I admit it- I was attracted to the cover of this book, and it was only when I looked closer that I discovered that the author had written A Little Life, a big fat book that I have on my shelves but have not read, even though I know there was a lot of commentary about it. The author is obviously fond of writing big fat books, because this is another one, at 704 pages. But for the last few days I have been completely engrossed in it, and even now I don’t want it to end.
It is set in three parts, each set 100 years apart. This is clear from the start, with the opening pages consisting of three hand-drawn maps, each related to Book I, II or III. The first depicts the the United States in 1893, showing the Free States on the East Coast; the United Colonies in the ‘South’; a blank Uncharted Territories where Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are today; The Western Union comprising California, Washington State and Oregon and the American Union, comprising all the other states, in the centre. The second map is of the Hawaiian Islands in 1993, and the third map, dated 2093, shows Manhattan Island, divided up into Zones, with Central Park now ‘The Farm’ and with Washington Square marked out in Zone 8. The building in Washington Square is important, as it is going to appear in some guise in each of the three Books.
In Book I (1893) we find David Bingham, the unmarried son of a rich grandfather who has made him heir to the Washington Square house on his death. This first book was very evocative of Edith Wharton’s work, both in its focus on the nuances of upper-class life, and in its formal, mannered language. But this New York is set askew: the Free States and the United Colonies are two separate nations after all, and homosexual marriage is an accepted fact. David’s grandfather is concerned that his grandson marry, and so he encourages an arranged relationship between David and the older Charles Griffith. Despite knowing that his grandfather is acting only out of love, David becomes infatuated with an impoverished, unreliable and possibly dastardly teacher Edward Bishop, who implores David to accompany him to California, even though homosexuality is illegal there. I just loved this first part – the cushioned luxury, the restraint, set against the passion and recklessness of David and Edward’s relationship. I didn’t want to let them go as I turned to Book II, set 100 years later in Hawaii.
But hold on- here they are again – David, Edward, Charles, Eden – but they’re not the same people, even though the names are the same. Here is another aimless David Bingham, but this time he is the young partner of an older Charles Griffith, who lives in Washington Square and who this night is hosting the final party of his former lover Peter who is dying of cancer, even though AIDS is ravaging the gay community. He receives a letter from his dying father from Hawaii, another David Bingham, known as Wika (for Kawicka) who has been inveigled? coerced? by an old schoolmate Edward Bishop into stepping into his role as hereditary royalty in establishing a breakaway settlement in Lipo-Wao-Nahale. Edward and David live there, and David’s son (also named David) lived there during vacations as well, until he refused to visit any more, travelling instead to New York where he met Charles Griffith. His father, David Bingham senior, has a breakdown and is hospitalized, writing his last letter to his son. I must admit that after my initial delighting in meeting David, Edward and Charles again, this second book left me underwhelmed, with the last-supper dinner of the dying Peter seeming to stretch on interminably, mirrored by the equally prolonged death of David Bingham senior in Hawaii.
[Update: I have since learned more about the history of Hawaii through a ‘Stuff They Don’t Want You to know podcast, which I mention here, most particularly the coup d’etat by white landowners in 1893. Clearly 1893 is a significant date- but why did she set Part II a hundred years later? I’m mystified.]
Any disappointment that I felt in Book II was quickly forgotten in Book III, set in Manhattan in 2093. It doesn’t surprise me that this book was published in 2022 because it certainly bears the traces of the COVID pandemic. Now that I had realized how the book worked, I was on the lookout for David, Charles and Edward and they were here too, but in very different guises. New York- and indeed, the whole world- had been ravaged by waves of pandemic diseases, with resultant surveillance and government over-reach to quell and fend off the next epidemic. Global warming has resulted in the collapse of the food chain, there is an ongoing drought, and New York is only liveable if you wear a cooling suit while you are outside. Charlie is the grand-daughter of Charles Griffith, who has been the policy architect of a lot of the pandemic responses: confinement of infected people and their families (after initially separating children from their parents, whole families would go into confinement and inevitable death together), wholesale cremations, rigid government control. Charlie had contracted one of the pandemics as a child, and is now infertile and emotionally frozen, and her grandfather arranges for her to marry Edward, a gay man who will look after her but never love her. The narrative is in two parts here: Charlie’s story told with Ishiguro-like flatness, and as a series of letters over decades between Charles and Peter, a high-level bureaucrat in New Britain. While the letters did fill in background for how New York had ended up as it had – and a very depressing trajectory is it, with more points of verisimilitude than I like- the idea of letters being so lengthy and conversational is rather implausible.
Despite its severity, I really enjoyed Part III, as much as I did Part I and I have found myself thinking about Part III a lot since finishing reading it: for me, a sign that a book has really affected me. Reading back over this review, I see that I have likened the writing to Edith Wharton or Kazuo Ishiguro, and there is an element of pastiche about the book. There were hints that the whole thing was going to fall into place with a resounding clunk, but that never happened. Instead there were wisps of connections, and a low drumbeat of repeated themes- homosexuality, illness, searching for something better, loneliness – and the repeated names. Worth 700 pages? For me, yes.
My rating: 9.5/10 (Maybe even 10/10?)
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
I read this back in January when it came out and I still think about section III in particular. It was a surprisingly quick read for such a thick book.
Yes, I found myself reading Part III compulsively. Part II not so much.
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