I have this memory of reading Infinite Jest in one week at the cottage. And memories of scoffing at people who took weeks to read a novel. Like, what, I thought, were they doing with their time? Well scoff no more because it took me all summer to read Hanya Yangagihara’s new novel, To Paradise. But I did. And you should, too.
Set in three distinct time periods – the late 19th century, the mid-20th and the near future of the 2060s – the novel grounds itself (not literally, but close to literally) in the setting of Washington Square park and the residents of a stately manor house on its edges. In these richly imagined sections of the book distinct characters with repeating (and for this memory fogged individual, sometimes confusing) names move through the house with recurring thematic questions explored through these unique yet layered temporalities.
Some of what the book focuses on is family – what kinds of responsibilities a parent owes a child, where parental and child autonomy start and end, and how freedom within a family is limited, found and exercised. Much of it is on how illness shapes a family. Written post-2020, and with the latter section of the novel (the 2060s section) written entirely from a frame of a post-pandemic, post-climate catastrophe state, the backdrop of Covid looms even while it is never explicitly named. The ways parents and children, partners and lovers, are asked and required to negotiate, to compromise, to mourn, and to sacrifice within the frame of contagion is… compelling and unsettling.
Yangagihara writes incredible characters. You’ll recall that I love A Little Life – so much so that I read and reviewed it twice – and what I loved in that novel – the exquisite imagining of the wholeness of characters – repeats here. Most reviews of To Paradise will tell you that the middle section, set in Hawai’i, drags a bit. And it does. But more because the plot is slow than the fault of fully imagined characters. Make it through that section and you are richly rewarded in the final third.
I suppose my only complaint is the unsettled questions at the end of each section. While I know the lack of answers is intentional, I do, I can’t help but remain frustrated that the responsibility for imagining the future falls to me. Of course there’s a thematic point in that formal quality, but still. Come on.
Thanks to my mum who urged this one on me and promised that I’d love it. I did.
I didn’t read the news all day. Had Roe v Wade broken to me at a pizza picnic in the park and just.
The simulation hypothesis goes like this: we are living in a computer simulation. I mean it’s more complicated than that, but also that simple. And so all the bananas things we individually and collectively experience are just the simulation playing itself out. Like today. Just a part of the program.
Emily St. John Mandel, in an interview with Ezra Klein talks about how the idea of the simulation hypothesis and the current fascination with the multiverse offered her a way to write a book – Sea of Tranquility – she already wanted to write about time travel. That if we live in a simulation it solves the problem of a recursive time loop that time travel in reality would introduce.
And those of you who read The Time Traveller’s Wife this is not that. This is… god, I don’t even know where to start with how good this book is. But that’s my job here so let me try:
Let’s start with a novel self-aware that its novelist is most famous for her pre-Covid incredible pandemic novel, Station Eleven, but that the new novel is being written during a pandemic and all of its readers will have been in a pandemic and so why not make a narrative space for that experience. And it’s so breathtakingly sharp in the section of the novel set (oh yeah, it covers 600 odd years with lots of jumping around in time) just before a pandemic is going to rip across Earth and the moon colonies (oh yeah, much of the setting is the literal moon (hence the title)). The conceit of time travel means we know already what will happen in a way we didn’t and couldn’t and still don’t with Covid, and the helplessness of watching what is about to happen, to not being able to intervene, the (what is a stronger word than desire?) desire to go back to yourself in December 2019 with a set of instructions. (and what would yours say?)
And then a novel that is guttingly beautiful writing. Just come on.
And a protagonist in each temporal section – but particularly Olive and Gaspery-Jacques – that are whole and human but also believably in their future settings. Like the particular genius of describing one of the moon colonies as having broken it’s artificial sky and so it being perpetual night (The Night City) in a way that fills a world-building function but also gets at the particular ache and beauty of feeling (or being) alone in the darkness when government just won’t or can’t spend enough to fix the sky.
And then back to the question of how do we know that there is anything approximating a ‘real.’ That even if we believe that we are not in a simulation – that the couch under you and the ground under that is just material in an ever-expanding universe of material – we are nevertheless in simulations of identity and community and politics and nation and family where we convince ourselves (as we must) that our beliefs and our choices are somehow real.
So not a book to read while high, maybe.
But a thousand times a book to read.
Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.
So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of
Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.
And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.
This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.
And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.
I’m going to start with a quote from a Vox article about Sally Rooney, because I think it captures pretty well my read and sometimes let professionals do their jobs:
The result is that it is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic: If you read Sally Rooney, the thinking seems to go, you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both “smart” and “fun” as general concepts.Constance Grady, Vox, “The Cult of Sally Rooney” -https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/9/3/20807728/sally-rooney-normal-people-conversations-with-friends
It doesn’t have to be aspirational. Conversations with Friends is short, totally absorbing and delightful. And the whole time you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this how novels normally sound?’ ‘am I high or is this how narrative reads’ etc Sometimes you may be high. And that’s fine! It reads even better this way. Not that I know.
So in this one it’s a love quadrangle focused on Francis and Nick having an affair, but Francis really loves Bobbi, but Bobbi has a thing for Melissa, Nick’s wife, who he also loves. It’s pretty simple to keep track of in the book because they’re usually in the same room/house and almost always talking explicitly and plainly about what they are thinking or feeling about themselves and the others.
[It’s so refreshing for a character to just be like: this is what I’m thinking! Forget ‘show don’t tell’! Just tell us! It’s a joy!]
And there’s such great stuff on age/coming of age, maternity/parenting and the distance between ideals about not needing money and actually… needing money.
And oh my god the sex scenes are very well written. (sorry, mum!)
In sum: even if you don’t want to be fancy pretentious reader you can read this one because it is just great. And if you do have aspirations for what to talk about at a cocktail party, because those are happening again, read on! (Even though it was written ages ago. Whatever! Some of us arrive late).