The Son
  • March 25, 2014


  • Philipp Meyer

    2The Son
    3The People in the Trees

    Hanya Yanagihara

  • Books provided by

The People in the Trees

Lizzie Skurnick: If the test of a book’s worth is how many other books it makes you order, then The Son wins this round, hands down. Before I had even finished Meyer’s epic, I had two-day’d The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870, and the YA level Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, which I read alongside The Son for good measure.

Lizzie Skurnick talks about books for All Things Considered, The New Republic, Bookforum, and many other places. She is the author of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and the editor-in-chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint reissuing YA classics. A collection based on her “That Should Be a Word” column for the New York Times Magazine is forthcoming in 2014. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I reviewed Elizabeth Gilbert’s book.”

The white captive who becomes part of the Indian tribe is so gloriously loaded a cliché it’s almost exhilarating to watch an author take it on. Once a Comanche tells our narrator his shooting is for dogshit, however, I felt myself in capable hands.

Eli McCullough, born in 1849, son of a Scotsman and Castilian, is taken prisoner by a Comanche band along with his brother, whom they shortly slaughter. (They have already raped, killed, and dismembered his mother and sister back at the house.) The book then becomes a family saga, in which Eli’s son, granddaughter, and what I can only refer to as the three stages of Eli—pre-, during, and post-captivity—tell the story of Texas and their hand in its creation. (Or destruction, depending on who’s telling.)

This skeletal description seems to suggest so many awful things this book could be that I hasten to assure you it is none. Meyer is equally adept at rendering a girl’s first period and a man walking through the house of the neighbors he’s helped massacre. (The sole survivor of which he will later impregnate, but who’s counting.) In fact, the book is so superb, it seems to render such considerations beside the point—I felt embarrassed to be looking for Tontos in a book whose characters are so fully-fleshed, so already a general inquiry into the topic of, for lack of a better term, “otherness.”

True, when Eli’s granddaughter Jeanne Anne, herself elderly and dying, thinks, “The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and the Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing…” it might occur to you that the numerous people throughout the narrative who are not breathing because they were raped, scalped, hacked to death, shot, drowned, and/or disappeared might be less even-keeled.

But Meyer’s characters lead the book in a different direction entirely—not how you should think about victor and victim, but of the wholesale attenuation of our laggard humankind. Regarding her own glassy-eyed, seated grandkids, the last of the McCullough line, Jeanne despairs. “In Australia, frozen into rock, there were the footprints of three people crossing a mudflat. At twenty-seven miles per hour—all three moving as fast as the fastest man on earth today. They were speeding up when the tracks ended.” I wept at this, possibly. The human race is literal—and we’re losing it.

Improbably, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees shares a great deal with The Son: tribes being overrun by Westerners bearing trinkets; proper names bisected by apostrophes and strikethroughs; spears; nudity; rituals; wild hogs; children transplanted from native populations; dirt; huts; money. (It ends with Micronesia and Spam.) We are stuck with the slightly unpleasant company of mediocre med student Abraham Norton Perina, known as Norton, shunted off to accompany a sociologist to a remote jungle to find out if a tribe of people actually eat a turtle whose flesh grants eternal life.

The book begins with a newspaper clipping of Norton’s arrest and conviction for sexual assault of many of the children that he, post-Nobel, adopted from the island; the story itself is a letter to his former research assistant from jail. (The assistant adds lengthy footnotes to the narrative, referring to other studies on Norton’s work and clarifying information, which is helpful. If we had only him to hear from, we would think the island was made up only of tiny monkeys, a fruit pulsing with worms, and one devastating ritual I will not go into here.)

Yanagihara does not overload us with science; it is Norton’s observation of his own emotions that is on display. “It is amazing,” he says of the man he desires, “how sloppy and invasive nonscientists are in a lab; to them, the entire space is like a boutique, and our instruments are mere stuff to be handled and fondled and played with like gadgetry.” You can luxuriate in pretty much any Yanigahara sentence—where Meyer’s prose is lean and lyric, hers is overstuffed like a jungle itself, wild with rare creatures and splashes of color. At times, it’s almost prurient: in a pages-long section on a lab filled with such descriptions, a mouse’s spleen “a tiny, savory-looking thing, meatily brown and the size of a slender watermelon seed.”

