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January 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Ad Nauseam

Hanya Yanagihara and the pandemic novel
The Green Room, by Salman Toor © The artist. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York City

The Green Room, by Salman Toor © The artist. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York City


Ad Nauseam

Hanya Yanagihara and the pandemic novel

Discussed in this essay:

To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara. Doubleday. 720 pages. $32.50.

For many months it’s been predicted, its arrival declared inevitable. The experts have been consulted, and the think pieces have urged us to prepare ourselves. You can sneer or avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist, but it won’t go away. No amount of cynicism will deter its spread. In March 2020, the New York Times told us it was only a matter of time, and now the wait is over: the first wave of pandemic fiction is upon us.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” then-president Donald Trump tweeted just days into the first work-from-home mandates. It was a statement outside the bounds of acceptable discourse, and the talking heads went wild. Saying the unsayable is not the job of political leaders; it is, however, the province of great fiction. There is a reason world-historical ruptures, like the one collectively experienced in the spring of 2020, tend to produce big, ambitious books. Already the pandemic has crept into some novels (Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, and Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends), but as a fact of the world rather than a moral and intellectual crisis to be reckoned with. The task of the great pandemic novel, if such a thing were to exist, might be to start metabolizing the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 response: the ideas internalized, vocabularies assimilated, risks assumed, sacrifices made. That is the feat Hanya Yanagihara has attempted with To Paradise—a quick turnaround for a 720-page book, which is perhaps why it only decides to be the first great pandemic novel halfway through.

A monumental scope is nothing new for Yanagihara, whose 2015 epic A Little Life was hailed by Garth Greenwell as possibly the “Great Gay Novel.” Her 2013 debut, The People in the Trees—a parable about a scientist convicted of molesting children from the remote tribe he researches—was well received, but A Little Life made Yanagihara a celebrity. The subject of ecstatic reviews, the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. That same year, Yanagihara left Condé Nast Traveler to work at T Magazine, where she is now editor in chief, in a trajectory that mirrors the plot of A Little Life. Over the course of the book’s 720 pages, Yanagihara follows four friends as they ascend to the tops of their respective professions, fall in love, take expensive vacations, eat painstakingly described food, and die. It’s a paean to gay male friendship—Yanagihara, who doesn’t believe in marriage and prefers to live alone, has explained that A Little Life was “meant to be a homage to a different kind of adulthood . . . in which there is a primacy of friendship”—and a fairy tale that spins into melodrama as one character’s history of severe childhood sexual abuse is gradually revealed. Some called it trauma porn, but that was the point. As Yanagihara herself has admitted, the book represented an attempt to engineer a situation in which suicide is not only justified but possibly advisable.

By that benchmark, A Little Life is a blazing success. You may have loved it, or you may have hated it, but if you’re anything like me, you spent the entire second half begging the main character to please, for the love of God, kill himself already. Then again, I’m not the target audience for A Little Life. I downloaded the audiobook under duress, after I’d been asked to write this review. (Pro tip: at 2.6x speed, the novel can be completed in under thirteen hours, and the more gratuitous self-harm scenes take on a pleasantly businesslike quality.) A Little Life is tragic and overblown in the way a soap opera is. Objecting to its more ridiculous plot twists would be like critiquing Grey’s Anatomy—another long, multicharacter saga featuring precipitous career advancement, LGBT relationships, fatal car crashes, and leg amputation—for being too dramatic. It’s supposed to be that way.

Much like Grey’s, To Paradise is not primarily meant for critics. I was told by its publisher, Doubleday, that there were no printed review copies available, until I pointed out that certain influencers, including the pop star Dua Lipa, had already Instagrammed pictures of theirs. In a publicity stunt to match Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Sally Rooney–themed bucket hats, totes, and coffee carts, Doubleday sent out special limited-edition boxes designed to look like the townhouse that serves as the book’s primary setting. Famously, the editor Gerry Howard called A Little Life a “miserabilist epic” and suggested that Yanagihara cut out some of the suffering heaped upon her protagonist—advice she did not take. Howard has since retired, but following the novel’s critical and commercial success, Doubleday evidently learned its lesson: To Paradise appears not to have been edited.

