Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees” is a captivating, rich novel that delves into both large-scale cultural conflicts and intimate psychology behind human relationships and family. The novel is written a an edited compilation of memoir-like letters from the protagonist Dr. A. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered a source for vastly extended life span while on an anthropological expedition to an isolated Micronesian tribe, and who is now serving a sentence in his advanced years after conviction for sexual assault on children from the tribe who he has adopted through the years. Perina’s obviously biased epistolary recollections are edited by his only remaining friend and support following the conviction, and thus also biased, Dr. Ronald Kubodera.
Yanagihara begins with Perina recounting his childhood and relationship with his twin brother and their parents and then moves onto his schooling and events the lead up to his participation in the life-changing expedition. These early chapters at first seem quite separate from the story of cultural conflict that dominates the central portion of the book and I initially questioned the choice of this extended ‘introduction’. Part of that reaction came from the descriptions provided with the novel and the focus of comparisons to themes found in something like “The Poisonwood Bible”, highlighting cultural clashes between isolated tribes and the ‘civilized’ West. In reality this is only one half of the book’s import, and these early ‘introduction’ chapters leading to the anthropological expedition nicely set up the psychology of Perina, the disfunction of his familial relationships, and the notable absences of sexual encounters or apparent interests during his schooling. All these become immensely important in the final third of the book following the impacts of the expedition on Perina’s career and private life, ultimately leading to the cause of his conviction.
The central third of the book with Perina travelling with an anthropologist to the fictional Micronesian island, his encounters and responses to the alien culture of the isolated tribe, and his gradual discovery of the islander’s profound life spans and the cause are clearly the most exotic and succulent portions of the novel, where Yanagihara’s skilled use of language and colorful description shines. Beyond making the text enjoyable to read, this fact ironically highlights Norton Perina’s inherent unreliability as a narrator of his internal self. Norton frequently comments how he is the scientist with little artistic capability, while his twin, a renowned poet, is the literary talent. Yet the words we read in this letter declare to the reader otherwise.
Perina’s inability to truly understand himself, joined with his extreme arrogance and the results of the announcement of his medical discovery of prolonging life on the Micronesian island and its people lead to the events of the final third of the novel, Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the tribe over a span of decades, their possible betrayal, and his possible guilt. Completed with a powerful ending that unites the two major themes of the novel, Yanagihara manages to keep the reader invested even beyond the closing lines.
The novel is described as being based upon true events, and the obvious source for Perina is Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, an NIH scientist and Nobel Prize winner who investigated the cause of the Kuru disease in Papua New Guinea and thereby helped establish the existence of prions – infectious misfolded proteins (in contrast to the living infectious agents known: bacteria, parasites, and (arguably ‘alive’) viruses). Like his fictional counterpart, Gajdusek adopted many children from the island nation, gave them Western educations, and ultimately was convicted to their sexual abuse, marring his scientific career.
And this brings us to the only flaw I see in this book – the science is poorly rendered and unrealistic. Kuru, like “Mad Cow Disease” and all prion diseases are neurodegenerative. They target the mind and involve protein aggregations and effects much like seen with something like Alzheimers. Rather than staying with prions, Yanagihara chooses to go with the more clichéd concept of seeking eternal life. This does allow display in the novel of scientific and economic greed more than a cure for prion disease might. But, Yanagihara still includes the neurodegeneration and subsequent slowing of the mind as a side effect of the longevity seen in the island tribe. Despite the perfect health of their body and the lack of its aging, their minds do slowly go until they become not unlike ‘vegetables’, or “Dreamers” as Perina dubs them. Their longevity as described in the novel is related to telomeres – the ends of chromosomes. And here is where the novel – for me, a biologist – failed miserably. While telomeres and aging are speculated to be related, it is hard to imagine how preventing aging in most of the body through alteration of telomere maintenance would somehow just not work in the brain, leading to the more prion-like side effects. In fact, it is more likely that a substance that extends overall life span by acting on telomeres would lead to a side effect of cancer, as telomere maintenance has a role in preventing cancer development. The copy I read is an uncorrected proof, so I also can only hope that the novel’s explanation of telomerase (the enzyme that MAINTAINS telomeres – not degrades them) is corrected. The description as it stands in the novel is backwards, and the inhibition of telomerase the text claims would rapidly shorten life, not extend it. Even with that correction, the overall ‘explanation’ is more of a MacGuffin than I would hope for from such an otherwise richly constructed novel.
Despite that flaw, I obviously enjoyed this novel immensely and it is one that would be amenable to rereading one day. Highly recommended for its beauty and the subtle undercurrents beneath the visible cultural reflections.