The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Dr. Norton Perina, the main character of Hanya Yanagihara’s impressive debut novel, The People in the Trees, is a man some might call a monster. His character is loosely based on that of D. Carleton Gajdusek, a virologist and winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize. Gadjusek served time in prison for sexually abusing some of the many children he adopted from Papua New Guinea. Deliberately unsettling, even irritating at times, the book follows Perina’s trajectory, from Nobel Prize winning scientist to pathological pederast. But it also raises issues of greed, environmental degradation and Western imperialism.
The story is told through Perina’s “memoir”, written from prison where he is serving time for the statutory rape of one of his adopted sons. His text has been transcribed and is heavily footnoted by Dr. Ronald Kubodera, a fawning lab assistant of Perina’s.
Self-described as having “marrow-colored hair, a simpering smile, and huge, bready hands, each finger as yeasty as a rolled pastry”, Perina is unsavory, and at times unthinkingly cruel. “I rather enjoyed killing the mice”, he says, referring to his time as a medical student.
After graduating from Harvard, Perina joins a senior scientist, Paul Tallent, (one of the book’s few sympathetic characters) to search for and study a lost tribe on Ivu’ivu, a fictional island somewhere in the South Pacific. Perina, spends his time recording Ivu’ivu’s exotic plant and animal life, descriptions of which are among the most imaginative and enjoyable parts of the book, and trying to suppress his unrequited lust for Tallent.
The scientists find not only the lost tribe, but are taken aback when they come across a group of “dreamers”, forest people in some cases several hundred years old, who suffer from a “cursed” immortality. (Perina calls this “Selene syndrome” in his landmark scientific paper.) Their bodies stay relatively young while their brains atrophy, leading ultimately to a zombie-like existence.
Perina and the scientists connect their longevity with eating the flesh of the opa’ivu’eke, a giant turtle native only to Ivu’ivu. Tellingly, in his published research, Tallent, chooses not to highlight the “dreamers”, instead publishing “The People in the Trees: The Lost Tribe of Ivu’ivu”. But Perina has no such restraint. Justifying his actions in the name of science, and hoping to isolate the key to prolonging life, he secretly kills an opa’ivu’eke and smuggles its flesh back to his lab in the States. The scientists also bring a group of “dreamers” back for further study and their slow decline, deprived of their native food and imprisoned in a room without windows is yet another instance of Perina’s casual cruelty.
Perina’s actions bring terrible consequences for the island of Ivu’ivu and its people. Destroying its Edenic tranquility, Western pharmaceutical companies rush in to snap up the turtles, hoping to isolate the anti-aging compound in their flesh. The island’s precious ecosystem falls tragically out of balance, as do its people’s culture and traditions. Thanks to Perina’s greed and the naked abuse of power (in pursuit of profit) by the pharmaceutical giants, Ivu’ivu becomes their de facto colony. Of course this is only part of the story; it becomes grimmer still as Perina’s home life comes into view, building suspense in a run-up to the end of the novel, that disturbingly plays on the modern reader’s fascination with the abject.
Yanagihara sets a bleak tone and maintains it throughout The People in the Trees. The novel yields a strong critique of Western colonialist impulses. The author has said in interviews that it is “a much more grotesque, extreme version of what some might say happened on Hawaii”, where she is from, and the effects of colonization there.
The narrator may be a monster, but in Perina we recognize some of the worst aspects of Western culture, hell-bent on a self-destructive forward march in the name of science and progress. The zombie-like “dreamers” resonate as an extended metaphor for our societal urge to preserve youth at all costs. The People in the Trees is disturbing, but the reader is rewarded, both by Yanagihara’s masterful prose and her cautionary message.
The People in the Trees has been shortlisted for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction.