The Nature Book, Reviewed

Neither the author of the book,  nor Cara Blue Adams who reviews it in the essay below, is familiar in our pages. But it is an essay that evokes familiar themes, so here goes:

Searching for Unfamiliar Terrain in “The Nature Book”

We go to the wilderness to test ourselves against an environment indifferent to our presence. Can this experience be re-created in fiction?

The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System to safeguard federally owned land, beginning with 9.1 million acres, called “wilderness areas,” to be “designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Wilderness was defined as a place essentially untouched by humankind, one where a person is “a visitor who does not remain.” The desire for places where we are not is a deep and multifaceted one. Because of the climate crisis, this desire is increasingly urgent; into this charged atmosphere comes “The Nature Book,” an experimental novel by Tom Comitta. “The Nature Book” is entirely made up of descriptions of the natural world that Comitta has copied from canonical novels and spliced together in oddly mesmerizing combinations. As the afterword explains, no words have been added to the phrases, sentences, and longer passages that the book borrows; some words, however, have been erased. What’s omitted are the human stories. In doing so, “The Nature Book” attempts to create a novel that is itself a wilderness.

“The Nature Book” sits at the crossroads of two innovative traditions: collage texts and posthuman fiction, which reimagines boundaries between the human and the nonhuman and decenters human perspectives to challenge anthropocentrism. Rarely, however, does that happen as radically as it does here. “Posthuman fiction” often refers to novels or stories that involve nonhuman characters, such as, for example, cyborgs or monsters; by creating a book solely about the natural world, with no traditional characters, human or otherwise, Comitta poses a question latent in the genre: What is our fiction without us?

When I began “The Nature Book,” my hope was that it would be pleasantly lulling. My fear was that I would be bored. Fiction is, at its core, anthropocentric. As every novelist knows, descriptions of the natural world are famously the parts readers skip. We want to get to the conflict, to the action, and to the insight and meaning they engender, and we understand those as arising from human introspection and interaction. “The Nature Book” has none of these things. Without characters or plot as we conventionally understand them, what remains are ecosystems; wild animals, including various birds, deer, wolves, and horses; weather; bodies of water; celestial bodies; and the Earth as seen from above, all woven into a fairly seamless stream. The source novels are exclusively ones originally written in English, a further constraint that serves to focus the book largely on North America, the Caribbean, and the British Isles. Drama is created by animals navigating their environments, storms gathering, the way light changes with a new time of day, the gradual arrival of a season.

If this all sounds a bit musical and a bit atmospheric, that’s because it is. The book feels, at its best, symphonic, both in its structure—four movements, the third of which is the most distinct and the last of which references the first and goes out in a brilliant burst—and in the way language echoes, builds, works its accretive magic. We often inhabit the perspective of a disembodied watcher, like a drone, sometimes hovering near the land, sometimes zooming over wilderness from above, freed from our physical constraints and able to more fully witness the Earth’s vastness and beauty. Seeing the world like this, without us, traversed in a way we could never traverse it in our human bodies, is a powerful and exhilarating experience.

“The Nature Book” is studded with incredible writing: on any page, we might encounter a phrase like “spring was a very flame of green,” which I learned came from D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” when I looked up the source, or “but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air,” which Willa Cather used to describe the high desert in “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Moments like these turned my mind inward and outward at the same time. The miracle of the sentence; the miracle of the world.

But single authorship isn’t the point; Comitta wants to meld individual voices into an anonymous and cohesive whole. The writing that emerges from these blended voices can be dreamily evocative, as in this passage describing how light fades as a late-summer evening arrives:

Just before the coming of complete night, the sky overhead throbbed and pulsed with light. The glow sank quickly off the field; the earth and the hedges smoked dusk. The sun had gone down, but the sky was still blue, a very pale blue, with a few high clouds still golden with sunlight. Soon four stars were visible in the place where the sun used to be.

Here, my sleuthing suggests that we open with a little Jack Kerouac, followed by a strong dose of Lawrence, author of what is, to me, the most striking part of the passage for its strangely animated vividness and its musicality: “the sky overhead throbbed and pulsed with light. The glow sank quickly off the field; the earth and the hedges smoked dusk.” The passage is capped with a penultimate sentence by E. L. Doctorow and a final one by Toni Morrison and another author whom I could not identify.

Read the whole essay here.

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