The People in the Trees

  • Hanya Yanagihara
  • Doubleday
  • 368 pp.

Pushing beyond genre boundaries, this fictional memoir of a Nobel Prize in Medicine winner reveals not only his greatness but his dark and disturbing secrets.

Since finishing it, I haven’t stopped thinking about Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People in the Trees. It poses some crucial, uneasy questions, and at its heart asks: If a great man does awful things, is he still a great man? Yanagihara gives us in her main character, Nobel-winning scientist Dr. Norton Perina, an extremely flawed character to observe, and it is hard to look away from him.

Two news articles introduce Perina and inform the reader that he has, in the twilight of his career, been convicted of pedophilia and sentenced to 24 months in prison. It is quite an introduction, giving the story freight that carries the length of its 368 pages.

The novel is set up as a curated memoir. Perina’s colleague and trusted friend, Dr. Ronald Kubodera, establishes in a preface that he is stitching together Perina’s memoir as it was written from prison. This is when the long confessional of Perina’s life begins, and proves Perina to be one of the most fully formed, if unlikable, literary characters I’ve encountered. Yanagihara traces Perina’s beginnings in 1924 in Lindon, Indiana, his brilliant career as a scientist-adventurer, winning the Nobel in 1974, and his eventual undoing. 

It is a slow build, but the book finds its legs as Perina graduates from Harvard Medical School. By chance, he is recruited to be trip doctor for an anthropological expedition led by Stanford anthropologist Paul Tallent to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. When Perina is called into his advisor’s office in the spring of 1950, it is the moment when the plot reveals itself. “Something has come up,” his advisor says to Perina, “and you have been suggested for it.” This is a leap into the unknown for Perina, and happily for the reader as well, because who doesn’t love a lost tribe to go in search of? More importantly, though, this moment serves to ignite something dormant in Perina’s character, influencing every decision that follows.

Once on the island of Ivu’ivu, Tallent, his research associate, Esme Duff, and Perina encounter a group of feral forest dwellers known as “dreamers” who defy normal life expectancy even as they grow more senile with each passing year. A link is made between the islander’s longevity and the meat of a rare turtle, the opa’ivu’eke, which has mythical status in the island’s culture. After forming a hypothesis about their condition, Perina secretly kills an opa’ivu’eke and smuggles it back to the United States, along with three dreamers that he can experiment on. It is the first of many ethical bargains that Perina makes.

In his lab, Perina identifies Selene syndrome, which wins him the Nobel Prize in Medicine but creates a terrible domino effect for the island. Pharmaceutical companies hoping to exploit this discovery for medical gain overrun Ivu’ivu, destroying the land and its culture in the process. To make amends, Perina adopts children from the island, and by the time he goes to trial in the mid-90s he has adopted 43 children in total.

If there is a critique of this novel it is that it might be too dense in parts. At times the narrative trajectory flags as the threads per inch add up, ever hard to keep track of. This could be due in part to the narrative strategy, that it is a curated memoir. There are footnotes aplenty inserted by Kubodera that don’t always add to or illuminate something new about the story or Perina’s character (or those of the supporting cast). In its most slow moving parts, the sections feel overly academic and intrude upon the narrative. However, these sections are the exception, not the rule. Additionally, at times Perina is gratingly unlikable, but that is who he is as a character, and Yanagihara succeeds in her fidelity to her creation.

This is an accomplished first book, heady and sprawling, and hard to classify into one simple bookstore category. It is at once an academic procedural, curated memoir, adventure tale, and in the end, monstrous confessional. Hard packed into this novel are questions of ethics, moral obligation, and what it means to be an extremely flawed, if great, man. Yanagihara’s book could be compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at one end of the spectrum, as both Perina and Humbert Humbert are cunning, predatory stepfathers, and James Cameron’s “Avatar” at the other, for its devastating ecological parable and lush jungle setting. This book pushes past genre boundaries, though some sensitive readers who enjoy a more likeable protagonist might be disturbed by the content.

As a final note, Yanagihara has said that this book found its seed and inspiration in real-life scientist Dr. Carleton Gadjusek, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in the 1970s for his work on kuru, a slow-acting prion disease (a relative of mad cow disease) discovered among the cannibalistic Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. Yanagihara did no active research on Gadjusek while writing The People in the Trees so that the narrative of her own work would remain true to her imagination, though both Perina and Gadjusek met similar ends. Telling this story through Perina is a testament to Yanagihara’s authorial invention and the power fiction can have to illuminate and reveal the darker side of human nature. 

Blake Kimzey is a student in the MFA program at UC-Irvine, where he teaches creative writing. His short stories can be found in “FiveChapters,” “Puerto del Sol,” “Short Fiction” and “The Los Angeles Review,” among others. Blake is currently working on a comedic novel.

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