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The People in the Trees

May 8, 2014

After reading about Jenny’s and Teresa’s reactions, I read The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara, the way I would stare at a spider—hesitantly at first, and then all in one sitting, to get it over with. The narrator is the most repellent human I can remember meeting in fiction. The footnotes (yes, footnotes in fiction) are by his most devoted fan, though, and that made reading the book a little less creepy and more humorous. I was amused by the fact that the narrator, a doctor named Norton Perina, could inspire loyalty, since one of his ambitions seems to be to walk through life unaffected by anything.

The novel begins with a newspaper article about Perina’s arrest, at the age of 71 and after winning a Nobel prize, for sexual abuse of his adopted children and then segues to a defense of Perina by his only apologist as a “great mind.” The apologist is a doctor named Ronald Kubodera who had worked with Perina, and who is not even mentioned as Perina tells his story, the story of what he discovered and how he became famous.

At the beginning of Perina’s narration, he tells, impassively, about the death of his parents and his distant relationship with his brother, Owen. When he begins telling about his success in science, he speaks dismissively of anyone who tries to talk to him, singling out a janitor in his first lab for answering questions “in the most perfunctory way—not rudely, but not foisting on you the sort of chatter (about the weather, working hard, their various aching body parts) of which janitors and waiters and various service staff in general seem to have an endless supply.” He also mentions that he “rather enjoyed killing the mice…..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.”

Because he is not advancing in his career as fast as he thinks he should, Perina signs on for an anthropological expedition to a (fictional) island in Micronesia called Ivu’ivu, where he continues to be uninterested in anything outside himself: “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 they discover a wonder of the world—“that a man who appeared to be 65 was actually 131”–Perina refuses to believe it at first, saying “I knew they thought I was being rigid and intellectually incurious and boringly conservative, “ probably because that’s how he usually is. When he finally realizes that he can profit from proving that some of the people in the jungle have been alive for centuries (and he is not swift on the uptake), he gets more interested in watching the people in a village they discover and begins taking notes on various ceremonies. Ronald’s footnotes, at this point, unwittingly cast doubt about whether all the ceremonies Perina describes were as he describes them. Perina’s narration also calls attention to itself at this point, as he “observes” that “certain ethnic groups are predisposed to certain types of behavior….The Germans and Japanese, for example…have an organic predilection for a particular brand of refined cruelty, the French for a kind of glamorous laziness that they have managed to pass off as languor, the Russians for alcoholism, the Koreans for surliness, the Chinese for parsimoniousness, the English for homosexuality. The Ivu-ivuans, for their part, had a special interest in and inclination toward sexual promiscuity.” He goes even farther, stating for the record that “It had never occurred to me before Ivu’ivu that children might enjoy sexual relations, but in the village it seemed wholly natural.” This is the point at which no one reading Perina’s narrative can be left with any doubt—it’s clear that he is a predatory man preparing to justify taking what he wants.

When Perina tricks one of the centuries-old Ivu-ivuans into guiding him to the lake where one finds the sacred turtles (opa’ivu’eke) used in the 60th-birthday ceremony that causes some of them to live so long, he immediately captures one, kills it, hacks it up, and sneaks it off of the island. Perina’s unfeeling description of their beauty and of the hidden lake made me think of Douglas Adams’ description of the “scintillating jeweled scuttling crabs, which the Vogons ate, smashing them with large iron mallets.”

Perina is very much like a Vogon, except that he doesn’t read poetry. Instead he publishes scientific papers—first a paper demonstrating that eating the opa’ivu’eke causes long life, and then much later, when it is no longer avoidable, a paper revealing the secret that the price for the Ivu-ivuans’ long life is a “decline,” a loss of sense and intellect. He publishes the second paper only to get the jump on a colleague, but he has been waiting and trying, unsuccessfully, to solve the problem while only he knew about it: “I knew that this form of eternal life was horribly compromised. I knew that if it were to be pursued, a solution, an antidote, would have to be found first.”

Observing the effects of imprisonment on the centuries-old Ivu-ivuans he brought back with him and secretly houses in his lab, Perina says “the first time I saw Mua in a wheelchair being pushed back to their sleeping quarters after a day of tests—his head lolling back stupidly, his arms arranged slackly in his lap, his eyes open but skidding about—I felt a pang, remembering how quickly and purposefully he had once walked through the forest, how he had stretched his short legs into splits in order to straddle the enormous tree roots that calved from the ground. It was necessary, this work, and their decline was inevitable, but I still sentimentally wished it could have gone better for them.”

The island, of course, is ruined, the people destitute, ripe for Perina’s last predation—the adoption, “civilization,” and sexual abuse of its children. Even Perina sees that “it was an island of waiters, where once waiting had been a foreign concept. This had never been a culture obsessed with the past, and why should it have been? Nothing ever changed. But now that everything had, all its inhabitants could think about was what they had lost.”

As he ages, even unfeeling Perina senses the proximity of a monster, but he characteristically blames it on the children he has brought back from the island, saying “sometimes I would watch them marching together, their blunt, unfriendly planar faces brailled with acne, and think involuntarily of Captain Cook’s cloaked advice that I had chosen in my youth to disregard—the fierceness of the Wevooans makes the crew uneasy.” He sits at his table “glaring at the children, all of them forking great quantities of food into their mouths with a greed and vigor that struck me as repellent.” Finally even his insensitive brother Owen notices the way he treats the children. Perina complains “after his infrequent visits, he would call to tell me that he had interpreted the children’s complaints to him about the tidy and disciplined household I ran as ‘cries for help’ as if I were a despot running a small slave state and he were a crusading United Nations envoy who had been sent to bear witness to their lives of misery and injustice.”

