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Jul 07

Book Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

What’s It About

It’s the memoir of fictional Nobel Laureate, Norton Perina, who, in the 1950s, discovers a link between a rare turtle found in a remote Micronesian island and the possibility of eternal life.  Norton’s legacy is tainted by later accusations of child abuse and pedophilia.

Representative Paragraph

A neat comparison…

But science, specifically the science of disease, was all delicious secrets, dark oily pockets of mystery. Language could be misinterpreted, misconstrued, its rules imposed or ignored at whim. There was no discipline to it. It seemed sometimes a sort of game made up by man to amuse himself with, much as Owen did. But a disease, a virus, a wiggling string of bacteria, existed with or without man, and it was up to us to fathom its secrets.

Should I Read It?

No.

The novel is essentially the memoir of an arsehole and as a result makes for difficult reading.  My hatred of Doctor Norton Perina meant that whatever deeper point Yanagihara was making was lost on me.

Trigger warning: the novel features child abuse and rape.

Commentary

Hanya Yanagihara loosely based Doctor Norton Perina and his memoir on the controversial life of Doctor Karol Gajdusek.  Gajdusek’s claim to fame, according to Wikipedia, was (a) winning a Nobel Peace prize for curing kuru a disease that was rampant among the South Fore people of New Guinea in the 50s and 60s (and which Gajdusek linked to funerary cannibalism) and (b) sexually abusing a number of the children he adopted from the South Pacific.  Doctor Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s lifelong friend who curates the memoir with a preface, postscript and explanatory notes, is based – it would appear – on psychologist Chris Brand, one of the few people to defend Gajdusek’s paedophilia.

And it’s the Chris Brand facsimile, Doctor Kubodera, who, in his preface, foreshadows the tone of Perina’s memoir.  Chatting to a fellow colleague, Kubodera is asked whether the recent accusations of child abuse levelled against Dr Perina were true.  He responds by saying:

It is not relevant whether he did or not… Norton is a great mind, and that is all that matters to me and I should say to history as well.

Therefore, if you’re expecting Perina to reflect on his achievements and his failures (including his weaknesses) than you’re reading the wrong novel about a disgraced Nobel Laureate.  Perina, facilitated by Kubodera, is all about protecting his legacy and justifying his actions.

Here’s the thing.  I appreciate that Yanagihara is asking us, through Perina’s observations, experiences and opinions, to question our own moral framework.  In a sense this novel is a response to those who talk about cultural relativism as if it’s a cure-all or defence against any action by any culture that isn’t our own.  And I get that the novel asks us to question whether we should still extol the discoveries of great people even if they did terrible things – whether to their subjects or in their private lives.

But these questions, and the ambiguity and level of greyness that Yanagihara wants to inject into his novel is undermined by the man telling us the story.  Because while I can appreciate the importance of his discovery (well… sort of*) the fact is, Norton is a total dicksplash.**  He’s racist, a misogynist and is quite willing to devastate an entire culture just so he can prove a scientific point.  Even his “selfless” act of adopting over 40 poverty stricken children from Micronesia and educating them in America is undermined by the fact that (a) he sexually abuses at least one of them and (b) he gets all pouty and upset when they rebel and don’t respect his authority.  And even if he’d cured cancer or motor neuron disease my thoughts about Norton would be no different.  He’d still be the arsehole who saw nothing wrong about raping a child under his care.

I finished this novel before Nobel Laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, felt the need to demean the women who work in the field of science.  Since then, there’s been much debate (take this article in The Guardian by Robin McKie) as to whether the reaction from the academic community – he was sacked from his various posts as a scientific adviser – was too harsh.  Whatever your thoughts, I can feel some sympathy for Hunt given he’s fully aware that what he did was, as he says, inexcusable.  In comparison, Perina is a caricature.  Other than a mild regret that his discovery of the rare turtle probably led to the turtle’s extinction and, for that matter, the near total assimilation of the Ivu’ivu tribe, Perina spends most of the novel justifying his actions.  And while Perina ultimately admits to raping Victor, one of the boys under his care, he reframes the whole thing as an act of love:

And then after, when I lay exhausted atop him, I would find myself uttering words of love and longing and making him promises I had never made before, my voice sloppy with tears. Later, when he accused me, I was shocked. For I loved him, you see, loved him despite everything. At the trial I would say that I had given him exactly what I gave my other children—money, a home, an education. But really what I thought was, I have given him more than I have given anyone else. I have given him what I always yearned to give. That moonlit night in William’s bed, with him squirming under me, I knew what he had been trying to provoke from me, and that night I gave it to him, gave it to him without hesitation. For this is what I whispered to him before I left the room, as the sky outside began to lighten. “Vi,” I told him, the pillow still over his mouth so he would have to listen to me, “I love you. I give you my heart.”

It’s sickening stuff, the finally capstone on the character of an awful man.

So what’s the message I’m meant to take from this book?  Where’s the moral ambiguity I meant to reflect upon?  Where the challenging concepts I meant to wrestle with?  Because I don’t think for a moment that Yanagihara is making a case for pedophilia and rape based on the flimsy notion of cultural relativism.  Nor do I think the main intent of this novel is to show that terrible people will say anything to justify their horrible attitudes.  And yet, if there is more to this book, if Yanagihara has a deeper message, than it’s gone entirely over my head.

The People in the Trees is not a terrible novel.  Norton might be a horrible person, but the imagery he evokes is at times beautiful and the science surrounding the turtle – the slight genre element in the novel – is interesting.  But maybe I have missed the point of the novel, hidden between the lines of Perina’s egotistical musings.  Because at it stands, this is the memoir of a child abusing aresehole and it’s not worth your time.

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* I’m not convinced that Perina’s discovery is worthy of a Nobel Prize.  Yes, the link between the rare turtle and the longevity of the Ivu’ivu tribe is interesting.  But the fact that ingesting the turtle meat also rots your brains means that the discovery is a form of fool’s gold.  At least Doctor Karol Gajdusek, whom Perina is based on, cured a disease.

** A phrase that comes courtesy of my wife.

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