The People in the Trees

people-in-the-treesTeresa had me read Hanya Yanagihara’s novel The People in the Trees for this year’s book swap. It’s a fascinating, complex novel about one of the most repellent narrators I’ve seen in years, and I was drawn in — as little as I sometimes wanted to be — from beginning to end.

The People in the Trees is the story of Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. It begins with a newspaper article about his arrest at the age of 71 for the sexual abuse of several of his 43 (!) adopted children, then moves to an introduction by Perina’s one remaining friend and apologist, Ronald Kubodera, a scientist who worked with him for years. Kubodera presents Perina’s own narrative about what he discovered and how he became famous, adding explanatory footnotes along the way.

Perina begins with a little biographical information about his youth, but quickly moves on to the meat of the story. As a young man, he signs up for an anthropological journey to a Micronesian island, Ivu’ivu. There, he discovers something so incredible that at first he refuses to believe it himself: a man who looks 65, but is actually well over 100 years old. When Perina finally gets one of the centuries-old Ivu’ivuan men to take him to the lake where the special opa’ivu’eke turtles live, the meat of which causes the people there to live so long, he immediately kills one of the turtles, hacks it up, and sneaks it off the island for experimentation.

Perina publishes a paper about his find — that the meat of the turtle causes impossibly, incredibly long life. Then, when he can no longer avoid it because a colleague is about to get the jump on him, he publishes a second paper, about the disastrous correlation: that the gift of long life is accompanied by senility and mental decline. But it’s too late. The island is overrun by pharmaceutical companies, cosmetic companies, and (eventually) missionaries. The people are destitute and corrupt. His own adopted children turn against him, and, eventually, so does the rest of the world — all except Kubodera, his lone loyal friend.

I should say at the outset that this book is an homage, or in places even a pastiche, of Nabokov. You can see it in the form of Kubodera offering Perina’s story with deprecating footnotes, as in Pale Fire; you can see it in Perina’s style, which gives us matter-of-fact accounts of his scientific exploits, expecting us to be on the side of a “great mind.”

I rather enjoyed killing the mice…. A little crick! and the neck would be broken. Sometimes Julian Turnbull and I would stand at either end of the long counter that ran down the middle of the mice lab, both of us whirling four or five mice in each lab, killing them in batches. It was a satisfying task, a small but real accomplishment to mark a day that, like so many other days, seemed devoid of structure, or progress, or meaning.

The other Nabokovian trick is that the book is full of disgust. Perina is disgusted by something on almost every page: mouse spleens (“soft and pulpy, like foie gras”), a meal at his mentor’s house (“another soup, this one seeming to consist purely of boiled onions and leeks and topped with a wet, suggestive coil of mustard”), his female colleague (“I shook her shoulder, and under her shirt her flesh was repulsive, a quaking blancmange, its surface pimpled with perspiration”), the manama fruit on Ivu’ivu (“disgustingly priapic, about eighteen inches long and fat as an eggplant, and that particular sugary newborn pink one finds only in tropical sunsets… Out of the cut squirmed a large writhing mass of grubs the approximate size and color of baby mice, which fell from the fruit to the ground and began wriggling off; against the moss of the floor they looked like rivulets of suddenly animated ground beef, worming their way toward some sort of salvation.”)

All this disgust contributes to a running sense of unease in the book. We, too, are disgusted, but less by grubs and women than by Perina himself. He is casually, obliviously cruel, to animals (as above) and to people. For a scientist, he is utterly incurious about the island:

Most of what we see in our immediate surroundings is in fact replicated elsewhere in the world with a sort of dull exactness: birds, animals, fruits, sky, people. They may look different from place to place, but their fundamental behaviors are essentially identical: birds tweet and flap, animals prowl and bleat, fruits are insensate and inanimate, the sky fills and empties of clouds and stars, people wear clothes and kill and eat and die.

When Perina finally twigs to the fact that he can profit from the situation in Ivu’ivu, he gets a little more interested, and begins to notice certain Ivu’ivuan ceremonies. But here things get twisty: Perina has already established that he is a cruel, selfish man, ready to take what he wants, and both his own justifications (“It had never occurred to me before Ivu’ivu that children might enjoy sexual relations, but in the village it seemed wholly natural.”) and Kubodera’s make us doubt whether his account of the ceremony is accurate. We have, after all, seen Eve’s reaction to an attempt at a vaginal exam.

If the book had ended with the destruction of the island, it would have been interesting enough, if a bit over the top with its metaphor of despoiled innocence. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead, we see Perina return to the island to adopt over 40 children over a couple of decades, searching for the innocence he saw “educated” in those Ivu’ivuan ceremonies. When his children rebel, when they demand an accounting for a white man taking their heritage, their ancestry, and even their names, Perina is baffled at their ingratitude. And when even Perina’s twin brother Owen (a Lolita-like doubling here) turns against him, he simply cannot understand it. What has he done, besides rescue children from poverty?

