'To Paradise': A novel that demands your time
A novel dealing with fear, love, shame, need and loneliness, the book has been hailed as a work of emotional genius
American writer Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel appears as formidable if not more than her 2015 bestseller A Little Life. It’s, like the earlier work, not an easy novel to read though. Yanagihara’s works of fiction cannot be read on beaches.
You’ll need a room of your own to collect your thoughts and weigh the air around you as you fight to put back tears spilling out of the eyes. If you’re the kind of person who’s okay with the act of sobbing in public, you will be fine even on a beach.
To Paradise follows the lives of men who fall in and out of love. Love is a strange thing, isn’t it? Nobody knows how it works. If it clicks, it’s magic. And if it doesn’t, well, it’s just bad luck. You look for something called hope and then move on. That’s how it should be. But the heart isn’t always practical. It listens to whatever the hell it wants.
In To Paradise, which is divided into three sections (Book I, Book II, Book III), some people find love easily, but they can’t go for a leisurely walk in the park with their lovers, as society doesn’t reward queer folks for being themselves. An older man feels betrayed when he learns about his boyfriend canoodling with another person behind his back. All these stories end as you expect – badly. Therefore, the title is almost an oxymoron. Yanagihara drops you at the edge of the forest and announces that her job is done.
It’s true that we turn towards books and movies to seek comfort. But To Paradise makes you question everything – climate change, totalitarianism, freedom and marriage. All the sections of To Paradise are bound together by the names given to the characters – Charles, David, and Edward – and a house on Washington Square. Furthermore, they are set in three different centuries, beginning 1893.
If Charles is a widower who’s eager to lock arms with a suitable man in one section, he becomes a scientist in another. It’s an interesting game that Yanagihara plays but the second section, which partly unfolds in Hawaii, sadly dies on arrival. It’s not that Hawaii is an uninteresting place. It’s just that nothing significant happens in this particular story. The real action, as I’d like to put it, happens in Book III, since this is where the exact antonym of paradise confronts the reader.
Dystopian fiction, for the most part, is serious business. You get flashes of men in suits and helmets, viruses that casually wipe out the human population and robots who know the value in coming together to unionize.
You don’t encounter walking-andtalking androids but people wear cooling suits in New York in the year 2093. The United States of America, along with other countries, would have by then faced several pandemics – meaning there would’ve been countless deaths across the globe. If this doesn’t shout “dystopian” in 2022, it’s certainly not Yanagihara’s fault. We’re stuck between the devil and the deep sea and there’s nowhere to go.
There’s also a bittersweet tale of unrequited love, in Book III, where a woman named Charlie expects her husband to look at her with some amount of romantic appreciation. He cares about her deeply, but not in a reciprocal way and that irks her. Can a marriage survive on nothing but the idea of taking care of each other?
Is it still a marriage if there’s no love? Charlie doesn’t know the answers to these questions and you feel her pain every time she gets lost in the labyrinth of her internal monologues. You wish you could lend her a hand and tell her it would get better. But betterment is a happy ending. And happy endings are probably antithetical to Yanagihara’s belief system. This is not a complaint. I’m merely making an observation.
Also, if Yanagihara’s dystopian world becomes a reality in the near future, we won’t have the internet and television. Now think about that for a moment before turning in tonight.
(Karthik Keramalu is an independent writer)
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)
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