One of the easiest nits to pick in A Little Life is Yanagihara’s treatment of history. The novel spans decades, and yet outside the hermetically sealed friendship bubble, time stands still. The characters live in lower Manhattan, but 9/11 goes unremarked upon, no new technologies are introduced, and the restaurant scene is stuck in the mid-2010s. To Paradise, a book divided into three sections, each with its own clearly demarcated time period, seems in some sense a response to that criticism. In Book I, which takes place in 1893, a young naïf must choose between an older, family-approved suitor and a handsome charmer of lower birth—a love triangle so familiar as to verge on cliché, except that all three participants are men. In this version of 1893, New York and its environs have split off to form the Free States, where homosexuality is destigmatized and gay marriage, so long as it is gay arranged marriage, is a high-society norm. One might be forgiven for asking how the Free States deal with offspring and inheritance—the traditional purposes of arranged marriage—but Yanagihara has thought of everything. While there is rampant xenophobia, Free Staters (unlike their real-world 1893 equivalents) seem to discriminate on the basis of culture and not heredity: they have instituted a robust system for the adoption of immigrant children, so there are plenty of heirs to go around.

This is not the only logic hole Yanagihara takes pains to plug. Though her 1893 is a fantasy in which a belief in true love, rather than any financial interests, might have prompted states to secede, she is not content to let the details remain fuzzy, and we get page after page of lengthy explanations. In her alternative history, the fight for the “freedom of marriage” all but replaces the abolition movement, complete with an underground railroad for gay people. The South has lost the Civil War (renamed the War of Rebellion) “but seceded anyway,” and the map is divided into the Union, the Free States, the Colonies, the West, Uncharted Territory, and Maine. There is no feminist or suffrage movement to speak of, but women practice law and medicine, and the plot, which predates the sexual revolution, integrates the dating conventions it produced. Sex before gay marriage, for instance, is “encouraged” in order to “determine one’s compatibility with one’s possible intended”; obsessive post-breakup letter-writing is considered grounds for legal action.

Yanagihara does not have an ear for the language of the 1890s, and she alternates between the anachronistic (“I’ll take it from here,” one character says to his valet) and the archaic (“I am only one-and-twenty!” or “over the past twelvemonth”). Some of her attempts to sound old-timey result in incorrect word usage, as when freed slaves are granted “citizenry” rather than “citizenship”; a frenzied emotional state is “excessively writ” rather than “overwrought.” Occasionally the grammar gets garbled: “although she would have had to accede to his request, he was too intimidated to do so,” or “because he is a man for whom your happiness will always be his concern.” Political subtleties are not Yanagihara’s chief interest, and we’re treated to small talk like “Do you think we should allow the Negroes in?” and “But Negroes are not people like us.”

If Book I suffers from an excess of alternative world-building, that preoccupation is absent from Book II, which is set an even century later, in a 1993 New York with no discernible differences from our own. The United States is once again a fifty-state proposition, and the Free States seems to have left no vestigial traces: New York is beset by AIDS, Harvey Milk has been assassinated, and the gay rights movement has proceeded unaltered. But the roster of characters is the same. The protagonist of Book I is named David Bingham, and he lives in his grandfather’s home on the north side of Washington Square while he considers an arranged marriage to Charles Griffith and dreams of running off with the dashing Edward Bishop instead. In Book II, we’re introduced to a different David Bingham, a paralegal at a white-shoe law firm, who has moved into the same Washington Square townhouse while in a relationship with its owner, another Charles Griffith. This David is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and was also raised by a grandparent. (His estranged father is yet another David Bingham, who changed his name to Kawika after following a second Edward Bishop on a fool’s mission to rebuild the precolonial Hawaiian kingdom from scratch.)

There’s a natural temptation to treat To Paradise like a David Mitchell novel and try to connect the dots—could these Binghams be descendants of the Binghams from Book I?—but any attempt proves futile. Like a play in which the set pieces are recycled and the actors rotate through multiple roles, To Paradise is composed of a series of characters who reside at the same address and have the same names but are not related. There are, by my count, five David Binghams, four Charles Griffiths—including one Charlie—and three Edward Bishops. (“That’s a lot of Davids,” someone jokes at one point.) The supporting cast is filled out with Norrises, Nathaniels, Peters, and Aubreys. Eden is often an artist; Adams is always the butler. Each of the three parts focuses on someone impressionable who follows someone more charismatic toward an imagined utopia, each includes some version of the phrase “America is a country with sin at its heart,” and each ends with the words “to paradise.”

