Muddled Ethics, Inventive Anthropology


Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel catches the reader within its first few pages, guaranteeing, I suspect, wide readership if not best-seller status.  The first thing you will encounter is an Associated Press article: “Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse” (March 19, 1995).  Included in the article is this revealing statement, Dr. Abraham Norton Perina “won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974 for his identification of Selene syndrome, a condition that retards aging.”  A subsequent news article reveals that Norton (as he is called) has been sentenced to 24 months in prison.  Other tantalizing details reveal that Norton had adopted 43 children from an island in Micronesia where he had conducted his field work.  One of the children, a boy, accused him of rape.

The Preface, by Norton’s colleague, Ronald Kubodera, briefly summarizes the man’s discovery, in 1950, of a unique condition that affected a tribe of people, U’ivuans, a lost tribe of people on the island of Ivu’ivu.  The people “did not physically age.” The People in the Trees, thus, falls into a long tradition of literary works describing the search for eternal life—longevity, paradise, life everlasting.  What fools we are.  For even embedded in Norton’s study (and we know this from the beginning) is the co-dependent factor that although the U’ivuans live for hundreds of years, mental deterioration is not retarded.  And the explanation for this strange pairing? At age sixty, each U’iuvan consumes an indigenous turtle that results in this dual condition. It’s a wild idea that Yanagihara formulates, though Norton will need years to unravel all the details of U’iuvan life beginning with his initial encounter with one of the people of the trees.

That incident itself demonstrates Yanagihara’s extraordinary inventiveness.  During Norton’s initial journey to the island with his mentor, a celebrated anthropologist, named Paul Tallent, the two of them encounter a strange creature, slithering down a tree, head first: clearly a woman, about four feet high, with “drooping teats,” hirsute—dirty and matted—munching some indigenous fruit, so strange to the eye by her behavior as if she had forgotten “how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting.”  The two Americans’ local guide is unable to communicate with the creature, though she puts up little resistance to return with them to their remote camp in the jungle.  In time, she will be given the name Eve, and it will be determined that she is approximately 250 years old.

But before this discovery, Kubodera, who acts as the editor of Norton’s journals (written after the charges against him of pedophilia) begins with the Nobel Prize winner’s childhood in Indiana, where he was born in 1924, with an identical twin named Owen.  In truth, the oddities of Norton’s life begin there, with his homoerotic attachment to his brother (who much later will be described as gay). Both children are weird, creepy, though the best evidence of that is revealed later after Norton has started medical school.  This is at the end of World War II, when Yanagihara tells us that the American government supported a number of “outlandish” cancer studies. A loner, Norton is given a work-study position in a medical laboratory, where experiments are conducted on mice, dogs, and monkeys.  Norton’s creatures are mice, of which he states, “I rather enjoyed killing the mice,” the ones who were horribly deformed because of the experiments.  “What you did was hold a mouse by its tail and twirl it in a circle like a lasso until it was dizzy, its head lolling sickly from side to side.  Then you’d put it on the table and with one hand hold its head behind its ears. And with the other hand pull it up by its tail.  A little crick! And the neck would be broken.” With no friends, no mentors in the lab who like him, Norton is pushed out of sight and pawned off on Paul Tallent, about to depart for Micronesia.

The strange story becomes stranger.  After the discovery of Eve, Norton and Tallent discover seven other “immortals,” as they begin calling them—all of them outsiders, kicked out of the lost tribe because of their mental deterioration.  Tallent’s interest in the tribe is anthropological: their strange rites, the eating of the turtle that results in eternal life.  Norton is attracted to Tallent (whom he describes as “beautiful”), fascinated by a rite of passage for the village’s young boys involving sodomy and fellatio, and—since he is a scientist/doctor—hopeful of finding some way to capture one of the island’s rare turtles and take it back to civilization.

All of this is a whopping tall tale but, fortunately, much more than that.  Yanagihara, whose father was a research scientist at NIH, is interested in a number of complicated ethical issues.  As she asks in a background sheet included with the publicity for the novel, “If a great man does awful things, is he still a great man? How do we measure greatness in someone, anyway?  Can a person’s failings be balanced against their genius?”  Those questions apply to the real-life figure who was the catalyst for her novel: Dr. Carlton Gadjusek, a Nobel Prize winner, imprisoned in 1998.  He adopted more than fifty children, was accused of molesting several of his sons, and sent to jail.  Gadjusek’s work was with people in Papua New Guinea, but it lead to similar ethical issues that Yanagihara explores in her novel, because once Tallent and Norton publish their discoveries, Ivu’ivu is inundated with scientists from Western pharmaceutical companies who stalk the infamous turtle for profit.

Everything about the U’ivians changes.  They begin wearing clothes, become enamored of western products, converted by missionaries—in short, they quickly forget their traditions as their culture decays and eventually disappears.  The pharmaceutical companies strip the island of its fauna and flora in their attempt to determine what in the environment created the right atmosphere for the longevity-producing turtle.  Norton initially begins adopting the children from the tribe once he observes how their social structure has collapsed.  Each time he returns to the island he adopts a few more.

Paradise has been lost.  Yanagihara herself gets into murky territory when she observes (in that publicity release), “I certainly have no problem with this kind of pure science but in an age—our age—where the only thing preventing the furtherance of some sort of medical advancement or exploration is the artificial imposition of ethics, one is forced to ask oneself what science is for: What do we expect from it? How much are we willing to tolerate? And what are we prepared to see destroyed in its wake?”  What the hell does she mean by “the artificial imposition of ethics”?

The People in the Trees is one of the most intellectually probing novels that I have read in years.  Yanagihara asks serious questions with complicated answers.  Yes, in the plethora of fascinating anthropological issues related to her made-up people, the U’iuvan of Ivu’ivu, she muddies her feet a few times. During their initial encounter with the islanders, Tallent and Norton pass out so many cans of Spam to the people that one would assume they have arrived with a flotilla of ships stuffed with crates of the awful meat.  Norton brings forty plus children to the United States with such ease that one wonders if he hasn’t hidden them in his suitcases, without encountering any formal adoption or immigration complications.  But you will not be able to put this novel down (including the lengthy, made-up footnotes) once you begin reading it, once you are mesmerized by Yanagihara’s extraordinary talent.  Three cheers for originality.

Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees

Doubleday: 368 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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