But the lack of any of the study’s specifics, which Norton cops to, can be annoying for, say, an Asimov fan, who likes to see a Neanderthal go back in time with a teacher who describes his progress step by step. Norton is not only—crashingly, we learn—unreliable, but a narrator often bored with his surroundings, reporting his meeting with a Micronesian king is “banal.”

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I would have loved for Yanagihara to not only have the fictional editor note more illuminating and rigorous books, but give us entire sections of them as relief from Norton’s suffocating company, an act of which, in the meta-textual world of the book, she is clearly capable.

If may be odd to criticize a work by way of saying you’d like 90 pages more, but that is my criticism of The Son. For all that I envy it and will reread it immediately—I practically already have—we don’t quite get to see how the adolescent, hickish Eli, who timorously scalps his first kill with the Comanches, becomes the tyrannical Colonel, a despot who haunts his entire family, a far shorter span than Meyer covers flawlessly down generations of McCulloughs.

Yanagihara, on the other hand, has done exactly the opposite: taken 368 pages to explain one brief, terrible moment, with touching bits of awful every hundred pages. (My favorite: that teeny monkey given a moment’s description that I am devastated to learn is food a few lines down.) But revolving a book around one moment is the work of mysteries, not literary fiction—you like it to click into place and, Dickens-like, reveal the machine of the entire plot. Here, we are left charting how awful, exactly, a person can be. Boom, here it is. Pretty awful.

On the other hand, I had no idea I could ever get through a narrative with as many rapes and scalping as The Son; I didn’t know there could be one with this many in which it was not gratuitous. It’s impressive how Meyer makes the inhumane human, to say nothing of lyric, and funny, and illuminating. But I might be more impressed with how Yanagihara, in one sentence, has creeped me out for weeks. It was a singularly unpleasant experience, but it was weird, new, and powerful. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it, and I’m not sure if I ever want to see anything like it again.

TODAY’S WINNER: The People in the Trees

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: When my son was five, we took him to a bowling alley. Despite the fact that he’d only been bowling a couple of times, he rolled an improbable seven straight spares. After every one he spun around and yelled, “Boom goes the dynamite!”

Before the ToB started, I had in mind four books that I figured had about an equal chance to win the thing: Life After Life, The Goldfinch, The Son, and The Good Lord Bird. The People in the Trees has now put down three of those novels in a row, and every improbable upset seems to come with a similar exclamation: ”Boom! Boom! Boom!”

John: As previously documented, I didn’t even finish the book, but even I’m starting to root for it. I get a real charge out of books that aren’t “supposed” to do well, doing well. I’m reminded a little of the run that City of Refuge, an unassuming novel, made to the finals in 2009, taking out Jhumpa Lahiri and Roberto Bolaño in the process.

Kevin: The last time we talked about The People in the Trees, you mentioned the influence that trade publications have on the way a book is promoted. I think a lot of readers don’t realize it—or, more likely, they just don’t think about it very much—but almost all the heavy lifting by the publisher is done before a book is released. Publishers are wholesalers. The reader is not their primary customer; the bookseller is. And the only reviews of a book that hit prior to publication are the trades: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. So those four reviews, which most readers never even see except in the form of a dust jacket blurb, are arguably the most important reviews a book will receive. They influence decisions about how aggressively the publisher is going to market the book and how many copies bookstores and libraries are going to order, as well as which books will be covered widely by the media. By the time the New York Times Book Review reviews a novel, most of those decisions are pretty much set in stone. Although they are supposed to be “predictive” of a book’s success, sometimes a trade review can have the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your comment made me seek out the trade reviews for The People in the Trees. It got a starred review from PW, but another of the trades described Perina as being “delightfully black-hearted” (which is a WTF thing to call a fictional child rapist) and still voted thumbs down, labeling Yanagihara’s prose “unfortunately inelegant.” That is completely crack-backwards. As has been demonstrated over the past few weeks, both here and in the comments, there are many reasons intelligent people might not care for TPiTT, but hearing someone call Yanagihara’s writing “inelegant” makes my skull itch. As Judge Skurnick says, “you can luxuriate in pretty much any Yanagihara sentence.”

