I’ve had some things going on in my life. Some major life things, or Life Events, or what-have-you. As a consequence I’ve been really, really good at not falling asleep, and fretting, and ruminating, and considering pro’s and con’s. I’ve been really, really poor at reading an entire novel. So between the start of March and now I’ve read things that made space for my fleeting focus (which isn’t to say these things don’t require focus, only that I was only able to muster focus for a fleeting period: half an hour in the bath, twenty minutes on the bus): Alice Munro short stories, re-reading for the hundred million-th time the Beverly Cleary Ramona series and starting and then dropping a sequence of novels that in another time would have had me captured (Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is the most unlucky in the lot – I made it a third of the way in, put it down for a week of fretting, and when I returned could. not. recall. what I had already read and so abandoned the whole project. Even though I recognized in the first third that it was an excellent novel. I digress). A side question for you then is what do you read when you’re anxious? Or unable to focus?
So what brought be back to the realm of attentive reading? HANYA YANAGIHARA. I made something of a spectacle of myself last year in my raptures about A Little Life and continue to insist (to friends, family, total strangers) that this book is one of the best. And so when C. and N. suggested I read The People in the Trees, Yanahihara’s first novel, I didn’t hesitate.
C. and N. are wrong in thinking that The People in the Trees is better than A Little Life. To be fair it’s hard to compare them as they take such different narrative approaches and focuses (foci?), but much as I loved The People in the Trees I think I’m just a rabid zealot when it comes to A Little Life and nothing will persuade me that it’s not perfection. Which is not – at all – to diminish the brilliance of The People in the Trees. It’s great. Really.
The novel follows disgraced scientist Norton Perina as he recounts his memoir from prison, where he is serving time for the sexual and physical abuse of children. Perina’s story traces his discovery of a rare turtle on an isolated island that, once consumed, affords extraordinary longevity to the person who eats it. His narrative maps the consequences of publishing his discovery on the people and ecology of the island, as well as his personal fortunes and decisions that fall out from this pivotal moment in his scientific and personal development. (One of the interesting threads in the novel surrounds the extent to which genius is the product of hard work, chance, predisposition or a mercenary exploitation of the efforts of others. Perina’s reflection on how his arrival at pivotal moment of discovery is – almost entirely – accidental and the consequence of the labour and insight of others, offers up one lens for complicating the idea of the genius as inevitable and innate).
If the reviews are to be trusted, the question at the core of the novel is whether we – the public at large and the reader in particular – are willing to, if not overlook, then to put aside, Perina’s criminal and abhorrent behaviour in light of his significant scientific discovery. (It’s not as though we haven’t had occasion in recent memory to ask just these questions of artists and celebrities). Or perhaps not put aside, but allow the scientific contribution to stand on its own, and the biography and actions of the scientist to be considered separately. I’m not persuaded that this is a) the question the novel is particularly interested in and b) that this is a worth line of argument in the first place.
On b) The character of Perina is almost entirely repulsive. He is an intellectual fraud, selfish, incapable of self-reflection and growth, exploitative of opportunity, people and place for personal gain, and summarily violent in his engagement with the people and children of the island. I’m trying to find a redeeming quality (which is itself a fascinating question as the novel is written from his first person perspective, you’d have thought he’d have offered up something redeeming. Also fascinating that this reader could find him so repulsive and yet still find his narrative engaging. A masterful feat of narration to make the reader readily engage with a detestable protagonist) and the best I can come up with is that he displays patience and commitment to the scientific process (as I understand it).
On a) If it was just the way Perina is cast a morally repugnant (and physically gross – as if that matters) person, we might imagine that book is asking us to consider how a significant societal contribution (whether art, science, politics, whatever) stands separate from its creator. However [GENTLE SPOILER] – the narrative reveals the extent to which the discovery of the magic-turtle-longevity-thing is, in fact, the work of another scientist. That it’s just that Perina is willing to make this discovery public (whereas the other scientist, in deference to the people and place of the island, will not) that affords him the fame and glory of the ‘discovery.’ We’re left, then, with a scientific fraud who is also behaves in reprehensible and criminal ways. Leaving us without sympathy for his character, nor impulse to question whether ‘his’ ‘discovery’ outweighs his character.
Before this turns into a novel length post I’ll close by noting The People of the Trees puts forth a compelling plot, with some of the most fascinating narration I’ve read in recent memory, with complex questions about the sacrifice of the few for the many and the danger of blind or complete investment in Science and Progress. It is also a book that can pull you back from the brink when you’ve begun earnestly considering reading another John Grisham novel. And make you very, very glad that it did.