cw: mental illness, cruelty to animals
Look, no one is saying that A Little Life is the greatest novel ever written in the English language, but people are saying that if you thought A Little Life was excellent then you’ll probably think that To Paradise is excellent too.
– I mean A Little Life might be the greatest novel ever written in English, I might say that, but no one who counts is really saying it, are they?
Maybe they are?
I mean like obviously A Little Life isn’t Tender is the Night, it isn’t [insert excellent book not by a posh white man], but it’s definitely Infinite Jest, it’s definitely The Road, it’s definitely Wolf Hall, it’s definitely [insert another acclaimed novel not by a posh white person from the last 25 years or so], it’s definitely The Corrections, right?
Is A Little Life the best novel ever written in English?
I don’t know, but A Little Life is inarguably on a par with all of the other books that “people” might call the best novels written in English over the past forty years or so, so maybe… maybe, yeah?
So, with the proviso that To Paradise is not A Little Life and that we (as readers) know this and accept this and don’t read it wanting or expecting it to have the bleak clarity of purpose and design of A Little Life (remembering that having read A Little Life it is not a novel about four friends as the blurb and marketing – weirdly – stated it was, and that A Little Life is, instead, a sole and very long form character study of Jude St Clair with occasional asides about the lives of his friends but always and only presented in such a way as to offer comment on Jude’s life, Jude’s relationship, Jude’s career, etc etc etc (I really liked A Little Life, if you can’t tell), if we go into To Paradise knowing that it will not – or, at least, should not – be a singular narrative about a singular life, as long as we know this and although I don’t think I speak solely for myself when I say I would happily (well, not happily, y’know, weepingly) have read a scrambled rewrite of A Little Life but this one, To Paradise, is not the same as that, it is massively more ambitious, massively more complex, and tho not massively more massive (I think they’re about the same size???), the scope and breadth of To Paradise is different to A Little Life in the same way that our contemporary society is different to the society that existed when the first idiot fish first dumbly swam onto land and started like breathing air instead of remaining in the glorious amniotic purity of water-based life. Different, very different; orders of quantitative comparison different, yet not necessarily better, not necessarily more, not necessarily an improvement, not necessarily something that should have happened.
I’m not saying I didn’t love To Paradise – I did love it, I loved it I loved it I loved it – but comparing this much more ambitious but ambitious in a less original way (i.e. it feels like it’s from the ’90s and not necessarily in a bad way) – novel to that one just reiterates the near-flawlessness of Yanagihara’s earlier text (A Little Life didn’t feel like it was from the ’90s).
To Paradise is brilliant – for me, I thought it was brilliant – and it’s not as cruel, it’s not as bleak, it’s not as sad and it’s also, crucially I think, not as weirdly invested in the current economic system as it seems to exist – but it is, of course, stuffed (over stuffed?), riddled with (over riddled?) detail and it exists in an alternative reality (in multiple alternative realities?) to ours where the things that are different are sometimes imperceptible yet the things that are the same are the things that matter, sadly, whoops. Eh?
To Paradise is maybe set in the past, and in a future that doesn’t yet exist, and so it is both technically speculative and implicitly science fiction (as well as being historical fiction of course (though this last genre is less critically maligned than the others)), it is very much a realist novel, with explorations of power and politics distinct from the central questions around the realities of – and importance of – living as a human:
To Paradise is a novel that may not be set in a real world, but it very much takes place within real human souls. Of course, all those souls are fictional.
I was writing the above on the tube, on the way to work, and I had to stop because someone kicked my dog.
My dog is fine, and I don’t really think he noticed, as he’s walked through crowds and obviously has been bumped into before and is a sweet little dog so doesn’t presume malice, but I’m not a sweet little dog and I saw the cunt do it on purpose.
Rather than chase the guy down, though and beat him to death – which in hindsight I maybe should have done for the greater good because if someone will deliberately kick a silent dog just for being present in public he’s probably a fucking danger to every living thing in the city – I shouted some “fruity” language (2 fucks, one cunt, don’t worry, no slurs and it was brief!) at the guy and made sure my dog was okay, then apologised to the rest of the silent tube for my strong language.
Cunts cunts cunts, so many of them here, encouraged to thrive by the cunts we have in power that cunts who don’t understand they’re cunts continue to vote for.
I wish I didn’t live in England.
(The tube wasn’t totally silent: a woman said “People shouldn’t kick dogs”, which is more solidarity than a fat baldie shouting “fucking cunt” at 8.45am on Monday morning public transport possibly deserved.)
To Paradise isn’t really one novel, although it is.
It’s also possibly arguably four or five novels, tho it’s definitely arguably three.
The first part of the three parts of the book is a cohesive whole.
It is set in 1893-94 in a fractured version of what was at that point the United States of America, tho here in this reality it is not United, and in New York the key difference between there and the parts that lost the civil war is that they now have legalised gay marriage (tho in no other respects is anything else more progressive).
The main character is David, the rich unmarried grandson of a titan of banking.
He has fallen in love with Edward – a possible gold-digger and conman – while he keeps kicking the decision can down the road about possibly marrying the kind, (but 40-something and depressed) Charles.
David has never found love because he is known to be a bit sickly, which kinda means panic attacks(?), and the tension grows to be between his hope and optimism for life and love with Edward, slamming against the cynicism and patronising protectiveness of his family.
It’s Henry James but with gay marriage allowed. It’s Alan Hollinghurst but everyone’s less annoying (tho that’s possibly just because they’re not English?) and the sex doesn’t have to be illicit.