I have no idea if that review had an impact on the fate of The People in the Trees. Perhaps not. Perhaps it was offset by the PW review, and you hope a publisher has enough confidence in a novel they have invested in and groomed for a couple years that they can shrug off analysis when it is so far off base. But in an environment where thousands and thousands and thousands of novels are published every year, it doesn’t take much to torpedo a book’s chances.

John: I really don’t show up here to talk about my own stuff, particularly when the sales of The Funny Man were nothing to write home about, but I’m pretty certain that the shiv the reviewer from Kirkus stuck in it went a long way towards it ultimately not getting much reviewer attention at the bigger consumer outlets. Reading that review makes me hate my own novel. I don’t think I actually wrote the novel it describes, but if I did, I apologize to everyone.

The things that can sink a novel’s sales extend beyond bad trade reviews. Lack of in-house enthusiasm? Forget it. Bad cover? Uh-oh. Sessalee Hensley, lead book buyer at Barnes & Noble, is lukewarm? End of story. Or maybe your book comes out the same week as another heavily hyped book and it sucks up all the book-world oxygen.

I gotta stop before I delete all my work-in-progress from my hard drive.

It’s been at least a week since we brought up Laura Miller, so let me point towards a recent essay of hers taking on the Chad Harbach-edited collection of essays, MFA vs NYC. Miller implores writers to not be “boring” because if you are, you will never get the attention of reviewers. To illustrate the odds against getting attention, she cites the 20-30 books she receives per day.

With subject matter that no one is going to be declaring the “feel good read of the year,” it might be a minor miracle that The People in the Trees was ever published, let alone read and embraced. There’s a great essay in MFA vs NYC by literary agent Jim Rutman in which, among other things, he discusses the process of trying to sell Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, a longlist contender for the ToB and another novel with a sexual predator at its center. It’s not an easy sell, but Rutman believes in the novel and gets it done.

Kevin: You feel like that subject matter is going to catch up with The People in the Trees at some point on its way to the Rooster, but it hasn’t yet, and I find that fascinating. The fact that it’s a provocative book might give it a leg up when you are forced to choose between it and another novel, but certainly The Son has no lack of provocations (and neither does Life After Life, for that matter). In a way, just being forced to think about it in this context challenges what it means to say you “like” this book or that one. There are certainly many pleasures to be found within The People in the Trees, but I think the reason it has advanced three times now is visceral and intangible. There is such a thing as “profound ambivalence”—profound meaning “lots of” but also in the sense of “imparting great meaning.” I think this novel is a big bang of ambivalence creation. I mean, here is a summary of adjectives Judge Skurnick uses in the penultimate paragraph to describe her reaction to Yanagihara’s novel: “Terrible...touching...awful...devastated...awful...pretty awful.” And that’s in defense of why she liked it.

She also turns and gives us a “boom.”

John: I’m about to crib from one of my Biblioracle columns, but I think the success of The People in the Trees with our judges and our audience illustrates the limits of rationality when it comes to publishing. We’re in the age of Nate Silver and Big Data and the notion that everything has an answer if we just throw enough apps at it. It’s clear that publishers are trying to make use of these tools to bring some rationality and order to figuring out which books audiences might respond to. But as I say in that column, the book business runs best when it pays attention to the only metric that matters: love. Publishing a book requires an irrational faith from the author on up through the agent, editor, and publisher, and sometimes that faith pays off in ways that make it worth trying all over again. The only force that can overcome these odds is indeed love.

Kevin: The Son is the last book with a shot at the Zombie Round. Alas, it does not have the requisite votes. And that poses the seeding committee with a dilemma, because no matter where we place our returning books—The Goldfinch and Life After Life—we end up with a rematch for The People in the Trees. (We could avoid a rematch by having the two Zombies face each other, but that would be giving a free pass into the championship to a book that has already lost. Not everything about the ToB is fair, but we do occasionally draw lines.)

So we default to a replay of the earliest rematch, which means that tomorrow The Goldfinch will meet The Good Lord Bird, and on Thursday Life After Life gets another shot at The People in the Trees.

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