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Monthly Archives: April 2016

“The People in the Trees” by Hanya Yanagihara

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Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, is a hard book to classify.  It’s part alternate history, in that the action of the story takes place in the 1950s-1990s and centers around events that didn’t happen in the real world.  It’s part science fiction, in that it deals with a biological phenomenon that (so far as we know) isn’t real.  It has an element of the crime novel or mystery to it, since the main character has been accused of a terrible crime and a close friend publishes his memoirs in the hope of clearing his name.  Because of that framing device, the majority of the novel is written in the style of an annotated autobiography.  And it also has elements of a psychological study, because we get a very deep (and sometimes unsettling) look into the main character’s mind.

The principal figure of the story is Abraham Norton Perina, a scientist who co-discovers a previously unknown tribe of people on a remote island in the south Pacific.  In the course of interviewing the tribesmen, Perina and his colleagues discover something seemingly impossible: some of the islanders are well over 150 years old.  While this revelation is shared by all members of the expedition, it’s Perina alone who figures out the cause of this seeming impossibility.  When his findings are published in the scientific literature, they bring about radical changes to the lives of the islanders and also in Perina’s own life.

Yanagihara does an amazing job of depicting the fictional Micronesian island, populating it not just with the Opa’ivu’eke tribe but with a dazzling array of imagined plants and animals.  Some of these are integrated into the Opa’ivu’eke culture (as one would expect), which gives the portion of the novel that takes place on the island a vivid sense of realism.  She also delves into some complex philosophical and ethical questions: How should one react to an indigenous culture that engages in practices generally considered abhorrent by first-world nations?  What is owed to an indigenous people when a medically useful substance is found on the land they inhabit (but isn’t necessarily something they consider themselves to own)?

There are two relatively small points that made the book less satisfying than it could have been.  First, one mystery that arises in the course of the story is never resolved.  Second, I would have liked to know more about the friendship between Perina and Ronald Kubodera, the man who publishes his memoirs.  Kubodera greatly admires Perina, had a close personal relationship with him, and takes a big risk to help him when he believes that Perina has been wrongly accused.  But we see very little of that relationship actually playing out in the novel.  Aside from those two quibbles, however, this is an excellent book, with strong characterization, an interesting plot, and complex themes.

“Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2” by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly (editors)

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Weird fiction can be hard to define.  In their introduction to The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer draw on H.P. Lovecraft’s essays to classify it as “a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale…It represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane.”  Whatever weird fiction is, it seems to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, and Michael Kelly has set out to catalogue the best short fiction produced in this genre each year.

The stories are diverse in which particular flavor of weirdness they emphasize.  Some contain elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a science fiction story, like the narrator’s cybernetic arm in Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.”  Others draw on old folktales or urban legends: the kappa of Japanese folklore in Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears”, stories of changelings in Karen Joy Fowler’s “Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story”, and so on. One of my favorite pieces in the anthology was Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” which expands upon the old story of a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck. I read “The Green Ribbon” in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories when I was in elementary school, so there was a pleasant tingle of nostalgia in reading a story inspired by it. Machado’s take, of course, gives us a much more complex and adult story, and I loved that it was told from the point of view of the girl who wears the ribbon.

This anthology also casts a wide net in terms of the times and places represented in the stories. Kima Jones’s “Nine” focuses on a part of history I know little about: the Great Migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to the Northeast and (Mid)west in the early-mid 20th century. Usman T. Malik’s “Resurrection Points” takes us to modern-day Pakistan, and the tension between Christians and Muslims there is a driving force for the story. One of the things I really enjoyed about the VandeMeers’ anthology was that it presented a selection of stories from all over the world. The fact that this collection has a similar breadth, despite being limited to fiction published in a single year, really impressed me.

There were a couple of pieces that didn’t resonate with me, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Charles Wilkinson’s “Hidden in the Alphabet” and Jean Muno’s “The Ghoul” tend more toward surrealism than I usually enjoy. However, in an anthology dedicated to surveying the year’s catalogue of weird fiction, I recognize the value in not overlooking any particular sub-genre. Overall, the diversity of plot, characters, setting, and style represented by this anthology means that there’s something here for everyone.