Thrilling tale on the edge of the moral abyss
IN his wonderfully odd 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, German director Werner Herzog paints a damning portrait of his muse Klaus Kinski. Yet as his voiceover meticulously details the egotistical actor’s outrageous behaviour and his own reactions — his threat to shoot Kinski on the set of Aguirre, Wrath of God, for example, or his failed attempt to firebomb his house — it’s Herzog who appears increasingly the more deranged.
A similar narrative warping distinguishes The People in the Trees, the astonishing debut novel of American writer Hanya Yanagihara. As the novel opens, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Norton Perina has been found guilty of the sexual abuse of one of his 34 adopted children. While the once-great man languishes in jail, Ronald Kubodera, his devoted lab assistant of 30 years, encourages him to write the memoirs that form the body of this book.
But the more his hero recounts his story, and the more Kubodera defends him in his preface and distinctly peculiar footnotes, the more chilling his portrait becomes.
In 1950, Perina recounts, he travelled as a young immunologist with the expedition, led by charismatic anthropologist Paul Tallent, to find a lost tribe within the Micronesian country of U’ivu and its legendary opa’ivu’eke, or “dreamers”. In the forbidden island’s thick forests, they tracked down these fabulously old exiles cast out by their short-lived tribe who, while startlingly fit, have forgotten to be human.
Perina’s fame would come from isolating Selene syndrome, a condition induced by the ritual eating of the flesh of a rare turtle, which unnaturally preserved the body’s lifespan — even doubling or tripling it — while the brain demented.
Though fantastical, the premise also has an odd ring of truth. That’s because Perina is loosely based on disgraced American immunologist Daniel Carleton Gadjusek (1923-2008), who (controversially) identified kuru among the New Guinean Fore tribe as a prion disease contracted from ritual practice of eating dead relatives’ brains. He was later tried for abusing one of his 56 adopted children.
There is no sense, however, of being shackled to history about Yanagihara’s story, which reads instead as the creation of a rich novelistic imagination. Its gentle “dreamers” are as philosophically haunting as Borges’s Immortals, but more touching, especially first-captured “Eve”, a matted creature snorting and sniffing the ground for food, her attention span so limited the anthropologists put a rope around her neck.
Yet although their every appearance is so galvanising, Yanagihara chooses to begin her story with a long account of Perina’s development as a scientist: his isolated rural childhood with his twin, Owen, another self-absorbed monster; his maverick intelligence, unsuited to medical school, but perfect for research.
That this first third of the novel is just as gripping is testament to Yanagihara’s talent, and it cleverly suggests a certain kind of scientific culture as distinct and ritualised as the U’ivans’. Yanagihara is fabulous on the limited human environment of labs and their animal victims in racked cages. “I rather enjoyed killing the mice,” Perina recounts. “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.”
Yanagihara’s account of the expedition, led by mysteriously glamorous Tallent, is viscerally sensual, engrossing, and often disturbingly funny. The islanders’ culture is meticulously imagined, and Perina’s fascination with the ritual sexual initiation of young boys is worryingly intense. We know the U’ivans’ idyll is over once he manages to kill a rare turtle and smuggle its corpse to America, along with some of the dreamers. With immortality on the table, neither Perina nor big pharma will rest.
We only enter Perina’s domestic set-up in the novel’s final turn, as he collects the neglected children of the exploited island. The question of his sexual history remains opaque, though the more he extols his parenting techniques, the more sinister they seem. In its own way, Yanagihara’s novel is as spectacular an act of ventriloquism as Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, brilliantly sustaining Perina’s self-fashioning on the edge of a moral abyss so that the reader squirms between sympathy and doubt.
However, The People in the Trees does, perhaps inevitably, tread a fine line between critiquing colonial notions of the “primitive” and reinforcing them. Consequently, it’s been compared to Conrad and Kingsolver’s writing (and to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, because of its use of footnotes and its ripely sociopathic voice). But it reminded me most of On Heat in Jim Crace’s Continent, a scathingly vivid story of colonial and scientific sexual exploitation, cold fire burning beneath its morally precise, utterly unconsoling, prose.
After sustaining its terrible ambiguity over the long stretch, it’s a shame the novel ultimately solves the questions at its heart. Nevertheless, it is consistently thrilling, the effect of reading it almost physical, as if your brain has been infected with mad colours that can’t be sweated out.
Delia Falconer is an author and critic.
May 10-11, 2014