by Dave Wheeler
Not-so-secretly, I’m a curmudgeon. I ignore most fads, like Angry Birds and Mad Men. I roll my eyes at things like VMAs. I don’t like going out on Saturday nights; I prefer to sit in my dark living room with a couple ounces of bourbon, wearing slippers and criticizing SNL like the cranky old queen I am, deep down inside.
Much of my (admittedly arbitrary) disdain gets directed at movies, though. I wholly identify with Freddie Mercury’s litany in the ultimate freewheeling rock song “Bicycle Race”:
Jaws was never my scene
and I don’t like Star Wars
I don’t believe in Peter Pan
Frankenstein or Superman
Faugh! The Movies — they cost so much, and they’re often so disappointing. I suppose I try to like them. I have favorite movies — Exhibit A: Mean Girls; Exhibit B: White Christmas, year-round — but, honestly, I just don’t care enough. Probably because lots of major studios themselves seem tired of The Movies.
And yet, I still consider the term “cinematic” as one of the highest praises a book can receive. Why? Because I’m contrary.
Sure, but also because it implies readers might become so absorbed in the book’s events, they might as well be watching every person, every movement, every bit of dialog playing out ten feet in front of them. In the flesh, or close to it. You know, what movies are supposed to achieve.
Lots of really good books don’t even achieve this, though. It’s a rare thing, like some undiscovered tropical bird, so when you find one, the sense of elation can be overwhelming.
This happened to me with Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People In The Trees. Like Indiana Jones, Congo, and Lost, it drives you into the most peculiar corners of the jungle so that you can witness something fascinating. Mind-bending, even.
Here, people are living two, three, and four times any reasonable human lifespan.
Yanagihara’s jungle, on a tiny Micronesian island, is alive. You can feel the thick, humid air. You can see the millions of leaves on thousands of uncharted plant species, the fur tufts on hundreds of undocumented animal species. And in this jungle, the indigenous tribe that lives there worships a trinity of sky god and sea god and turtle god, with turtles from an inland body of water sacrificed and eaten in a very special rite of passage to praise this communion. But tribe members who partake in this rite eventually fall out of the tribe’s good graces.
Dr. Norton Perina monitors all this intrigue with two scientific colleagues who seem to become more adversarial the closer he works with them. Norton himself proves to be a perfectly bitchy narrator, writing his memoirs with all the wanton indignation of a Jessica Walter character after receiving the Nobel Prize for his discoveries on the island. An international treasure, Perina, however, is compromised by allegations of child abuse later in his life.
It’s a testament to Yanagihara’s tremendous narrative powers how she infuses this anti-hero with the kind of magnificent wit and magnetic charm necessary to draw readers into his ethical faults and moral nightmares, all the while achieving the kind of spellbinding, (here it comes!) cinematic story you won’t know how to quit.
In fact, the night I turned the last page of The People In The Trees I was thoroughly spooked. Tingling hairs rose on the back of my neck — kind of the way they do any time I watch The Ring, the credits roll, and the time comes to finally shut off the TV. I wasn’t about to fall asleep, even though it was well past midnight. But I’m certain what gave me the jitters was not the vast mystery of the jungle, nor its people. No, the scientist in his laboratory was infinitely more ominous.