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The luxurious fantasy of suffering in Hanya Yanagihara’s novels

The author of A Little Life and To Paradise writes long, voluptuous books all about human pain.

Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life and To Paradise, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England.
David Levenson/Getty Images

One of the most talked-about new books of this January is also one of the oddest. Hanya Yanagihara, the author of the much-beloved and much-debated 2015 novel A Little Life, has now released her third novel, To Paradise. And like its predecessor, To Paradise has arrived to both rapturous praise and furious debate.

Yanagihara is an unusual figure in America’s literary scene. The current fashion is for sentences so dry they rasp, but Yanagihara’s prose is rich and sumptuous. So, too, is her evocation of her favorite subject: human suffering. A Little Life is filled with exquisite, loving descriptions of the tormented life of her protagonist, including the violent abuse he experiences as a small child. Likewise, To Paradise luxuriates in long descriptions of abusive relationships and profound depressions and dystopian deprivations. It is never so alive as a book as when its characters are in deep pain.

For some readers, Yanagihara novels make for a profoundly moving and emotional reading experience. Fans describe sobbing through A Little Life, emerging days later feeling tear-stained and fundamentally changed. For others, Yanagihara novels can feel unsettlingly voyeuristic. Why, these readers ask, are we being invited to linger so voluptuously through passage after passage of unrelenting misery? And in our #OwnVoices era, a persistent discomfort lingers around Yanagihara’s choice to consistently write about gay men as a straight woman, and specifically about male-male child sex abuse.

A Little Life was a big word-of-mouth hit, but it was a sleeper hit: The critical debate over whether the novel was great or whether it was exploitative developed slowly, in the months and years since its release. But now To Paradise has arrived with a ready-made debate waiting to encircle it.

The big questions that review after review and think piece after think piece has been asking are: Is To Paradise a good book? And is Hanya Yanagihara a good writer?

Cards on the table: My answer to both of those questions is no. To Paradise and A Little Life both seem to me to be so self-indulgent that reading them feels like a day spent gorging on candy and so dishonest that the candy might as well come from a box labeled “salad.”

But I want to deal with these books in good faith. Let’s start by taking Hanya Yanagihara at her word when it comes to what she says she’s trying to do.

Yanagihara’s books are all about a binary between safety and pleasure

In interviews, Yanagihara has described her central theme as the duality between dull, enervating safety and flamboyant, enervating danger. Her books are designed to play these two poles against each other, and to make the case for danger over safety — for, as she sometimes seems to put it, the pleasure of life over life itself.

That’s part of why the suffering in A Little Life is so overwhelming, why her protagonist Jude suffers more than Job: because she wanted to make the case that it is possible for life to become so unpleasant that it should simply end.

“So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself,” Yanagihara explained to Electric Literature in 2015, “and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition — and Jude’s — that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.”

She went on to explain that she fundamentally mistrusts talk therapy, which operates under the idea that no depressed patient should die by suicide. “Every other medical specialty devoted to the care of the seriously ill recognizes that at some point, the doctor’s job is to help the patient die; that there are points at which death is preferable to life,” she said. “But psychology, and psychiatry, insists that life is the meaning of life, so to speak; that if one can’t be repaired, one can at least find a way to stay alive, to keep growing older.”

A characteristic of depression is to convince the depressed person that they have grasped a deep truth about the universe: that pleasure has gone from the world and will never return, that nothing will ever change or get better, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. The oddity of Yanagihara’s stance is that it treats this common and well-understood symptom of depression, which is treatable, as though it were fatal.

To Paradise is designed to play with the same duality A Little Life did, now extrapolated out from the level of the individual to the level of society. The structure is complicated and a little messy, so bear with me here.

To Paradise is made up of three sections: one novella, one set of paired short stories, and one final novel. All take place in the same townhouse in New York’s Washington Square at hundred-year intervals, and all concern a cast of characters with the same names, all in various configurations. At the center of each section are David, Edward, and Charles or Charlie.

In 1893, David is a wealthy young man of society in a world where gay marriage is legal, in love with poor and charming Edward but betrothed to rich and respectable Charles. In 1993, there are two Davids: one a young man in New York, living with his wealthy older lover Charles, and that David’s father, living in Hawaii, in an abusive relationship with impoverished Edward. In 2093, the protagonist is a young woman named Charlie who lives in a dystopian New York ravished by pandemics, in a loveless marriage with Edward, fascinated by a mysterious stranger named David.

Much has been made of the impossibility of finding any continuity between the various Davids and company. But while it’s true that none of the characters of To Paradise are the same from section to section despite their shared names, there is a certain thematic coherence at play. The Davids are generally the protagonist of each section, laboring to choose between a life of safety and order that may grow stultifying and a life of danger and excitement. They are choosing between one imagined paradise — gay New York, Hawaii, a utopia that became a dystopia — and another.

Generally, the Charleses stand for safety and the Edwards for danger. Too much of either a Charles or an Edward, in this schema, is dangerous. The David Senior of the second section finds himself destroyed by the terrible pleasure of his relationship with Edward. In the third section, the Charles-ish power of constrictive society has grown so strong that our central figure, who should by all rights be a David laboring against the Goliath of social pressures, has become a Charlie herself.

It’s the same binary that Yanagihara was playing with in A Little Life, the same push and pull between an ideal of pleasure and love and human fulfillment, and between prioritizing the continuation of human life at all costs. And as she did in A Little Life, Yanagihara is once again pushing against the grain. She is making the case that our social need to protect and prolong human life should not come at the cost of all that makes human life worth living. This idea comes through most clearly in the final section, in which America has been purged of books, art, movies, television, and even access to the internet — all in the name of pandemic safety.

