Overall, the book resembles the sort of nightmare one imagines having after reading too many issues of Art Forum successively.
Nature Studies: A Novel
John Ryskamp’s Nature Studies is a long postmodern kiss goodbye to modernity. Ostensibly about the strange abduction of a small body by an eagle in a remote area of Michigan, this brilliant novel is as digressive as Sterne, as impromptu as Chopin, as expansive as Melville, and as encyclopaedic as Thomas Mann. It is a book for people who still find the whole, wide, complex amazing fabric of our intellectual past absorbing.
At once ecological parable, political critique, and compendium of 20th-century history, Nature Studies is populated by Einstein, Mondrian, Jung, Godel, Sraffa, and — everywhere — the irrepressible Ryskamp himself.
Ryskamp brilliantly rediscovers that digression is the desire for all experience (especially cultural experience) to be present at once (and isn’t that a funny desire and a funnier experience!)
With affinities to the 1980s phenomenon of appropriation art, journalist and critic Ryskamp puts himself into his novel, much as Cindy Sherman poses in her own photography. Layered upon musings of hunting patterns of eagles and the geographical makeup of the Midwest are metatextual reflections on Crime and Punishment and Jane Eyre, among other books. The text proceeds at blender speed, dizzily mixing together famous names and quotes, such as those by Einstein, Ryskamp’s “grandfather” and Bartok, who both in turn quote Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. Ryskamp leavens his pastiche with numerous reflections about his own role in the dawning of modernism (one favorite method is to relate his “dreams,” in which he encounters Freud, Picasso and others), though the best sections are tongue-in-cheek descriptions of how the novel happens to be created from additions made to two essays, one on AZT and one on the New Bill of Rights. Overall, the book resembles the sort of nightmare one imagines having after reading too many issues of Art Forum successively. One suspects that the novel’s audience will be limited to critics who will recognize obscure references to avant-garde esoterica.