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

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe

A Review of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 1999
Patrick McCabe
HarperFlamingo  ($22)

The title of Patrick McCabe’s new novel, Breakfast on Pluto, says a lot about the author’s approach to his warped tale of transvestitism, prostitution, and Irish politics. Named after the 1969 “UK chart hit” by Don Partridge, the novel has a surface level that’s zany and whimsical, at times almost seeming slight and off-handish, but beneath there’s a yearning that all the wackiness can’t hide.

“Go anywhere without leaving your chair,” Partridge croons, and McCabe’s narrator, Patrick “Pussy” Braden, wants just that—to find a place that’s both an escape and a homecoming. But being born gay in the 1950s in an Irish border town doesn’t leave many options for the latter-day Dorothy. Especially when, with the typical McCabian (macabre?) twistedness, (s)he’s the orphaned progeny of a young girl who was raped by the town priest.

A wise child, Pussy knows who his father is, and he vents his frustration by writing hilariously vicious stories about the respected “Father Stalk.” The novel’s larger frame (Pussy writes the whole thing out, years later, for his therapist) keeps getting interrupted by samples of these stories, and this puts Pussy in the position of a coy Scheherazade as he both arrests and furthers the novel’s progression with his tales. At times Pussy’s literary digressions seem like previous approaches to writing Breakfast on Pluto that McCabe couldn’t bring himself to throw away, but Pussy’s voice is so singularly transfixing that it’s easy to forgive McCabe’s inability to rein him in.

Like Francis Brady, the narrator of McCabe’s 1992 novel, The Butcher Boy, Pussy is an irreverent, sad, sweet, and deeply disturbed character, and he pulls the reader into his world so easily that it quickly seems as if the other characters are the weird ones. His fantasies about Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Lorne Green and his forays into his foster sister’s wardrobe sound much more reasonable than anything that the rest of the town has to offer. Especially a town so fraught with moral conservatism and political division.

In large part, this novel is about borders. And about quiddity and semantics. What is Pussy Braden, and what do we call him? He definitely exists, but where does he fit? If he’s not a man or woman as his countrypeople define them, then what is he? The confusion with border crossing and the violence to which Pussy is subjected throughout the course of the novel work as a powerful metaphor for Northern Ireland’s identity crisis. It’s as if McCabe is saying, “look at what happens when we’re forced to give something a name, a definition, and a border.”

The only unfortunate thing about McCabe’s roundabout approach to character study is that it comprises little more than accounts of Pussy’s misadventures with various johns and sugar daddies, all presented before a backdrop of political violence that Pussy accidentally (and incidentally) gets caught up in. Unlike the highly orchestrated Butcher Boy, then, this book has no dramatic unity or conclusion—which may be just as well. McCabe overdid things a bit with The Butcher Boy’s wildly overwrought climax, and here it’s as if he wants to keep things loose and let it all sink in rather than get hammered in. And it sinks in deeply. Even if this novel is more about Pussy than about anything that actually happens to him during the course of the novel, the effects of Breakfast on Pluto last much longer and reach much farther than do the actual pages of the book.

—David Wiley