What meaning are all these echoes supposed to convey? That the American experiment is rotten to the core, but that escape is hopeless? That there is no paradise on earth? Sure, but then why all the Davids? For the most part, it seems as if we’re supposed to find in the repetition itself some deep resonance, a gesture toward the eternal recurrence of universal themes—love, yearning, human frailty, loneliness, racial discrimination, and . . . having a butler. In To Paradise, personality is destiny. Some people are weak and some are strong, and those who have been abused or tricked are doomed to be victimized time and again. (Yanagihara has yet to write a book in which a child is not sexually assaulted.) Children are abandoned, and multiple grandparents draft legal documents in which mothers relinquish their parental rights. There are no happy or fulfilled heterosexual relationships: women seem to have sex, plotwise, only for the purpose of procreation.

In To Paradise, as in A Little Life, sex is often portrayed as an inconvenient compulsion; eros is reserved for food. At every possible juncture, Yanagihara describes the food on offer, including a mouthwatering array of cakes: peach cake, lemon cake, several different chocolate cakes, polenta cake (“its surface glazed with candied rounds of orange”), cake made with “pureed apples that had been whisked into the batter” or with “real strawberries swirled into the batter.” The characters seem to approach the world with a running catalogue of their friends’ favorite dishes and jams and varieties of cheese. When they have trouble making conversation, their go-to topics include “yeast-free baking.” They teach lovers to eat marrow, escargots, and artichokes, and long to introduce grandchildren to shrimp, sea urchin, and figs. Even the people who don’t care about food seem to give it an exhaustive amount of thought. “Food did not interest him,” it’s said of one David, before he recalls the ingredients of meals he sampled decades earlier.

All the delicacies are reserved for 1893 and 1993, because by 2093, the culinary situation is dire: there are no dinner parties or restaurants to speak of. In Yanagihara’s dark vision of the future, our descendants will be stuck at home cooking dog, horse, and raccoon, in addition to nutria meat, tofu, and tempeh. They will refer to beef and pork as “cow” and “pig” (e.g., “pig-and-egg sandwich”), but will have found acceptable meat-free replacements for neither. This is because the New York of Book III is a “dystopia,” and one of the things that make a dystopia a dystopia, for Yanagihara, is the absence of gustatory pleasure.

A part from some brief commentary on AIDS in Book II, the first 350 pages of To Paradise spare little space for communicable diseases. Even AIDS seems primarily notable for how little it affects the characters’ lives. “We went to funerals and to hospitals,” the younger David recalls, “but we also went to work and to parties and to gallery shows and ran errands and had sex and dated and were young and stupid.” By Book III the “age of plagues” has extinguished normal social life altogether.

Here is the timeline of our future, according to To Paradise: We’re in for new outbreaks in 2035, 2039, 2046, 2050, 2056, and 2070, as well as many more minor occurrences in between. Over time, authoritarian measures are deemed necessary to prevent the spread of disease, and in 2062, a fascist national government that goes by the name “the state” is established. There are uprisings in 2083 and 2088, but the insurgents are defeated, and by 2093, the geopolitical map has been redrawn, with Hawaii an independent nation, “New Britain” no longer an ally, and China the uncontested superpower.

This future is low-tech, and remarkably like the past. As in Book I, marriages are arranged and dowries offered. People are paid in gold coins and bow when they greet each other. Television is forbidden, and accessing the internet is a crime. Public executions are reserved for the most high-profile traitors (the rest are simply “disappeared”). Along with capitalism and civil liberties, “tenderness, vulnerability, [and] romance” have all been abolished. The state has “no intentional excess of beauty” and little conversation.

There are no movies, no television, no internet. You can’t, as we once had, spend an evening debating an article or a novel or bragging about a vacation to someplace far away. You can’t discuss the person you’ve just had sex with, or how you were interviewing for a new job, or how much you wanted to buy a new car or apartment or pair of sunglasses. You can’t do these things because none of those things are possible any longer, at least not openly, and with their elimination has also disappeared hours’, days’ worth of conversations.

Without hookups or travel or products (cultural and otherwise), there is nothing left to talk about—a bleak vision of what it means to be human.

“All dystopias,” Yanagihara writes, are “generic in their systems and appearance.” It’s an apt description of the society she has dreamed up. In it, the state exerts total control. Its cameras and listening devices are ubiquitous, and there are both “illegal topics” and illegal books. Even after the relatives of political dissidents are “forgiven under the 2087 Forgiveness Act,” the words enemy relation are stamped on their papers in actual scarlet letters. Other enacted legislation includes the inventively titled Enemies Act, Marriage Act, and Cessation and Prevention of Terrorism Act. Travel is suspended, and attempts to leave the country are punishable by death and public shaming. There is, moreover, a sprawling network of labor camps, refugee camps, quarantine camps, and rehabilitation camps, as well as reeducation centers, containment centers, and relocation centers—all of which are essentially concentration camps for the sick. In this world, an infection is a death sentence. Sick people are removed from society along with their entire families, purportedly to protect the healthy. But they don’t return once they’ve recuperated; they are sent away to die.