Here the narration comes full circle, for that is how the rest of the world sees what Perina has done, and there are only two people left in the world who don’t see it that way, Perina himself and his apologist, Ronald. It’s hard not to think that Ronald will deserve the kind of love that Perina is capable of giving, if the “great mind” ever deigns to turn its terrible attention towards him. Beware, Ronald. “Beware! Beware!/His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2014 3:04 pm

    Brilliant review – not sure I could read the whole book though. Maybe when I’m feeling in a robust mood!

    • May 9, 2014 2:05 pm

      Anybody who is fascinated with characters like Iago or (as Jenny mentions) the narrator of Lolita will be fascinated by this novel. I think readers of Douglas Adams are predisposed to like it, too–besides the Vogon comparison, which I found quite inevitable, there were parts that reminded me of his environmental non-fiction book Last Chance to See.

      • aartichapati permalink
        May 12, 2014 8:54 pm

        I am reading Lolita right now and am having trouble reconciling how fantastic the narration is with how troubling the subject matter is (which I assume is the point). And I like Adams, too! I shall have to read this one.

        • May 12, 2014 9:37 pm

          Part of what’s troubling is that reading makes you feel complicit.

  2. May 8, 2014 6:49 pm

    Repellant is a good word for Norman. He is that, in just about every way. Yet it seems like until his crimes are discovered he’s able to pull the wool over more eyes than Ronald’s, which adds to the creepiness of the story. It seems like only the people close to him could sense how horrible he was, and he didn’t let many people get close.

    I found the way the author put the ending together to be pretty interesting. I wasn’t sure what I though about it at first, but I read some interesting comments over at the Tournament of Books site about the way the end unfolds–how the bit that was left out perhaps got added back at Norman’s insistence because he didn’t see his actions as wrong. So Ronald is being won over to Norman’s view even more than before. Shudder.

    • May 9, 2014 1:56 pm

      Definitely part of the horror of reading this book was that he would slide things in so easy I would accept them as I was reading, and then I’d look up and be horrified–for example, his version of how he met the young village man in the jungle. What you say about how he didn’t let many people get close seems true to life–when a serial killer is arrested, the cliche is his neighbors exclaiming about what a nice quiet young man he seemed to be.

      What you say about the ending–that Ronald added it in at Norton’s insistence–seems right. Certainly it was not a surprise, but I think it was a good choice to include it, there in black and white, from Norton’s own mouth.

      (I wonder if you calling him “Norman” is a freudian slip because you’re thinking of Psycho?)

      • May 9, 2014 7:45 pm

        Ha! Not so much a Freudian slip as a symptom of my complete incompetence with names.

  3. May 8, 2014 9:18 pm

    I have to agree with madamebibilophile, I don’t think — no actually I know this isn’t a book I could read.

    • May 9, 2014 2:02 pm

      This is not a book you should read; no good could be gained from you returning to the Heart of Darkness.

  4. May 8, 2014 10:03 pm

    I can’t tell if you liked it or not. Yes? No? I am only curious because I LOVED IT in spite of Perina being — I agree — one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. (I think Humbert Humbert is worse.)

    • May 9, 2014 2:00 pm

      I can’t tell if I liked it or not, either. I think I feel about having read it the way I usually feel about having written–it was worth the time.
      As I said to some of my classes, back when I was teaching, I think it’s good to read books that you don’t “like” sometimes. Who can “like” a novel like Things Fall Apart? That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever read! Am I sorry I read it? Of course not! Same for The Poisonwood Bible and The Handmaid’s Tale. Some powerful and important stories are not for loving; they’re for warning and repelling and making us think.

      • May 9, 2014 3:03 pm

        Oh, and I never did figure out why it was called Selene syndrome rather than Tithonius syndrome, unless it was merely for the alliteration.

        • May 13, 2014 8:09 pm

          Oh yes, yes! Some books should be read and experienced’; maybe enjoyment isn’t the point – ‘enjoyed’ just for the reading of it not how good/bad it made you feel.

  5. CSchu permalink
    May 9, 2014 6:54 am

    Thanks for the warning. I will stay away from this one!

    • May 9, 2014 2:01 pm

      I actually think you would find it well worth the time it takes to read.

  6. May 11, 2014 1:00 pm

    So many people whose opinions i value have raved about this book that even though it isn’t something that would normally appeal to me I think I am going to have to get hold of a copy. But not this week. I am not feeling strong this week 🙂

    • May 11, 2014 4:47 pm

      I can see you enjoying the growing differences between what Norton says and how the rest of the world must be seeing what he observes (and to observe is to rape, for this guy). But definitely when you’re feeling strong. A guy like Norton takes advantage of the weak, even from the page.

  7. May 12, 2014 11:36 am

    I do love that line about you reading the book the way you’d watch a spider – lol! It sounds a very intriguing novel. I admire authors who go all out for uncompromisingly awful characters. They can sometimes exert a hypnotic fascination.

    • May 12, 2014 1:03 pm

      Maybe that’s part of why I finished the book in one big gulp–the hypnotic fascination! There was the same kind of horror I feel when watching a spider, too–the horror of letting it get out of sight.

  8. May 13, 2014 9:41 pm

    I ordered this one because of Jenny and Teresa’s reviews and how it is just sitting on my shelf looking rather intimidating. But I think I am also a little excited about it because I haven’t read a book about a truly horrible person in awhile and I might just be in the mood for it. Is that weird? Maybe 🙂

    • May 14, 2014 8:22 am

      Better to read about it than actually meet someone like him!

  9. May 14, 2014 3:23 pm

    I enjoyed Jenny and Teresa’s take on the book and yours too. The book is definitely on my TBR list!

    • May 14, 2014 4:34 pm

      We’ll enjoy hearing the degree to which you are repulsed by Norton.

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