Empathy for the devil: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees coverIn my last post, I considered empathy as a supposed outcome of reading fiction. I didn’t consider whether being empathetic was a worthy goal. The People in the Trees forced me to consider just that.

Is empathy a good thing? Is it useful? Is everyone worthy of empathy, or only certain people? Does empathy even have a “target,” or is the empathetic person just empathizing with everyone, all the time? Even with people engaged in taboo behaviour? Even with people who use a position of power to prey on the weak? What are the limits of empathy?

If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop here, but tell me if you’ve ever empathized with an evil fictional character. Also, go read Naomi’s spoiler-free review at Consumed by Ink. We read this book together and exchanged many emails as we tried to make sense of it. We both recommend it highly.

The People in the Trees is about pedophilia, from the perspective of a closed-off society in which it is a cultural practice, and from the perspective of an American serial rapist. It’s about much more than that, but this is the big spoiler, the thing people generally don’t mention in their reviews.

I read many reviews that talked about moral ambiguity and sensitive subjects, but no one named the thing. It’s not that it’s a huge plot twist. It’s hinted at and foreshadowed pretty thoroughly. It’s a spoiler because the reading experience would be different, knowing for sure that the Norton did it. My reading experience was one of knowing but not, and by turns wishing he would be caught and punished, and wishing that it would somehow, impossibly, turn out to be a mistake.

When we finally find out that it is true, and that Norton gets away with it, the reader is confronted with a problem: what to do with the empathy that’s built up over hundreds of pages, now that you know that Norton isn’t just a misunderstood genius, or jut the person responsible for the biggest scientific breakthrough in his lifetime, or just a busy and devoted parent; that he is all those things and he is also a most vile and predatory child rapist, who abuses his own adopted children? How does the reader reconcile the (relatively) normal scenes of domestic chaos with the fact that is was all, all along, an elaborate and audacious front? An actual house of horrors?

Yanagihara throws another wrench into this disturbing machinery: how does that fact that these children would likely have been abused a home if Norton hadn’t adopted them factor in? Is culturally sanctioned abuse “better” than Norton’s version? It’s an impossible question.

I haven’t even touched the questions raised about immortality, medical ethics, colonialism, and environmentalism. They’re all impossible questions.

Yanagihara’s power and confidence allow her to get away with a story this controversial, without ever feeling lurid or exploitative. I didn’t understand all of her choices – of perspective, of pace, of what was revealed and what (maddeningly!) was not. But I trusted her completely.

If you read the book, what did you think about Norton? Did you empathize with him? Did learning the truth make you feel complicit?

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9 comments

  1. roxannemfelix

    I haven’t read the book – but the themes of the book you describe remind me of how I felt when I learned more about Ghandi and his life. What was most fascinating was the account of people who once studied under Ghandi, but then had to confront him about his choices. Oh – the anguish of those people and what it must have taken for them to speak out! (Rita Banjeri’s book and excerpt on the web describe it well),

  2. Naomi

    That is exactly what this book is full of – impossible questions! Which is why I had so many rambling thoughts in my head about it that weren’t really going anywhere. A good book for group reading and discussion!
    About Norton: I kept going back and forth through the whole book about whether or not I liked him. I don’t think I liked him much overall, but there were times that I was surprised by how much he seemed to care about the children (especially suspecting, but not knowing, what was coming). What bothered me most in the book was the destruction of the island, so I really didn’t like that he would have done it all again, knowing the cost of it.
    The one thing about Norton’s case is that he truly did not think he had done anything wrong. He looked at it as an act of love (bluck). Where did that come from? Was he born to think that way? He did sem like a strange kid. Was he influenced by what he witnessed on the island?
    The question about the culturally acceptable pedophilia versus our version of it is so interesting, and so maddeningly impossible to know!!

  3. Annie

    I think Norton is a narcissist who is incapable of seeing any fault in his actions. It worried me that the guy “editing” Norton’s autobiography was completely sold on Norton’s myth of himself. For a reader who frequently doubts herself, Norton is almost impossible to understand–which is why I was interested in your hook to your review. The People in the Trees absolutely forces us to examine the boundaries of empathy. Are there actions that are beyond the pale, even if you know the context?

    In spite of Norton and his actions, I loved this book. It’s bold and honest in ways that I don’t see in a lot of fiction. I recommend it where I can, but I give warnings about the content to everyone who expresses interest. I read it as an ARC, so I didn’t have anyone to warn me!

  4. Brie @ A Slice of Brie

    Wow, I can’t decide it I want to read this or not. When I worked at Alberta Hospital, I encountered this often, especially in the geriatric wards: “why doesn’t this lovely old man have any visitors?”, “where’s his family?”, etc, etc, and I would look forward to seeing a particular patient everyday, but then one day, you dig a little deeper into their chart and history and you find out there’s some very valid, and horrifying reasons on why he has no family, no visitors, etc. And now how am I supposed to feel about this patient? It was tough, that’s for sure.

  5. Elle

    Oh, my God, I feel I really need to read this now. It seems like the sort of thing that you have to experience on your own in order to be able to comment on.

  6. Julianne - Outlandish Lit

    Ahhhh I just read this book and loved it so much! Naomi sent me over here and you bring up a lot of interesting points. I feel as if I must have empathized with Norton (because Yanagihara is so good at making you do that), but I was aaaalways thinking he was a sociopath. I feel like I had a guard up and was analyzing what he was sharing and when and how he was making assumptions and judging people. He was always very confident about what he valued, which makes it easy for you to just go along with it. But obviously there was always something off about him. Ugh I just adored the format. Yanagihara really accomplished something fascinating here. So immersive.

  7. james b chester

    Fascinating review. I have not read this book so I can’t really comment on it, but you again raise some very good questions here.

    Making the reader empathize with a villain is a very old trick. It goes bask at least as far as Shakespeare’s Iago, probably as far back as Lucifer in the old testament if you really think about it.

    I think Brie’s comment above really gets to the heart of your questions. She works with a lonely old man who is in the hospital, I assume dying or at least at the end of his life. Is he worthy of empathy even if he has brought his situation on himself? Even if he really does deserve to die alone?

    I think when we answer the question our answer says as much about us as it does about the object of our empathy. I hope we can feel for a lonely old man even if he deserves to be lonely. I’m afraid this is my Sunday School up-bringing rearing its head. I really do quote the Bible a lot for an atheist, but Jesus says we are to comfort the sick, to visit those in prison. Maybe empathy doesn’t count as much when it comes easy.

    This is not to say the bad behavior, evil behavior, should ever be excused. Society is right to lock certain of its members away from the rest but I think this should always come with some sense of regret.

    Some deep thinking for a Sunday morning, here. Yours has become one of my favorite blogs for just that reason.

  8. Susan Meier

    I think the book was about what it means to be human. I liked reading it thinking about this all the way through – from his original observations of the people on the island and his dehumanizing of them – Norton’s search for intimacy and his broken way to force it – the great tragedy of his inhuman-ness (a gap in his psyche?) – his inability to see the island people as fully human (colonialist) and therefore his abuse of them and their home – and the horrible irony of his search for intimacy through them. Thank you for adding what the author is doing with us and the limits of empathy; I hadn’t thought about that. I found it impossible to like Norton but I was completely manipulated by wondering if he really did it and hoping there was some mistake anyway, in spite of having already made up my mind that he was a sociopath. Even saying that, I was sad that he could not get the intimacy he wanted with Tallent, but his ultimate betrayal of him and the whole island, along with his colossal certainty about himself – as a scientist and parent – even while being evil – and intelligent – made him for me one of the most interesting tragic figures I’ve read. So rich and complex, what the author did with us.

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