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'To Paradise' is an inspired and vivid puzzle that doesn't quite come together

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of one of this year's most anticipated books - "To Paradise" by novelist Hanya Yanagihara. Her 2015 novel, "A Little Life," dealt with the challenges of disability and trauma and became a bestseller. Here's Maureen's review of "To Paradise."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Beyond everything else it is, Hanya Yanagihara's new novel, "To Paradise," is a deliberately difficult novel. It weighs in at just over 700 pages and breaks into three distinct books, which read like semi-autonomous novels in their own right. Each book is set in New York City a century apart and invokes an array of literary styles from the novel of manners to alternate history, from the old-fashioned epistolary novel to the explicit social commentary of speculative fiction.

Repetition is Yanagihara's organizing principle here. The same names and situations resurface every 100 years, and other random coincidences abound. Perhaps that's why, when reading "To Paradise," I couldn't help but think of the coincidence that it's being published in the centenary year of another deliberately difficult novel, James Joyce's "Ulysses." "Ulysses" also weighs in at just over 700 pages and is also packed with repetitions, scenes where characters unknowingly repeat incidents from "The Odyssey."

There, the comparisons end. But my own take on "To Paradise" does mirror the reactions of "Ulysses'" first overwhelmed readers. When "Ulysses" came out in 1922, it was hailed by a few critics as brilliant but dismissed by others as baffling and dull. Virginia Woolf confessed she had to force herself to push past the first 200 pages. I have all those responses to Yanagihara's novel. It's inspired and vivid. But there are also long stretches that are so flat and opaque that only a looming deadline made me press forward.

Book I of "To Paradise" is the most reader-friendly and contains some of the novel's most gorgeous language. It's set in 1893 in a New York that belongs to an independent nation called the Free States. The Free States have legalized gay marriage and given full rights to women but keep out Black and Indigenous people. The way communities and nations, even allegedly progressive ones, define themselves by whom they exclude is a theme Yanagihara touches on frequently.

Events here take place largely within a townhouse in Washington Square. That's Henry James territory. And sure enough, this section riffs on James' novel called "Washington Square," the story of a charming cad seeking to marry a shy, plain heiress. The lovelorn heiress of this tale is reimagined as an heir, a young gay man named David Bingham, whose sickliness and awkwardness have made him damaged goods on the marriage market. As David reflects, he was a man living in his grandfather's house, waiting for one season to shade into the next, for his life to announce itself to him at last. What ensues is a melancholy story about seduction, willed self-delusion and the cruelty the world inflicts on the vulnerable.

The second book of "To Paradise" takes place 100 years later in 1993, partly in that same townhouse in Greenwich Village. The David of this story is a cash-strapped, young Hawaiian man living with a debonair, older lover named Charles. The AIDS epidemic imbues this section with a twilit mood. But unfortunately, Book II drifts into a dense ending monologue narrated by David's father, who belongs to the Hawaiian royal family.

The final and longest book of "To Paradise" drags us deep into dystopia. New York, in 2093, has been ravaged by climate change and mutating deadly viruses. That Washington Square townhouse is now chopped into apartments. Among the characters we meet here are two reincarnations of the Charles character - a Charles who's a renowned virologist and his granddaughter, Charlie, who's emotionally and physically compromised. It's her grandfather's effort to save her from the ruthlessness of an authoritarian government that propels this narrative after a sluggish start.

The greatest pleasures of "To Paradise" are technical ones - the seemingly effortless variety of Yanagihara's writing styles, the changes she rings on a fixed group of characters and situations. But unlike other sprawling books that are also explicitly contrived - yes, "Ulysses," or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and, most recently, Anthony Doerr's "Cloud Cuckoo Land" - "To Paradise" sacrifices emotional depth to artistic design. With the exception of the fully realized David in Book I, characters seem summoned up simply to serve the novel's pattern. And that pattern of eternal return makes this big novel feel confined. Sometimes a complicated puzzle contains dazzling individual pieces that lose their luster when pressed together.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "To Paradise" by Hanya Yanagihara. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Brian Cox, one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays the patriarch of a family that owns a conglomerate which includes a conservative cable news network, a cruise line and theme parks. The series is a political, social, family satire embedded in a drama. Cox has written a new memoir that begins with nearly dying at birth. The drama on and off stage and screen continues from there. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS-PETER KLIMKOWSKY'S "RELAXING ON A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: RELOADED FOR PIANO SOLO, PT. 1")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS-PETER KLIMKOWSKY'S "RELAXING ON A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: RELOADED FOR PIANO SOLO, PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.