The Amazon reviews on Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees are a mixed bag, and fairly so: It’s a beautiful, fascinating and imaginative book—that can at times be highly unpleasant to read.
TPITT is, most immediately, an imagined memoir from doctor Norton Perina—the story is loosely based on IRL doctor D. Carleton Gajdusek—who in his 20’s stumbles upon a lost tribe on a remote Micronesian island. A portion of this tribe, who come to be known as “the dreamers,” suffer from a unique affliction that allows their bodies to stop aging while their minds continue to. Centuries old, while physically middle-aged and mentally childlike, the dreamers prove a career-making discovery for Perina, who goes on to become hugely famous and to adopt dozens of the tribe’s offspring. And yet Perina’s memoir is filtered through a second party, Ronald Kuboderia, a former lab assistant (the NYT review, perfectly, describes him as “Smithers to Perina’s Mr. Burns”) who we discover has asked Perina to write said memoir from prison, where Perina is serving time for pedophilia charges. Like I said: unpleasant.
As debut novels go, Yanagihara—whose second book, A Little Life, came out last month—conceived for herself an extremely uphill battle here. Not only does TPITT involve an imagined anthropological adventure (including the detailed outlining of a Micronesian tribe’s habitat, appearance, customs and language) but the novel itself is also revealed to us by a narrator who is at best unreliable, and at worst a morally dubious and potentially sociopathic scientific fame whore with a predilection for young boys. Either way, he’s an unlikable man, one who equates professional ostracism with intellectual superiority and describes his first paper on his discoveries as “nothing more than an announcement, the medical equivalent of Martin Luther posting his theses on the church’s wooden door.”
Indeed, there are many times when reading TPITT that one or both of these emotional challenges—the tribe, the narrator—proves almost insurmountable, as when Perina violently kills a turtle sacred to the tribe in the interest of furthering his understanding of the dreamers, or when he stumbles upon a ritual that involves the systematic sodomizing of coming-of-age boys. Yanagihara, to her credit, pulls no punches in the creation of her leading man and the people he’s observing. Neither is particularly easy to swallow, but both are so complete that one (appropriately) is asked to direct one’s discomfort not at the book, but at what the book is suggesting, what it’s asking us to consider. What makes the novel so impactful is not Yanagihara’s deft negotiation of the boundary between tolerable and deplorable, but the fact that the demarcation itself is the point. The tribe are a people untouched by technology, civilization and even time. Who are we to pass judgment on their rituals? Who are we to burst their bubble of isolation? Who are we to interrupt their lives purely for the sake of appeasing our wants, however intellectual in nature?
Sex rituals notwithstanding, it’s worth noting that TPITT is also an [objectively] beautiful book, even through the lens of generally loathsome Perina. A man’s face is described as “memorable for its absences rather than its presences;” the study of disease is characterized as “all delicious secrets, dark oily pockets of mystery.” This eloquence is not only welcome but seemingly necessary: How else are we to picture a place and time worlds removed from our own? How else are we to conceive of a people so different from 21st century civilization that they might as well be aliens? And how else are we to get through some of the otherwise distinctly non-beautiful facets of life among the tribe—their nonexistent approach to child-rearing, their penchant for munching on tiny adorable monkeys, their routine beating to death (admittedly, for food) of quietly objecting sloths.
I’m not sure how one sets about writing a book whose narration inspires both wonder and repulsion in equal measure—and at the same time—but Yanagihara has done it here. There are a lot of people who won’t read The People in the Trees because of the things I’ve mentioned, because they have a knee-jerk aversion to any book that raises topics they find abhorrent. Fair enough. But if you’re not inclined to discount a swath of literature that includes everything from Lolita to The Lovely Bones (also see), then TPITT is worth your time. It’s bold for any novel, let alone a debut. It’s compelling and provocative and artfully executed. You will be thinking about this book for a long time after you turn the final page.
TITLE: The People in the Trees
AUTHOR: Hanya Yanagihara
ALSO WROTE: A Little Life
SORTA LIKE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves meets Heart of Darkness
FIRST LINE: “I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest.”