TW: child sexual abuse.
On the first page of Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees, we learn that its protagonist, Nobel laureate and scientist Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, has been accused of sexually abusing the 40 or so Micronesian children he’s adopted in the course of his research. It’s a clear warning to readers: here, there be monsters.
The novel’s presented as Norton’s memoir, written from prison, edited by his former research assistant Ronald Kubodera, who peppers the text with hagiographical footnotes extolling Norton’s virtues. In it, Norton recounts the tale of a number of ill-fated expeditions to the Micronesian island nation of U’ivu, where, on the little-trafficked island of Ivu’ivu, he finds an uncontacted tribe living deep in the tropical forest who have discovered that the secret of immortality lies in the flesh of a turtle called the opa’ivu’eke. Those who consume the turtle gain endless physical life, at the cost of a precipitous mental decline. Norton’s discovery gains him the Nobel, but the turtles are driven extinct and the rest of the island pillaged by opportunistic pharmaceutical companies before anyone can do anything about it. There’s an implicit parallel drawn between this metaphorical rape of Ivu’ivu and Norton’s actual rape of his adopted children, which he justifies to himself by comparing it to a sexual initiation ceremony practised by the Ivu’ivuans.
The People in the Trees is, as you may have gathered, not a subtle novel. As many reviewers have observed, it owes a structural debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; but it is obvious from its first page, as it is not in Nabokov’s novel, that neither Norton nor Kubodera are to be trusted.* There is never really the slightest shred of doubt that Norton is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of. The ideological conclusions that we’re to draw from the text about Western capitalism and cultural appropriation are obvious ones too.
But the obviousness is the point, I think. Norton’s basic character trait is an inability to imagine that he might be in the wrong: he doesn’t bother obfuscating his thoughts – not just his predatory nature but his racism, his profound misogyny, his callous disregard for everyone but himself – because he doesn’t recognise them as problematic; because, even, he believes himself to be morally upright and dutiful. After all, hasn’t he taken in 40 children at considerable cost, fed them, clothed them, housed them, given them access to opportunities they wouldn’t have had on U’ivu? And isn’t he a great scientist advancing the cause of human knowledge? What could possibly be more important than that? Kubodera is more queasily aware of Norton’s crimes as crimes, but he believes the charges against Norton should be dropped because of Norton’s scientific stature: what is the wellbeing of a few Micronesian children compared to the reputation of a Scientist?
What’s chilling about Norton and Kubodera is that their obvious self-delusion is also entirely plausible. We see rationalisations like Kubodera every time a sporty young white man is implicated in a rape case (“but he’s so promising! What a shame to ruin such a young life for a small mistake!”) or a clever white girl at an elite university stabs someone while stoned (“she has her whole career ahead of her!”). This is privilege at work, and it’s so obvious, so ubiquitous, that we’ve stopped seeing it. And, in fact, Norton is based on a real person, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who adopted 56 children during his work investigating a rare prion disease in the South Pacific and molested at least seven of them. Gajdusek, too, was defended by the scientific community; he received a prison sentence of just 12 months.
The People in the Trees, then, is the portrait of a man whose self-absorption makes him literally unreachable: nothing, not even a prison sentence, will convince him of his moral culpability. Terrifying in his solipsism, the product of privilege and Western cultural imperialism, he begs the question: how many Nortons are walking the corridors of power, the halls of our universities and learned societies? And in what ways might we be enabling them, like fawning, complicit Kubodera?
*Incidentally, when I reread Pale Fire recently I was delighted to rediscover the annotations that 18-year-old me wrote when I was reading it for the first time, and to be able to chart my younger self’s slow realisation of what’s actually going on with Charles Kinbote.