Teresa 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?