The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
This book is an extremely detailed fiction about a doctor, Abraham Norton Perina, who embarks on an anthropological expedition to an island in Micronesia, where he discovers a people who seem to live extremely long lives after eating the flesh of a turtle unique to the island. The book is written by one of Norton’s research assistants in an effort to let the world know the truth about Norton’s amazing discoveries and to “…restore Norton’s reputation…”
The efforts of the author to create a biography are admirable. She imbues the book with numerous details as one would expect to find in a “real” bio, including extensive footnoting, references to other (fictional) publications, papers, and scientists. The details are so convincing that after a time, you forget that you’re in a novel; I actually checked some of the references she included to see if there were facts woven in with the fiction.
On one level, the story is about the purported innocence of scientific investigation undertaken for the good of mankind, and how such work – absent moral underpinnings – can go terribly wrong. The basic storyline is that anthropologist Paul Tallent is planning an expedition to the fictional island to study a lost tribe. Norton has recently graduated from medical school and is offered a position on the expedition. Once on the island, Norton’s diaries (from which the bulk of the content is drawn) detail what an adventure by a naive ‘city boy.’ They discover a population they call “dreamers,” the oldest of whom appears to be over 175 years old. After digging deeper into the phenomena, they discover the source of the seeming immortality to be a turtle found only on this island.
Norton, as one reads on, turns out to be a narcissistic, arrogant, amoral man with borderline sociopathic tendencies. Outside of the core story of the expedition and discovery, the story roams through scientific jealousy, greed, and exploitation of an innocent native population for what appears to be the potential to create a miracle drug. One thread carries through to the bitter end of the island and its population, corrupted by invading civilization. Another traces Norton’s rise to fame (he wins the Nobel Prize) and his subsequent hard fall from grace. A third focuses on what damage the single-mindedness of science focused on the act of discovery while ignoring the ideological conundrum of human experimentation and the propensity of human nature to utterly blind researchers from seeing or anticipating the consequences of their actions.
As one reads on, the fictional author’s tone becomes gradually more apologist and defensive. As one reaches the final portion of the book it becomes clear that the biographer is deeply prejudiced in Norton’s favor, and oblivious to the magnitude of Norton’s actions as is Norton himself. The ending reveals why (but I will not), and casts the tone of the book into sharp focus.
The book clocks in at 368 pages. At about the two-thirds point, I found myself becoming distracted by the depth of information and the illogic of some of Norton’s actions. For example, he adopts 43 children from the island; children who have been ostensibly orphaned by Norton’s disclosure of the turtles and the subsequent effect on the population. However, the story of the adoption and his attitude and treatment of the children make little sense; Yanagihara seems to be using them as Norton’s penance for his work on the island, but the impossibility of actually achieving so many adoptions without legal (and the obvious moral) consequences dilutes her point. The footnoting becomes borderline tedious as one feels obligated to read them for potential information about acts and actions, but they ultimately contribute little to the story.
The final pages are almost anticlimactic; the author drops numerous hits about Norton’s state of mind and state of morals throughout the book. Norton ends up in jail for heinous acts, but by the conclusion neither he nor his biographer are capable of recognizing the disaster they wrought.