The People in the Trees

people in the treesThe Short Version: Told in the form of a memoir after his ignominious downfall and edited by his sycophantic assistant, Norton Perina outlines the story behind his ‘discovery’ of the Ivu’ivu tribe’s longevity – and the cost of having interfered with that society, as well as the cost that society drew from him.

The Review: I don’t think I need to shelter my opinion too much anymore – this year has been something of a dud for the ToB.  It absolutely boggles my mind that a book like this would make the bracket.  Let me tell you why.

For one thing, the large majority of this novel reads like a self-aggrandizing and yet utterly boring memoir.  Which is exactly what Yanagihara intends, I think – Norton is not a terrific example of a human being – but that does not make for compelling reading.  AT ALL.  I could see anthropology students shuddering as they picked up this book, feeling a post-traumatic remembrance of actual memoirs written by similarly out-of-date scientists.  The only thing that keeps you reading is the hint of a downfall to come, delivered to us by the prologue/foreword that explains that Perina has been in prison for having sexually assaulted one of his children.  And yet, the overwhelming majority of the book is just Perina talking about his time on Ivu’ivu and discovering the seemingly magical properties of the turtle whose flesh allows the eater to live potentially forever – mice who ingested the turtle lived over 10x their natural lifespans, so who knows – but with minds that degrade just like a normal human’s might.  Terrific, you found an immortality cure and then found out that it made your body last but your mind dissolve – I could not care less.  The ‘fountain of youth’ storyline has been around since before the New World was ‘discovered’ and, more recently, Ann Patchett turned in an immensely more engaging tale of similar basic concept – so why on Earth would I essentially want to read a bad, self-serving autobiography of a douchey old professor?

Of course, Yanagihara holds out hope that you’ll be interested long enough to make it past the long, long stay on Ivu’ivu and arrive in the 60s, when Perina starts to publish his discoveries (which eventually win him a Nobel, by the way) – and when he starts to adopt his children.  And suddenly we’re reading a very different book, although it’s (I’d say) equally as ham-fisted as the preceding bits.  The life that Norton has as he ages, with these scores of children, is a fascinating concept to explore – but it gets relatively short-shrifted until the introduction of a particular child who (you guessed it) is the one mentioned at the beginning of the book.  (SPOILERS are going to lightly follow from here on out…)

Here, Yanagihara takes a concept that could fill an entire book – the struggle between an out-of-touch father and his most recent adoptee – and reduces it to pretty much just the barest bones possible.  We see their growing together, their antagonism, etc – but we don’t get a sense of who Victor is.  Hell, we barely have a sense of who Perina is other than that he’s a little bit of a sociopath and completely unbearable.  As a result, the big denouements at the end are utterly wasted on the reader: they are meant, perhaps, to evoke strong gut reactions to what’s sure to be a trigger issue for many… but it absolutely, wholeheartedly, feels like opportunism as opposed to organic plot development.  Just as Perina’s memoir begins to rush along as the pages dwindle, so too does Yanagihara: she pushes the story along so fast that you almost don’t have time to register it.  And the editorial voice of Perina’s lab assistant (who volunteers to edit the book owing to a sort of Renfeld-esque thrall to his master) is only more annoying as the book draws to a close – leaving the last few pages closer to infuriating that shocking.  None of the emotions I was meant to feel were evidenced; rather, I just felt infuriated that I’d wasted my time on this book.

Rating: 1 out of 5.  I have to say, it was pretty much all I could do to keep pushing forward and not consign this to the DNF pile.  I set rewards/treats for myself, if I could just finish this many more pages or that many – and it’s not like this is a long or complex book.  Perina, unfortunately, is just completely insufferable as a narrator and I’m beyond tired of the unreliable memoir as a trope in modern fiction.  When it’s done well, it can still kick ass – but this novel was 80% boring blowhard autobiography and 20% attempts to get a rise out of the reader.  Unfortunately, in order to achieve such raised hackles, the book has to interest me.  Seeing as it didn’t at all, due to being pretty bloody boring, the attempts to prod me with SHOCKING THINGS were risible at best and unworthy at worst.


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