A Hybrid Alternate History? Hanya Yanagihara’s Novel, To Paradise

The latest high profile counterfactual novel has just been published -- Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise -- and early reviews raise interesting questions about how to classify it within the genre of alternate history.  

I haven’t yet read the novel yet, but why should that stop me from commenting on it? (For what it’s worth, a few years ago, Pierre Bayard wrote a whole book, entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – but, of course, I haven’t yet read that book either).  

To Paradise is divided into three sections: one set in 1893, one in 1993, and one in 2093.  The first is framed as an alternate history of the U. S. where gay marriage has been legal since the 18th century.  

As a recent critic, Erin Somers, put it in a recent review , “Section one, set in 1893, follows a young banking heir named David Bingham, who must choose between his dull, nouveau riche suitor, Charles Griffith, and a con man, Edward, who has beguiled him with dreams of the West. The Northeast is its own country called the Free States, where gay people may marry. The West is a separate territory. The South is called the Colonies and has lost the war “but seceded anyway, sinking further into poverty and degradation by the year.”  

At first glance, this premise seems highly implausible.  But perhaps Yanagihara is able to fashion as set of events to make it semi-convincing.  If not, the novel’s effectiveness (at least in the first section) may be compromised.    

Somers does flag one glaring problem that raises further questions about plausibility: somehow in this alternate world, “Marriages are arranged, even between men, to accumulate property” but “hatred of Black people is total” – a hatred that, Somers notes, “seems to exist in a vacuum” insofar as it endures “even in a culture where homophobia and xenophobia [towards]... (white) immigrant children have been eradicated.”   Perhaps this odd contradiction is adequately explained.   I'll have to get the book and see.

Apart from plausibility, the larger question is whether the novel’s first section alone should qualify To Paradise as an alternate history.  This is because section two seems to take place in our own world (real not alternate), particularly in New York City during the AIDS epidemic.    

Meanwhile, section three takes place in a dystopian future.  According Somers’ review: “By book three, the New York of 2093 has plunged into totalitarianism in the face of catastrophic climate change and endless, rolling pandemics. Washington Square Park has become a tent city and is later razed altogether. Tragically, the townhouse has been divvied up into eight apartments. Charles Griffith, a monstrous doctor in the mold of Mengele, tries to save humanity by instituting death camps, while wrangling with his rebellious son, David Bingham. One of the pandemics has killed a generation of children and so, to promote procreation, marriage between men and women has been made compulsory."

Echoes of Katherine Burdekin’s 1937 feminist, anti-Nazi novel, Swastika Night, anyone?  

To Paradise is over 700 pages long, and only the first third is an alternate history.  So does the novel qualify as an alternate history?    

Perhaps a hybrid alternate history.  

Admittedly, this term is somewhat redundant.  Since its inception in the 19th century, alternate history has itself been a hybrid form of literature, combining elements of historical fiction, realism, science fiction, and fantasy, along with various genre tropes (detective yarns, old westerns, time travel sagas, parallel world tales, and the like).    

In all of these narratives, the common element has been a point of divergence that alters the course of historical events that are then followed to some kind of conclusion.  

Strictly defined, alternate history narratives have to be set in a time frame that lies in a bygone period of time, relative to the author.  If the narrative strays into the future, the text is more properly classified as a “future history.”  

There are certainly precedents for alternate histories straying into the future.  Keith Roberts’s novel, Pavane, was published in 1966 but set its plot in the year 1968.  Nat Schachner’s famous short story, "Ancestral Voices,” was published in 1933, with a plot line initially set in the year 1935 (that then moves backwards to Rome in the 5th century C. E.).  Both tales are considered alternate histories.  Future settings should therefore not disqualify a narrative out of hand from inclusion.  

Like these narratives, Yanagihara’s novel occupies both past and future spaces (probably because, as a recent New Yorker article made clear, she combined several novels into a single narrative).  To Paradise, therefore, should probably qualify as an alternate history.  

But if 2/3 of the novel dispenses with allohistorical framing, what then?    

There’s no need to provide a definitive answer to this question.  But To Paradise does raise questions about where critics should set the boundaries for alternate history as a genre.