27 January 2014
The People in the Trees
In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.
Tournament of Books 2014!
So, I'm a scientist, I know lots of scientists, therefore, I decided to go with Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees as my next pick for the TOB.
And it was good. Yanagihara is a very good writer and I'd like to see more from her but I just didn't care about the protagonist. He's supposed to be unlikeable, which is fine, but Perina is also boring as hell. By the end of the first section of his "memoir" I was waiting for his personality to change and it doesn't. He remains the same arrogant, pedantic, closeted, privileged-white-male asshat he was at the beginning. I've worked with people like that - those brilliant people who could easily slide into sociopathy - so I just kept rolling my eyes because so much of Perina's narrative felt like something I'd heard before. Perina is also so closely patterned on the real-life person (Carleton Gajdusek), right down to the Nobel win, that it felt a bit re-hashed because I read up on that guy for a discussion of ethics. Yanagihara did raise some interesting thoughts on Western interference with newly discovered "lost" tribes and moral relativism when looking at a tribe's cultural practices from a Western perspective but I felt they could have been expanded more had we not been stuck in Perina's voice for so much of the book. It felt very limited given that we only get Perina's viewpoint and occasionally those of his sycophantic "editor".
And then there was an "Epilogue"....and that pretty much ruined the book. Epilogues are bad news for some novels.