The Nature Book
by Tom Comitta
Genre: Literary Fiction / Nature
Print Length: 272 pages
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
A bold exploratory work; a canonical collage of the natural world
In The Nature Book, Tom Comitta compiles descriptions of the natural world from 300 canonical English texts into a vibrant literary collage. In the foreword, Comitta tells the reader that the following text is “closer to a YouTube supercut than a Burroughsian collage novel.” They categorize the excerpted texts into four sections, The Four Seasons, The Deep Blue Sea, The Void, and The Endless Summer, each of which features language poached from the pages of writers from Charles Dickens to Cormac McCarthy and beyond. With surgical precision, Comitta lifts phrases from Louisa May Alcott, Zora Neal Hurston, and Stephen King, and combines them into a single sweeping tale, often ruminative, but with its share of conflict and tension.
Though no human characters disturb the natural world of The Nature Book, Comitta reminds the reader that nature isn’t tranquil. Storms rage. Lightning strikes. One such storm leaves several pheasants slaughtered. Nature fears for its life, whether it is “the river’s babbling (which) sounded like the call of a liquid throat waiting, just waiting for the world to end,” or the beaver that seeks escape from the otter.
The language often tends toward the apocalyptic; the end of the world is mentioned at least five times in the novel. But beginnings also proliferate, such as the river which was “like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.” In short, the language reflects the scope of the novel, which is epic, spanning from the lowest depths of the ocean to the outer reaches of the universe, from darkness to darkness, creation to apocalypse.
While the focus and scope of The Nature Book is impressive, it is Comitta’s skill with scenes and language that make the novel shine. As a book composed of words pilfered from other writers, Comitta’s is a unique voice. Language patterns emerge. Sentence length is varied beautifully and the shifts between sometimes near-florid description and action allow the reader to remain involved in the scene. Involved, that is, as an observer of Comitta’s humanless world.
Comitta zooms in and out of scenes, at one moment zooming in on a frigate bird and at another swooping over magnificent mountains. The music and repetition is masterful such as this description in Part II: “The bark of the trunks was green and the cheeks of the flowers were green. In fact, it was chlorophyll heaven. A green to outshine food colouring and flashing neon lights. A green to get drunk on.” Like Philip Glass’s soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s Quatsi trilogy, Comitta’s language composes a tone poem to accompany and drive his sweeping scenes.
The Nature Book transitions through time and space, from origins to endings, from forests to ocean depths, to the jungles, deserts and even outer space, allowing the reader to lose themself in descriptions of place.
In his essay “Landscape and Narrative,” the late Barry Lopez speaks of this “external landscape,” which is composed of the world around us: plants, animals, weather, and geology. He compares it to the “internal landscape,” which is, “a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape.” With no characters in The Nature Book to represent how “the interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape,” Comitta asks the reader to become the character, to observe what Lopez terms “the line and color of the land,” and to allow their internal landscape their scope of the world, to be shifted, to change.
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