Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 in Shit (Bonus): The People in the Trees

There is -- there has to be -- a better term than the sutures-showing "unreliable editor," though it seems to me not entirely inapt, here. Ronald Kubodera, sometime assistant to the great Norton Perina, discoverer of the Selene Syndrome, is said editor here, collecting Perina's memoirs from prison letters as the Nobel laureate spends a couple years in prison for raping some of his adopted children. That unreliable narrator says more about certain ideological assumptions we bring to fictional narratives than it does about any kind of construction within them seems obvious, but Perina is, pretty clearly, "unreliable." What is less common, though, is a fictionalized editor who outright admits his own willingness to skip the bits that he doesn't like.

I think that's more uncommon, at least; it seems like more of an assumption than a category which requires articulation. Why introduce a fictional editor into novel else? But then, one of The People in the Trees strengths is its ability to fuse the well written with the impulse to overexplain; Perina may be a scientist from the fifties, but the memoir primarily concerns his involvement in an anthropological expedition to the fictional Micronesian island of Ivu'Ivu, and the lush descriptive prose sits well in this context. Anthropology flatters itself on its lack of assumptions and attention to detail, just as science flatters itself on its existential formulation beyond ethics. Both describe the form of the novel, and both are, if not quite indicted, captured in an unflattering light.

The anthropological trip wins Perina a Nobel based on his discovery of a turtle, the "opa'ivu'eke" (the Micronesian conlang here is mercifully scarce, by the way), which the lost island tribe consumes that allows them a sort of compromised immortality; they maintain the physical well being they had the day they ate it, but are slowly taken by a dementia that no one can quite figure out. The memoir, written in the 1990s, suggests that researchers have since suggested there may have been a property of the turtle's meat which inhibits the production of telomerase, but that these are pure conjecture based on the combination of the fact that the turtles were discovered long before genetic theory had sufficiently developed and were subsequently farmed to extinction by corporations. A lot happens in this novel. Or, to be more accurate: a lot is alluded to in this novel that barely makes it in because the nature of the novel (that is, the nature of this novel, given its imposed restriction as a pedophile's prison memoir as told to a close friend and would-be exonerator) is such that the preponderance of the mundane conditions the possibility of the event. And since this is a 300ish page book, events are not particularly present.At least not in the sense of directly dealt with in the novel or resembling action; mostly what the reader is in for is a series of lengthy descriptions of the jungle.

Which, of course, is fantastic, and well worth reading for how beautiful those descriptions are, as constructions of linguistic technique. But to return to the editor.

I'm not entirely sure why I seem to be returning to House of Leaves, especially when Infinite Jest might be a better parallel, but the way Kubodera functions in the opposite mode as Truant is maybe interesting; where Truant's "paratext" absorbs the Navidson Record by way of its aggressively intruding from the outside, primarily in the form of lengthy personal anecdotes, Kubodera's occasional footnote-forays into personal reminiscence are nothing if not supremely circumspect. The most aggressive of them are likely his early tendency to color the relationship between Perina and his brother Owen, who is spoken of highly throughout the text until the very end; Kubodera ominously hints at this falling out from the beginning, coloring the only significant relationship Perina has (with the possible exception of Tallent, the anthropologist) in a way that reads almost as vindictive.

Kubodera, at other points, offers brief anecdotes from his own visits to Ivu'Ivu or time spent in medical school, but these are generally brief and structured like jokes. Kubodera is very much present through the text in his absence; there's the early admission that he is willing to excise portions that don't fit his narrative, and the genesis of the memoir as a series of letters framed to him, but the story itself is his own vanishing act.

And unlike Truant, he doesn't spiral down; the book's epilogue sees Kubodera and Perina reunited, hidden in an unpsecified location, fugitives from Perina's parole. The last chapter of the novel is a postscript, a passage purposefully withheld by Kubodera in which Perina's crimes, until this point held by Kubodera to be ambiguously true, are explicitly detailed. It's a harsh ending to a novel which has to this point masterfully held in tension its interest and its repulsiveness; the main reason I ended up buying it was that the various informal reviewers all seemed shocked by how sympathetic they felt towards Perina. It made me think of Joyland, and how bizarre it seemed to me to be that folks considered Dev sympathetic, much less relatable.

But then, those reviews aren't inaccurate. Yanagihara gives away from the beginning that Perina is personally despicable, a man who feels entitled to everything, who regularly makes racist pronoucements under the guise of "unpopular opinions," and whose guilt is only in question if you tend to believe that scientists are justified in any behavior if they make important contributions. But it's also a book that refuses to moralize about this, allowing Perina the space to detail his racism and acts of sexual abuse on his own terms, framed as they are by his greatest apologist, and in doing so recapitulates history. There is a reason that Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the Nobel prize-winning physician on whom this story is loosely based, isn't really a household name, and it is because of the kinds of recuperations that Yanagihara here represents, and ultimately undermines.