Book III finds our Davids and Charleses back on the north side of Washington Square, which now sits in “Prefecture Two.” (New York has been redistricted into “zones” its residents cannot move freely between.) The plot centers on a young woman named Charlie who lives on a single floor of the old townhouse, now subdivided by the state. (The military has asked to “commission” it, in what is either a future portmanteau of “commandeered” and “requisitioned” or a mistake.) Charlie works in a research lab that reports directly to Beijing, and she is married but has never touched her husband, even nonsexually, and interacts with few people. “I knew I would never be loved,” she says, and in one instance is surprised to be treated “as if I were just another person.” As a young child, Charlie was among the victims of “the sickness” of 2070, but due to family connections, she was sent to a hospital rather than a camp. Her subsequent medical treatment, however, may not have been much better than the alternative: dosed with a quickly developed drug that had not undergone longitudinal studies, she is physically and emotionally damaged. In addition to her baldness and scars, Charlie’s entire personality—her literal-mindedness, her “affectlessness,” her “seriousness”—consists of the miracle cure’s side effects.

Like the central characters in Books I and II, Charlie was raised by a grandparent, and she relates almost everything she experiences to stories and facts from her grandfather’s past. When she drinks tea, she feels compelled to clarify that it “wasn’t actually tea but a nutrient-rich powder that was supposed to taste like tea and had been developed at the Farm.” She adds, “I was ten when tea was declared a restricted asset, but Grandfather had a small supply of smoked black tea that he had saved, and for a year, we drank that.” This kind of overexplaining is typical of her narration: each time she introduces a concept like “friend,” or “homosexuality,” or “dog,” she follows it up with a brief gloss, including any relevant legislative or cultural history. Occasionally she prefaces banal facts about the early twenty-first century with phrases like “It may seem odd” or “I know this sounds queer,” but it’s hard to say whom she thinks she’s addressing, or which demographic might somehow know nothing about the world of 2093 yet still be surprised by its basic differences from the recent past.

Charlie’s chapters are interwoven with a series of letters written by her grandfather (also Charles Griffith) between 2043 and 2088. The vast majority of the exposition she provides is duplicated in his letters, which means that the rules of the world are explained ad nauseam. We get paragraph after paragraph describing imaginary future procedures for pandemic containment and eradication. Some of the specifics prove relevant to the plot, but most do not. Like Charlie’s first-person narration, the correspondence is a thin conceit, and most of the time the letters barely read like letters. It’s strange that Charles feels the need to summarize major world events to someone presumably witnessing them simultaneously; that he refers to his twenty-year-old (David, naturally) as “the baby”; that he describes his son’s girlfriend as having “a coiled quality, something lean and feral and sensual.” Often, he reproduces exact dialogue from marital spats. Every once in a while, he seems to remember he is supposed to be writing a letter and addresses his friend Peter, a senior member of the British government, directly.

As we slowly learn, Charles is the scientist responsible for designing the camps system. A Hawaiian immigrant proud to have been recruited by a major American lab, he is asked if he wants to be an “architect of the solution” (a not-so-subtle allusion) and enthusiastically agrees. In his earlier letters, he is devoted to the cause of disease containment, even when faced with the objections of his critics. Eventually, his son becomes one of them: Charles, David says, is an “international war criminal,” though which war he is referring to remains a mystery. Charles feels little guilt about the atrocities committed in the camps, let alone their existence, but he is devastated when, years into the state’s reign of terror, it turns against his own minority group and outlaws gay marriage. It’s not clear how much ironic distance Yanagihara means for us to read into his outrage.

What is clear is that she intends Charles’s story as an epidemiological cautionary tale, and it is in Charles’s letters that To Paradise transitions from multicentury gay epic to COVID-19 protest novel. Much of his scientific narration reads like it was drawn from New York Times explainers, as if Yanagihara had been tasked with creating a fictional frame for disseminating the ABCs of pandemics. In extended descriptions of his work, Charles trots out a series of vocab words (“respiratory aerosols,” “droplets,” “comorbidities”) that have entered popular usage over the past two years. Some of Yanagihara’s most horrific images—vans full of corpses, families watching their loved ones die on livestream—are pulled directly from early pandemic news reports. Though nearly a century has passed since 2020, the standard elements of pandemic response, including temperature scans, masks and gloves, travel bans, and the closing of borders, remain unchanged. There are no curveballs here: by 2093, everything has continued on the same worst-case trajectory someone might have predicted in 2020.

