Monday, March 1, 1999

Nature Studies, by John Henry Ryskamp

A Review of John Henry Ryskamp’s Nature Studies

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 1999

Nature Studies
John Henry Ryskamp
FC2 ($12.95)

Throwing together patches of history, art theory, literary essay, cultural criticism, memoir, legal briefs, letters from the author to his editor, quotes from The Brothers Karamazov, two or three pages of actual story, and reams and reams of explication and justification of its own style and structure, John Henry Ryskamp’s debut novel, Nature Studies, bills itself as the beginning of twenty-first-century art. Instead, what it ends up being is an accidental parody of postmodernism, an inbred cousin to the works of Richard Grossman, William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, and Theresa Cha.

Like those writers, Ryskamp plays with form, invents impossible combinations of events, warps time, and exploits high and low culture. But the novel reads more like Forrest Gump as written by Woody Allen’s “Irish Genius” Sean O’Shawn than like The Book of Lazarus or You Bright and Risen Angels. Here we have Ryskamp joking with Einstein, giving advice to Mondrian, fishing with Bartók, etc. It gets old fast.

Using postmodernism to distract the reader from the novel’s vast emptiness, Ryskamp employs every single literary trick he can think of, liberally stealing from Joyce, Calvino, Borges, Pynchon, and anyone else in his endless repertoire of references. At the same time, he mocks the very writers who influence him, accusing the best of them of “senseless virtuosity.”

Take a gander at this: “Actually the failure begins not at the Wake, but rather in Ulysses. That is why we begin to see that Joyce is a talent in search of a reason, that he runs everything into the ground, that he goes on endlessly and has no plot, that like Shakespeare he cannot tell a story (Shakespeare can’t spell either) and is too fond of the sound of his own voice.” He then goes on to “savage” Proust for his aimlessness. Either Ryskamp is too myopic to see that he’s damning his own faults—which is unlikely considering how self-conscious he is—or else he’s being ironic, in which case he’s trying to fool us into equating Nature Studies with other “senselessly virtuousic” works. I doubt anybody’s going to fall for it.

If it bears mentioning at all, the story buried in Nature Studies concerns a young boy who’s kidnapped and killed by an eagle, but you can find a more succinct and readable version of that story on the book’s back cover.

The only really enjoyable sections of Nature Studies are the ecological, legal, and political diatribes—which Ryskamp admits, in a lengthy discussion of the book’s composition and editing process, were added to fatten the book, at the request of his editor, Curtis White (who also contributes an absurdly hyperbolic blurb to the book’s cover). They culminate in a brief Vollmann-esque interview with a homeless man near the end of the book—clearly just a transcript, but incredibly moving nonetheless. So even though Ryskamp comes off as a self-parodying blowhard most of the time, at least his political heart is in the right place. Too bad his aesthetics aren’t.

—David Wiley

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