspondence; we never hear what Peter has to say. Charlie’s grandfather, also named Charlie, writes about his work to contain the viruses (he’s a scientist), his complicity in expanding the power and reach of the government, his family life, his hopes for his son, David, and his granddaughter, and his fears about the future—a future in which the lingering checks on government power have all been eliminated, in which the warming climate makes Earth inhospitable, a future in which his granddaughter will struggle to survive.

His granddaughter survives, of course, and though he has died by the time her narrative begins, he has fashioned a comfortable if monotonous life for her. Her job, her home, even her partner—he’s arranged it all. And then a series of shocks: One day Charlie discovers an amorous note in her husband’s belongings, and she begins to wonder if he is seeing someone else. At work she hears rumors about a dangerous new virus that is on the move. And she strikes up a friendship with a man who seems more interested in her than just about anyone she’s ever met. For her entire life, she has been a blank canvas upon which others have daubed colors at will. As the book concludes, she slowly begins to take charge of her own creation.

Yanagihara can be a lovely writer. There are stretches of To Paradise where her sentences flow beautifully and her pacing is immaculate. She’s also a wizard of description. Here’s Yanagihara on David’s impression of Charles when they first meet in the 1893 timeline:

His voice, when he spoke, was appealing too, deep and somehow furred at the edges: There was a softness, a gentleness to it that contrasted with his size and suggestion of strength.

“Deep and somehow furred at the edges”—the phrase is rich and imagistic; by adding visual and tactile dimensions (“somehow furred”) to a description of an aural phenomenon (the sound of a voice), Yanagihara enables us to see and feel how this voice sounds. Charles’s voice is no longer merely a voice; it’s an instrument brimming with synesthetic possibilities. And here’s Yanagihara describing the younger David’s impression of Charles’s ex, Peter, upon meeting him in the 1993 timeline:

When he finally did meet Peter, he was surprised by how mesmerizingly ugly he was. It wasn’t that any one feature was so disagreeable—he had large, light-colored eyes, like a dog’s, and a bony, confident nose, and long dark eyebrows that seemed to have grown as a single unit rather than as a collection of individual hairs—but the combination was unharmonious, if compellingly so. It was as if every aspect of his face was determined to be a soloist, rather than a member of an ensemble.

The instant reversals in this excerpt—”mesmerizingly ugly”; “unharmonious, if compellingly so”—evoke the wall text of an Abstract Expressionist show, a face of Franz Kline lines.

Yanagihara also explores many vital themes. In the first section alone, her characters discuss colonialism, racism, and class, and she approaches these issues from new and unexpected angles because of her compellingly counterfactual world-building.

Hawaii—both as a geographical location with its own fraught history and as a stand-in for geographical locations the world over that have been corrupted and destroyed by Western imperialism—also emerges as an important topic in subsequent sections. And many readers will be taken with Yanagihara’s detailed and frankly frightening depiction of a future in which pandemics never really end, a world made occasionally uninhabitable by climate change.

Yanagihara tells her story in an equally ambitious manner; some parts of the novel are in the third person, others in the first person. And then there are the letters, which travel across space and time from one character to another, and from the realm of fiction to our supposedly nonfictional lives. The problem with all of this, however, is that despite how long this book is (more than 700 pages), we can’t lose ourselves in the story because there is no story, at least in the traditional sense of a narrative that is concerned with exploring a life or a group of lives through time, or one that takes as its subject the ebbs and flows of a particular place. All we can see is the writer working behind the scenes, twisting knobs and pressing buttons.

The ambition on display in To Paradise is thrilling, but it also comes with costs. People pick up novels for many reasons; sometimes they wish to be entertained or to learn something about the world, but above all else most readers are hoping for an immersive experience. It’s that feeling when you forget you’re reading a book, when your hands turn the pages of their own accord and your eyes zoom across the page and somehow the rest of your senses become engaged in the story—you can taste the kiss of the protagonist and smell the roiling, fragrant stew that some minor character has just placed on the table.

Contemporary storytellers are the beneficiaries of countless innovations that storytellers have made since the beginning of history to maximize the immersive effect of stories. The problem that ancient storytellers were attempting to solve is a problem that still bedevils storytellers today: How do you convince a person who is all too immersed in their own reality (shivering by a fire, swatting the odd mosquito away) that they are somewhere else—if not active participants in the story, then at least citizens of a realm the storyteller has conjured with mere words? These storytellers developed strategies that remain with us, strategies to ease our entry into their contrived worlds, strategies to make our journey from our world to theirs as frictionless as possible, and—perhaps more important than anything else—strategies to keep us immersed in the make-believe.

The difference between now and then, it seems, is that some recent storytellers have decided that one path forward for the literary novel is to foreground their role as creators. Autofiction is obviously one manifestation of this desire, but another is the kind of novel that constantly shifts its modes and means of storytelling, the kind of novel that is powered by tactics that distract you from the story. No matter how many characters populate these novels, how large their canvases are, in these novels the author constantly redirects the reader toward herself.

Yanagihara is certainly capable of crafting an immersive, engrossing story; whatever one thinks of her previous novels, they all operate as stories in the traditional sense by accumulating detail and density in order to transport readers from their own lives to imaginary worlds of Yanagihara’s creation. At times, To Paradise does the same. For the most part, though, this is a novel that reads as a catalog of obsessions. If you don’t share them, you are on your own.

One of the few places a camera can’t explore, at least not yet, is the human mind. And maybe what some novelists are delivering to us now are novels of human consciousness. Novels that display the traits of novels—scenes and summary and effective dialogue and the rest of it—but only serve up the preoccupations of the writer. And not just ideas or narrative threads the writer might be infatuated with, but also genre conventions and aspects of craft. What we end up reading is not your traditional autobiographical work, which traces the life of the writer, but a kind of autobiography of the mind.

In other words, perhaps some novelists are ceding the story to the camera—which grows ever more powerful and ubiquitous—and searching for some other method of conveying the triumphs and challenges of the human experience to readers. Stories are everywhere (it’s safe to say that humans have never had access to so many stories), and an overarching belief in the necessity of immersion has overtaken society. Our phones are immersive, and our social media feeds, and our televisions, and our video games, and soon we will be able to access alternate realities that will be programmed to edify us in every way imaginable. Is it a coincidence that we are being flooded with stories just as the fate of the world seems to hang in the balance—as climate change and the potential for global war are bearing down on us?

We derive comfort not only from the content of stories but also from their structure—the fact that one event always follows another. Stories assert that things will always happen, that life will go on. Perhaps übernovels are expressing what we all intuitively feel: that a great interruption awaits us. The unceasing locomotion of events that has powered human history will end abruptly, and the next epoch will require us to tease meaning and coherence from oblivion. We will lose faith in the comforts and assurances of stories. We will have to start from scratch, to figure out how to fashion a new mode of being. Perhaps these novelists are asking us to start practicing now.

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