Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The utter brilliance of this novel can be gauged by the fact that its central character and narrator starts off as annoying and unlikable, and proceeds from there, by stages, to become despicable and utterly repellent, and yet it's impossible not to be fascinated by his train wreck of a character arc. Bad guys and girls can often be compelling fictional characters, but Norton Perina, the sociopathic scientist at the centre of the novel, lacks the glamour or calculating genius of a Hannibal Lecter or Blofeld. Perina is anti-social, pedantic, misogynistic, lacking in empathy, occasionally sadistic, and, worst of all, an enthusiastic pedophile. Yanagihara's compelling, incisive writing keeps us fascinated with Perina even though it's hard not to spend most of the novel hoping that he's bitten by a poisonous snake or run over by a bus or shot with get the idea.

The novel is written as a series of autobiographical letters sent by Perina from his prison cell to a friend and fellow scientist. The friend feels that Perina's remarkable career demands some kind of autobiography. Perina is raised on a farm in Ohio in the 1930s by parents who are both one card shy of a full deck. He goes to medical college and in 1950 joins an expedition to a chain of barely-explored islands in Micronesia. Perina is accompanied by two anthropologists, and the purpose of the expedition is to make find a tribe that has never had contact with the outside world. The tribe is found and it seems they have discovered the key to extending life. Some of them appear to be hundreds of years old, but while their bodies don't age, their minds eventually turn to mush and they wander the jungle like animals. Perina's research, and his realization that eating a turtle found only on the island extends the islander's life, provide the foundation for his spectacular career in research, which culminates in the winning of a Nobel prize a decade or so later. The island is eventually despoiled by researchers and pharmaceutical companies searching the island for more medical marvels. The turtles quickly become extinct, and the key to longer life is never found. Perina makes many trips back to the island and starts adopting the island's abandoned children, forty-seven in total, and brings them back to the US where he raises them himself. Perina is arrested in the 1990s and charged with sexually assaulting one of his adopted children, and his final letter to his friend lays bare the enormity of his crimes.

The People in the Trees works superbly on many levels. It's an adventure story about exploration, an allegory about Western exploitation of  Third World cultures and resources, a critique of scientific curiosity, and a clinically thorough examination of a brilliant sociopath. One theme in the novel could be described as the fascism of scientific inquiry. In Perina's career, and in the scientific/academic environment he lives in, the quest for empirical truths trumps all considerations of ethics and morality, and even common sense. One of the tragedies of Perina's life is that his amorality actually makes him a better scientist, and his resulting professional success makes him a more successful monster. The awfulness of Perina is made bearable and fascinating by Yanagihara's meticulous examination of his thoughts and beliefs. He's far from a one-dimensional villain; at times he can show pity, even affection, and he's even aware of the cruelty he's unleashed on the island. Perina's POV is always colored by his general misanthropy. This becomes particularly apparent during his first trip to the island when his descriptions of the flora and fauna are filled with disgust and loathing. Perina is surrounded by riotous tropical life, and its fecundity and variety seems to horrify him, possibly because he can't control or dominate this environment.

The psychological and physical horrors that fill this novel are made tolerable thanks to Yanagihara's lush, precise prose. She moves seamlessly from describing tribal life, the ecology of her imaginary jungle, to the intricacies of scientific research without missing a beat. It's an amazing achievement, albeit one that's sometimes hard to stomach.

1 comment:

Leigh said...

Unfortunately it mirrors real life, where people who are skilled in an area have their abuses overlooked.