The ending of The People in the Trees is difficult to think about, much less discuss, but I do think it works not just as shock material but to drive home the difficult assumptions that take place in the act of choosing to read a novel. I spent (this might qualify as a slight digression) much of 2013 reading about video games, and one of the arguments (most often via Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line, or Brenda Romero's Train) that the critical community there seems to be dealing with is the assumption of moral complicity with the text that is played. I have problems with this framing (most often seen as something like "the only way to win is to stop playing"), but I think it can be accurately seen as a real issue for both the textual and critical imagination of the medium. It's relatively easy to imagine generalizing that stance to include The People in the Trees, and I don't want to dismiss it out of hand. Part of the problem in generalizing it, of course, is the problem of interface; the lack of a controller or dice or whatever on the part of Yanagihara's novel is generally taken to indicate a (relative) lack of complicity on the part of the consumer. Bioshock is (inter)active while Trees is passive, etc etc.

Of course, the victory by abstinence is always in reference to the narrative content of the game, and never the mechanical. As much as game criticism tends to valorize design decisions, it is rarely capable of dealing with the sort of design which is out of the hands of designers. Like, for instance, the establishment of a win condition; at the granular level this is something that is the object of those decisions, but at the structural and discursive levels it is very much out of their hands. And this is to say nothing of the failure to delineate activity and interactivity, much less the (very recent, I suspect, and in direct contradistinction to the practices of literary reception as they have developed in the past few generations) figuring of literature as passive. Historical conjecture aside, though, this seems to be the dominant cultural understanding; even the language of the "sympathetic" or "relatable" protagonist in literature depends on a fundamental distance, while the language of "immersion" depends on the pretense of the (affective?) obliteration of that distance, if not its actual absence.

One thing that the inclusion of the Postscript (the final chapter, noted as excised from an earlier portion) does is to undermine Kubodera's unreliability as an editor; his admission earlier of excisions is here called into question as he restores the most damning piece of evidence against Perina. What, then, if not his innocence, could Kubodera's editorial decisions be protecting? It's hard to say for certain, although one obvious suggestion is that it is another aspect of Perina's character: his alleged brilliance.

To return one last time to MZD; the inclusion of Truant as the editor of the Navidson Record accomplishes two things with regards to that fictional text; it serves as a testament to the text's affective capacity (and in doing so highlights the sort of affective responses that the reader can experience, as well as burying alternative responses that could also be experienced), and it obscures the question of authorship. Unlike Kubodera, there is no real sense that Truant is beholden to Zampanó, and so his realization that the film which the blind scholar is analyzing may be entirely fabricated is little more, for the reader, than a curiousity. There is little or no stake in salvaging Zampanó's reputation, as far as the structure of the text goes; for The People in the Trees, the opposite is the case.

That Perina is a speculative reimagining of Gajdusek, in the register of the SF/F rather than the H of speculative fiction, testifies to this, as much as any other difference between The People in the Trees and House of Leaves does. That the imaginary is primarily visible through the environment rather than the affect is a consequence of the novel's need, if it can function, to be able to strictly control that environment. So Perina can refer, for instance, to the Ivu'Ivuan's ritual of the a'ina'ina, where boys are inducted into manhood through ritual rape by their elders, and then decry the anthropologists he observed this with for systematically refusing to report on it. Without the environmental control of speculative fiction, this would be a clear case of either self-justification on the part of Perina for his own actions or the issue of moral responsibility in the anthropological profession on the part of Tallent and Esme, Perina's colleagues, as determined by a close reading of the text. Because of the speculation, however, it cannot really concretely be either; the language(s) of fantasy and science fiction are so thoroughly established as generic totalities that their inclusion refuses the possibility of independent verification. One can (and should) insist, for instance, that the most pervasive trope in Fantasy literature, the way that races are presented, is racist at the level of culture; to attempt to argue that within the confines of any particular text is just to get lost in the endless self-justifications of its fandom (though this too can often be worth pursuing). To say that Lord of the Rings is racist is to say that its representations function discursively, that they are conditioned by and (most importantly) reinscribe ideological constructions that organize both economic structures and individual actions around pseudoscientific categories which impact lives. It isn't to say that Frodo is a racist, as he goes about slaughtering thinly-veiled representations of dark skinned folks.

In the same way, it is largely useless to argue on the basis of the text whether Perina's claims of the a'ina'ina ritual are evidence for or against him. What the fact of the necessary ambiguity of their position reflects, however, is the structural role of that unreliable editor, Kubodera, in the construction of the fictional morality of the novel, and its clear status as an extended justification of Perina by Kubodera while the text itself refuses that same justification. The Postscript is precisely that limit point, the way that the novel positions itself against itself inside of the reader. Kubodera claims that he shares the excised section because it is evidence of Perina's love, despite the acts; the description itself is unambiguously the description of an abuser, and Kubodera's justification the exact way that abuse is often justified. If it is a way of avoiding the possibility of complicity by hefting it onto the shoulders of the book's fictional editor, rather than the novelist or the reader, then so be it; but it is also the final refusal of the ambiguity that abetted that complicity, and in being so it refuses the passivity of the fiction.

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