But we know. There is no core of compassion in this book, the way there is in Lolita or Pale Fire, but there is a core of uneasy disgust that tells us that Kubodera knows as well. And the ending makes up our mind on that score. (I wonder what the book would have been like if the ending had not made up our mind.)  We have to wonder: what next? Will Kubodera desert Perina, too, and leave him utterly alone? What other innocence could Perina destroy, when lands and friends and children are all gone?

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17 Responses to The People in the Trees

  1. Jeane says:

    Wow. I’d heard about this book in someone else’s review and was curious, but didn’t know about the mood set by so much description of things disgusting him. Sounds like it might be unsettling to read.

  2. Teresa says:

    This book is something else, isn’t it? Especially impressive for a debut. There’s so much going on both on and under the surface of this book, and it all hangs together. I keep hoping that the (entirely mystifying) popularity and acclaim for the second book will get people to read this and see just how good she can be.

  3. You can see why I cannot lose this suspicion that the second novel has something more to it than a misery chronicle. Some of the infelicities and howlers people have noticed look suspiciously like clues. But the people who really admire the book seem to do so for its melodramatic content and have no interest in cracking the code.

    And maybe there is no code. I have not seen a hint of a quotation from that book that is anything close, as interesting prose, to what you provide from The People in the Trees. If there is a trick, it is a deep one.

    My real question is: this first novel – is it like Pale Fire or is it really like Pale Fire, in which case there is a lot for readers to do with it. Has anyone really gotten to work on The People in the Trees? I have poked around the internet but not found anything.

    Pale Fire was, for a long time, inconsistently reviewed, even after Mary McCarthy’s slap in the face of hasty reviewers. Lots of smart professionals did not get it.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been thinking about whether there’s more going on in A Little Life. I tend to think the difference between the two books is the difference between a book the author worked at off and on for 18 years and a book the author wrote in what she’s described as an 18-month fever dream. However, I wonder if a case could be made that most of the story in A Little Life is the dream of one character. The story is framed by these letters from Jude’s adopted father, Harold, to someone we later realize is Jude’s friend Willem. Harold lost a son and Willem lost his brother. Could Harold have selected Willem as a kindred spirit, having seen his movies and JB’s paintings (that may simply include someone who reminded him of Willem), and be concocting this whole alternate life with an alternate son for himself? Jude could even be a math student he had in one class and decided to dream him into a law student as well to strengthen their bond. It would explain the weird out-of-time feeling, the focus on family Thanksgiving rituals, the strange shifts in perspective. Hmm… I can’t bear the thought of spending more time with the book to see if it works, but I’m pleased with the theory.

      And I’d love to see someone digging into People in the Trees to see how deep it goes. I’ve hardly seen anyone even address the potential unreliability of Perina’s account of what happened on Ivu’ivu, and there could be much more going on. Perhaps there isn’t, but it would be interesting to dig into to see, I think.

      • Jenny says:

        It’s not really like Pale Fire, in the sense that there isn’t an entire other story going on in the notes/foreword/glossary. I looked at it pretty carefully. But I do think Kubodera announces himself as unreliable — says he’ll judiciously excise passages and edit certain things — and then we don’t really know where we are. It’s an interesting approach, especially at the very end.

  4. Deb says:

    I could not finish this book. I found it overwritten and in desperate need of a really ruthless editor who would make some deep cuts. Yanagihara threw in everything but the kitchen sink and the whole book felt sprawling and undisciplined. In LOLITA (and PALE FIRE), you see a master at work, playfully ( and not so playfully) subverting our expectations and manipulating our responses; in TPITT, we just have an undoubtedly talented writer tossing all of her tricks into a hat and hoping something meaningful will emerge.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, obviously I disagree. I don’t think she’s a patch on Nabokov, but I also don’t think it was overwritten or sprawling; not everyone needs to be terse to be good. And I do think it was good: a portrait of a monster so unselfconsciously monstrous that he can’t understand the ingratitude of those he’s destroyed. The form was subtle and the prose interesting. I look forward to seeing what else she does, though after the success of A Little Life, she has little incentive to seek serious editing.

  5. Totally starting with this one rather than A Little Life.

  6. Thomas says:

    Interesting that a Deb’s comment references the kitchen sink. That was one of the things I tweeted about A.L.L. Given Teresa’s displeasure with Yanagihara’s second book, I think I have to trust that this one is more redeeming. However, HY seems to be fascinated by adoption and making things over the top. Why did it have t be more kids than even Josephine Baker adopted?

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