David pursues love and loses things along the way. Maybe his choice to believe in life and love is stupid and self-destructive, but it is his choice and I loved reading him make decisions that everyone around him – except for Edward obvs – told him were fucking stupid. I loved it.
I said it before and I’ll say it again.
Part 2 is kinda two separate pieces.
Part 1 of Part 2 is about a different David, an assistant at a law firm who’s living with his boss but it’s on the DL as there is a lot of homophobia here, in 1993 New York, and possibly a more similar reality to our own reality – certainly there is no mention of alternative historical events, and nothing that happens here could not have happened in our world, tho it probably could have happened in the same world as as as as as
As part one
The majority of this section is a depiction of a pre-assisted suicide party for a cancer-ridden friend of David’s much older boyfriend. It is glorious and gorgeous and deeply deeply affecting and – of all the many sections of To Paradise – the most similar in tone and style to A Little Life. I loved it.
I loved it.
Part 2 of Part 2 is the narrative of Part 1 of Part 2’s David’s dad (who is also called David), the descendant of the deposed monarchy of Hawaii, and it’s about his sad little life and how never accepting that not wanting to be involved in the restoration of a long-disestablished antidemocratic (but also anticolonial) movement is an acceptable life choice.
His life is sad and lonely and very sad. It’s sad. It’s a little life.
Yanagihara’s depiction of this is evocative and moving, but this character’s apathy towards his own happiness and future makes him a much less attractive and engaging voice that we find elsewhere in this Bible-like tome.
Part 3 also presents two narratives – one begins in 2093 and is about a young woman (Hanya Yanagihara writes a woman shock!) who has (possibly?) been left with cognitive impairments after historically receiving experimental treatment for an 2070-something pandemic that killed the majority of the world’s children.
She is in an arranged marriage with a gay man who doesn’t love her but does look after her (he isn’t called David, but her dad was and her friend is lol), and she constantly pines for her grandfather, a man who was executed by the growingly fascistic state for his part in previous pandemic prevention measures (he was a leading virologist turned high level government advisor), and Yanagihara’s narrator slowly becomes aware of a new viral threat and the repetition of all of the cruel acts her grandfather helped to perpetuate a generation before.
Part 3 bounces between its two threads from chapter to chapter, and the other part is – in the form of letters – a narrative from this young woman’s grandfather’s perspective beginning in 2043 and slowly catching up to her present (well, until his execution), and charts the destruction of his own marriage and family as society breaks down and mass destruction of civil liberties gets underway as a supposed response to the danger of increasingly regular global pandemics.
Yanagihara’s depiction of government responses to a pandemic makes all the stuff that happened irl in 2020/21 seem mellow by comparison, and as someone whose writing kinda does, Americanly, imply that affluence and importance are inherently related it’s easy to assume a libertarian motivation to this horrific depiction of the future. (i.e. all governmental intervention leads to evil)
Then again, by depicting the likely realities of a world riven by continued climactic destruction and the economic, sociopolitical realities that will domino/snowball out from this, To Paradise is implicitly criticising the politics of apathy engendered by attempts to maintain the status quo.
Implicitly, though, so maybe not intentionally…
It’s a big book.
There’s a lot of it.
There’s a lot in it.
I loved it, I found it deeply moving. I cried all the time reading it! Nice!
I believed in the hope that Yanagihara’s naive protagonists believed in, too, which maybe as a mature reader one wasn’t supposed to do?
Was I meant to read their hope as idiocy?
Was I meant to see Part 1’s David choosing love over the family business being a dumb decision and was I meant to pity him and see him as a fool?
The father in Part 2 of Part 2, whose life never became his own because he never pursued anything, I found far more harrowing than the characters who end their narratives running in the direction of a possible joy, even if it’s unlikely to be a sustainable or a significant one?
Yanagihara’s characters here all have near identical names and they’re maybe related but they’re maybe not, they’re maybe existing in disparate realities, they’re maybe the same?
The themes and the life choices often align but they are not the same; the incomplete narratives are not implicitly concluded by different people in a different age, tho you could argue that they are if you love simplicity and answers rather than uncertainty and ambiguity.
Because, yes, I loved To Paradise.
It is one book but it is three, or four, or five; it holds these contradictory narratives and realities and personalities and it holds them warmly and it holds them well.
Should I try and speak about the language and the structure and the themes more?
No, I shouldn’t and I shan’t.
To Paradise isn’t as relentlessly bleak and cruel as A Little Life, but it’s also deeply sad and deeply moving, and raises serious and important questions about how we choose to live and the fucking compromises we make and how it is those compromises (more than our desires) that dictate the terms of our sad little lives.
Am I pursuing Paradise in my own life? Not at all.
Should I be? I absolutely should be. We all should be.
I had a long conversation about death and dying yesterday while walking along the waterside from Cardiff Bay to Penarth, like I regularly used to do when I lived there a lifetime ago (I first moved to London in 2010).
I was visiting old friends for the weekend, and the conversation we had about death and dying was informed not just by the realities of ageing, but also (for me, at least) by To Paradise, which is all about death and dying and how this is only a tiny portion of what it means to be alive.
Life, too, life too, life too is dying passively, dying actively is just another stage.
To Paradise is beautiful, To Paradise is gorgeous, To Paradise is well worth your time.
I loved it.
But, alas, I’m a very depressed and unhappy loser, so maybe I’m not best placed to judge…
Maybe I need to actually lift a fucking finger and do actions within my life that will set me in the right direction, moving – even if I’ll never get there – to paradise.
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