In this world, COVID-19 has not cured Americans of their exceptionalism. “There seems to be this unvoiced but persistent belief that illness is something that happens over there,” Charles writes, “and that, just because we have money and resources and a sophisticated research infrastructure, we’ll be able to halt any future disease in its tracks before it ‘gets too bad.’ ” As in 2020 and 2021, there are conspiracy theories about the CDC (some of which are proven true), expensive hygiene technology that turns out to be “completely useless,” the impulse to blame Asian countries for new diseases, concerns about “Americans’ scientific illiteracy,” viruses originating in bats, pushes for “early and aggressive containment,” and tedious waits for vaccine development and production. People who are infected and fail to self-isolate continue to be vilified. The school calendar continues to shift to accommodate the spread of disease. Scientists continue to debate how and whether to reveal their findings. The increasing rate of zoonotic viruses continues to be understood as the result of “habitat destruction and the growth of megacities,” which lead to “our living in closer proximity to animals than ever before.” Everything about American society, but nothing about how it conceptualizes pandemics, has been upended.

At times, Charles’s reflections begin to sound like quarantine diaries—the slew of personal essays feverishly published in the spring of 2020 (and forgotten shortly thereafter) about the loneliness of social distancing. “The disease clarified everything about who we are,” he writes. “It revealed the fictions we’d all constructed about our lives.” In particular, long periods of isolation “exposed friendship as something flimsy and conditional.” If Yanagihara meant A Little Life to model friendship as an alternative to romance and the nuclear family, she now appears to have lost some of her faith. “That pretty fiction we told ourselves when we were younger, that our friends were our family, as good as our spouses and children, was revealed in that first pandemic to be a lie,” Charles realizes. “Friends were an indulgence, a luxury, and if discarding them meant you might better protect your family, then you discarded them quickly.”

It is not difficult to decode Yanagihara’s message here: To Paradise is an attempt to untangle—and warn against—the modes of thinking that became pervasive in the early stages of the pandemic. In extending the logic of social distancing to its most extreme conclusions, Yanagihara aims to demonstrate its inherent flaws. Since “a disease has no better friend than a democracy,” democracy has been overturned. Without the internet, “you can’t just share your theories of whatever’s happening.” Travel is banned, so “you can’t just get on a plane and unknowingly infect people in other countries.” In the end, she concludes that the fear of disease “has eclipsed almost every other desire and value they once treasured, as well as many of the freedoms they had thought inalienable.”

For Yanagihara, as we know from A Little Life, death is not always the worst option; a lower mortality rate cannot compensate for a world devoid of warmth, laughter, conversation, and, most crucial of all, friendship. There is a slippery slope, she suggests, that begins with admiring China’s COVID-19 response, shunning the sick, and refusing to see friends, and ends with full-fledged totalitarianism.

Unfortunately for To Paradise, history does not progress formulaically. Conjuring a dystopian future from the dominant fears of 2016 might have guided Yanagihara toward a different kind of totalitarian state, one centered on an incompetent strongman with a cultlike following. An imagined dystopia from 2003 could find us in the Islamic Republic of America, the two great civilizations having concluded their clash. Go back to the 1980s, and she might have foreseen a Soviet-style world dictatorship. Those futures no longer sound so plausible.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth reexamining the ideas that took hold in its panicked early days. What does it mean to have accepted culture-wide loneliness as a trade-off for preventing the spread of disease? Did the germophobia of 2020 constitute mass hysteria, or a rational response to the presence of a highly contagious virus? Should we have capitulated to social distancing? Would we do it again? There are real questions to be asked, and To Paradise is bold enough to raise them. But between its unlimited supply of Davids and its triptych of American history, no larger lesson emerges. It’s easy enough to depict a metanarrative of civilization’s decline if you can tweak the past to be more egalitarian than it was, and render the future more dully totalitarian than it’s likely to be. And if the antidote to dangerous ideas is didactic storytelling, I have to wonder (apparently with Yanagihara) whether the cure is worse than the disease.

 is a co-editor of The Drift. She lives in Brooklyn.

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