It is unnerving for many reasons to see a serious novel draw a straight line from mask laws to fascist death camps, as To Paradise attempts to do. But what is most disconcerting about this argument is the callousness it demands from the reader toward people with disabilities.

At one point in the 2093 section, we enter the point of view of Charlie’s grandfather. He’s also named Charles, and he’s a public health official who was one of the architects of the dystopian fascist state that took over America. Charles describes meeting a pair of children, twin boys who were the victims of a pandemic. The experimental drugs they were treated with left them severely immunocompromised and unable ever to leave their parents’ home. And even Charles, committed as he is on a social level to prolonging human life, falters in the face of their individual misery.

He imagines that their mother must be racked with guilt over having chosen to treat their fatal illness. “How could you live with the sorrow and guilt,” he wonders, “that you had condemned them to a life stripped of all that’s pleasurable: movement; touch; the sun on your face? How could you live at all?” He considers that the boys would be better off dead.

The idea that the boys might value their life, constrictions and all — that people with disabilities might consider their lives meaningful and worth saving, even if they don’t look like life as Yanagihara thinks of it — does not appear in these books. Yanagihara’s world is one in which people with disabilities, much like gay men, exist only to suffer, long for death, and eventually, with great relief, meet it.

The dual structure I’ve outlined here is intellectual. But reading Yanagihara’s novels makes it clear that their primary force is not intellectual, but purely and deeply at the level of sensation. That’s what’s most compelling about these books, what makes them so readable at the same time that they are so grotesque in their tragedies.

There is a V.C. Andrews-like quality to Yanagihara’s depictions of pain, a delighted and lascivious panting over the concept. In A Little Life, Jude’s suicide feels inevitable not because in some cases suicide is the correct answer, but because it is the only possible aesthetic climax to the ever-increasing torment his author piles on.

That torment seems to me to be responding to a very specific fantasy. And it answers that fantasy by taking on the form of a genre that’s all about life’s less savory fantasies and how to make them into stories: fanfiction.

There’s a deeply common, deeply juvenile fantasy at the heart of these books

Many critics have already compared Yanagihara’s work to fanfiction. In particular, it feels analogous to the genre of hurt-comfort, in which writers subject their favorite characters to elaborate torture, and then allow them to be tended to in similarly elaborate detail by their beloveds. Yanagihara’s books feel id-driven in the same way that this genre of fanfiction can be; when Yanagihara says, as she did in a recent profile for the New Yorker, that she writes only for herself, you believe her.

A peculiarity of fanfiction frequently confusing to those outside the community is how often it tends to involve romances between male characters, written by straight or mostly straight women. Here, too, Yanagihara follows suit. In A Little Life, Jude eventually falls in love with his male best friend. In every section of To Paradise, all of the central love stories are between two gay men.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherent to the gay-male identity that interests me,” Yanagihara mused to the New Yorker in January. “If I were putting on my dime-store-psychologist hat, I would say more that it’s easier, freer, and safer to write about your own feelings as an outsider when cloaked in the identity of a different kind of outsider.”

This attitude, too, is similar to a certain type of fanfiction, the most self-indulgent kind. There, the eroticized characters are gay men because this identity allows the presumed female reader the space to project herself into the lives of the characters without embarrassment. She becomes the beloved object of the gaze, the adored, without having to weather either the dehumanizing force of the patriarchy or the white-hot humiliation of knowing that such fantasies are childish.

The fantasy of Yanagihara’s books is: What if I were beautiful and talented, and I suffered more than any other human being had suffered? Would this make me interesting? Would this make me lovable? Would all my enemies be hated and all my friends angelic?

In A Little Life, Jude is so brilliant that he has a master’s in pure math from MIT, is an accomplished classical singer, and a professional-level home baker — all in his spare time from his day job as one of New York City’s top litigators. In To Paradise, the various Davids are beautiful, are great artists, are creative and attractive and the object of everyone’s desires. All of them, without fail, suffer endlessly.

It seems clear to Yanagihara that this fantasy of ultimate attraction and ultimate suffering is juvenile and ripe for mockery, because she tends to project it onto unlikable side characters. In A Little Life, Jude’s friend J.B. laments his happy childhood, which he fears has doomed him to artistic mediocrity: “What if, instead,” he muses, “something actually interesting had happened to him?” He fantasizes about being Jude, with his “mysterious limp” and equally mysterious past. Later, J.B. viciously mocks Jude for his limp, revealing his inherent weakness and small-mindedness. Noble Jude responds by cutting J.B. out of his life, but not before he singlehandedly saves J.B. from his crystal meth addiction.

There is nothing in and of itself wrong with taking on this fantasy and its attendant embarrassment, which surely many people have indulged in, as a subject for fiction. An interesting approach literary fiction might take to this fantasy is to confront it, to blow it up and explore it; to try to work out why the fantasy feels so embarrassing, why it appears to be so compelling anyway, what emotional needs it’s sating. Or a compelling novel might be written defending the right to write from the id, to indulge even unadult desires.

Yanagihara’s response instead seems to be to hide from the humiliation that comes with this storyline. The suffering of her novels occurs within the othered body of her protagonists, safely distanced from the identity of the presumed reader. We are asked to face nothing, to risk nothing, to fear nothing; only to wallow and wallow and wallow.

And as a result, Yanagihara’s great argument — that sometimes suffering overwhelms what makes life worth living, that it can be a mistake to prioritize physical safety and the continuation of life over emotional freedom — comes to feel self-indulgent too. After all that, all that, you still don’t get to hope for anything better. Death is the only release.

In the face of so much self-indulgence, that grim idea doesn’t feel like a great and hard truth. It only feels like an author luxuriantly twisting the knife before she plunges it in again, one last time.