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Bük Kloob: The People In The Trees

Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.

At what point do we stop questioning the nature of people? At what point is a person—or people—fully formed? Who is to say that one’s nature is right or wrong from another’s? What does nature have to do with humanity anyway?

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2014 debut The People In The Trees is a complicated unwrapping of what nature is. Is it something that forms us or something that we form ourselves around? You don’t quite get an answer and ultimately are led to a deeper pit in the forest to think about why you are so confused.

People is framed as an annotated autobiography of esteemed doctor and Nobel Prize winner Norton Perina. His story follows his work in the fifties through the seventies as it relates to a Micronesian island where he and a few anthropologists discover a group of people who might be immortal. Through various unusual negotiations with tribesmen and doctors, various encounters with magical turtles and hyper-sexualized people, Perina becomes a massive success, the type of iconic scientist akin with Jane Goodall or Stephen Hawking.

Yet that’s a simplification of what happens: as Perina explores these thrilling, both beautiful and disgusting, jungles, he finds various cultural clues that embed themselves in his brain, taking and giving him new information for his betterment and impairment. He takes all those back to the states and an unraveling of his and their nature occurs. That’s what frames the book: how his conquests through the jungle have ultimately left him with and without so much. While not necessarily a “twist” in regards to what happens in the book, there’s some disgusting, delicious details that shape the plot and push you toward the “HUH.” conclusion.

Yanagihara sets herself up in this novel to seem like a fluke of silky writing but, as we know, this is her style: People is just as—If not more!—beautifully written than A Little Life. The book also reveals that Yanagihara does have certain themes and interests that tie her writing together although both of her books are in radically different universes from each other. People wanders very closely around sexuality as it relates to nature, wondering what performances and acts are right and wrong. To that, there are elements of deep abuse along with juicy meanderings around sexuality. Perhaps this is a gay reading (It is.) but very often Yanagihara reaches out for readers to view her male characters as lusting for each other. There is a constant tension of deteriorating masculinity that is as exploitative as it is a necessary pulp imagining of all men.

The book is loosely based on a real story of a prized scientist, whose name won’t be mentioned as to not spoil anything via your reading about him. Paired with terrific science details and fascinating (and sometimes silly) characters, People is a fast near five hundred pages. There are a few moments of lagging but great sprints of information that engulf, sliding you into these strange jungles that little immortals might pop out of.

The People In The Trees is an excellent book and a different type of animal from Yanagihara’s other novel. The difference between the two—or perhaps the similarity—is a vicious ambiguity that the book leaves you with, to question what exactly happened, to reread and to map every detail to see if the truth you deduced is indeed the truth. Or does it matter? Is that the nature of the story or your nature creeping into hers?

Does it even matter?

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