Hanya Yanagihara is far from the first author to invoke William Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a template for her wildly original, enthralling debut novel, The People in the Trees (Doubleday). But it is without a doubt one of the most memorable.
Even before making it to the preface, the reader is forced to grapple with a whole host of moral and ethical dilemmas while absorbing several major thematic overtones. The themes are evoked instantly by the book’s epigraph, taken from The Tempest, which sets the scene for the larger-than-life clashes between savagery and civilization, science and simplicity, and nature and nurture. After that, a brief news clipping presents a much more sinister collision of ethics, one that evokes an immediate, obvious repulsion even as readers wonder quietly if there is, perhaps, a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this.
But, of course, reason has no place on the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, the exotic, lush setting for most of the book’s plot. There, Dr. Norton Perina discovers a clan of natives that display all the archetypal signs of your average, mythical “lost tribe,” some of whom appear to be immortal. But in Yanagihara’s novel, the gift of immortality comes with a tragically mundane twist: Those who have it — dubbed “dreamers” by Perina and his fellow explorers — grow progressively more senile, even as their physical bodies stay fit and youthful.
Perina traces this condition to a rare, indigenous turtle called opa’ivu’eke after conducting extensive experiments in his lab back in the United States, and after he publishes his findings, you can only imagine — with a grimace, I hope — what happens next. Within months, the supply of opa-ivu’eke dries up and the species goes extinct, the luminescent forest is razed to make room for a runway, the chief of the Ivu’ivuans is lured away to a U.S. university and allegedly poked and prodded with needles every day, and the natives speedily succumb to venereal disease after being introduced to the excessive evils of alcohol.
And yet, Yanagihara does not condemn The Evils of Science in the same way that, say, Mary Shelley does in Frankenstein; or, perhaps we simply live in a different era, and have learned to take these notions with a grain of salt. On the contrary, Yanagihara writes in a press release: In our age, when “the only thing preventing the furtherance of some sorts of medical advancement or exploration is the artificial imposition of ethics, one is forced to ask oneself: What is science for?”
The question as Yanagihara poses it is rhetorical, but the overarching conundrum is not that easily solved. Having grown up in an apartment that was owned and operated by Memorial Sloan Kettering, Yanagihara — herself the child of doctors — seemingly stands on one side of the “ethics of science” divide, and this attitude manifests in the novel’s complex, brilliant, and oft-misunderstood protagonist.
Before heading off to Ivu’ivu to conduct even more questionable studies, Perina works in a lab where dogs, monkeys, and mice are injected, infected, and then replaced with all the emotional fanfare of exchanging old plasticware. While we should not be so naïve as to ignore the life-saving advances in medicine that have resulted from animal testing, the fact that Norton shamelessly and casually notes that he “rather enjoyed killing the mice,” coupled with his persistent, arrogant denunciation of anyone he deems intellectually inferior to him (including his co-researcher, Esme, who is also, incidentally, the only significant female character in the novel) and his calmly racist statements (“The Germans and Japanese, for example, have an organic predilection for a particular brand of cruelty”) makes his character irredeemably infuriating. Norton himself romanticizes his work, albeit in a way that both brings together and drives apart the disciplines of science and art. In writing about the superior beauty of science over language (a self-referential irony in itself, to be sure), he says:
…language has no inherent secrets. But science, specifically the science of disease, was all delicious secrets, dark oily pockets of mystery. Language could be misinterpreted, misconstrued, its rules imposed or ignored at whim….But a disease, a virus, a wiggling string of bacteria, existed with or without man, and it was up to us to fathom its secrets.
Despite this monologue, Norton, even as he waxes philosophical about the pervasive and unknowable secrets of science, remains haunted by the lack of definitive answers when he initially explores the unfamiliar terrain of Ivu’ivu. Recoiling from the mysterious species of both animals and herbs on the island, he laments: “Why must nothing obey the laws of nature? Why must everything point so heavily toward the existence of enchantment?” And it is only when he picks up the comfortingly familiar thread of scientific theory that his methodical instinct kicks in.
Though his flowery words seem to lay bare an awe-inspired humility, Perina’s actions over the course of his life betray a god-complex of mythological proportions — a theme which notably runs through the aforementioned Mary Shelley oeuvre. The character of Frankenstein — the doctor, not the monster — is also summoned as a literary allusion when considering Norton’s most troublesome adopted child, Victor. As Perina makes subsequent returning trips to the island, he subconsciously attempts to undo the damage he has caused by taking in the unwanted (not to mention diseased and horrifically ugly) children of the Ivu’ivu clan to raise them as his own, giving them a “better” life in Bethesda, M.D. Of the 43 children that he adopts, it is Victor who proves to be his undoing. Though Norton alleges that he took in all of these children magnanimously, it is clear that his underlying purpose is to ensure that his name is never forgotten, that his impact on the scientific community is as everlasting as the immortal humans he discovered. His Frankensteinian hubris is thrown into sharp relief in light of the troublesome child who ruins him.
Throughout it all, Perina’s ugliest stain simmers just below the surface of his life story. In addition to the epigraph from The Tempest, The People in the Trees opens up with a news clipping that reads: “Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse.” Regardless of whether or not he is actually guilty (the truth of which you’ll learn only at the very end of the novel), for the reader, Perina’s persona is tainted at the outset. And in true Nabokovian fashion, the narrator’s perverse sense of morality makes him at both repulsive and mesmerizing. It’s like watching a train wreck and being unable to decide whether the resulting loss of life and destruction might actually contain some hidden good. Whether you find yourself to be a champion of Perina’s bold ideas or horrified by his actions or — more realistically — feel a measure of both, Yanagihara’s twisted, audacious tale is as gripping as they come.