The concept of nature deconstructed
Debut novelist Michel van Eeten has a tremendous talent for looking at things from the reverse side. At times this arises out of a kind of wonderment, at times from a cynicism akin to that of Houellebecq, with such sentences as: ‘Some people derived an infectious zest for life from the injustice and calamity that afflict others. It was called engagement.’ Throughout the novel, the concept of nature is turned on its head – a form of deconstruction that dismantles it almost completely.
Central character Grad Vaessen is a young Dutch scientist carrying out research into conservation at Berkeley, California, with an American professor, Leslie Breitbart. In California attempts are made to conserve nature while also serving agriculture and the state’s urban population. It becomes increasingly clear to Grad that conserving protected species of fish and making sure hydro-electric power stations have sufficient water while at the same time ensuring people in the cities have enough to drink is an impossible task. Everyone involved knows that.
Grad and Leslie encounter a kind of NASA command and control centre where the volume of water is divided up, projects in which fish are moved around by boat, and dykes whose maintenance is permitted only if they do not belong to nature. ‘The consequence of the strict conservation laws is that we push nature into the engineers’ domain,’ says Grad. Slowly the whole concept of nature is reversed. What actually is nature? ‘We’re looking at the wrong nature,’ says Leslie at one point, his eyes focused on a piece of land. In the second part of the book, in which Grad and Leslie research the Everglades in Florida, one of their respondents says that urbanization and sugar-cane cultivation should be included in the nature reserve, hence incorporating human activity into nature. Anti-nature becomes nature. Nature becomes anti-nature.
This debate is the focus of the novel. At the same time, at another level, Grad’s own ‘nature’ is deconstructed. He is introduced as a heterosexual, with a pleasant, socially aware girlfriend in the Netherlands, but Leslie, a married homosexual, flirts with him. Grad finds himself thinking, ‘You can’t be too dogmatic about this kind of thing. […] A mouth is a mouth,’ and the time comes when Grad ends up in bed with Leslie. Feeling like a scientist in need of recalibration, he departs for home bewildered.
So the novel ends pretty nihilistically, which is where Van Eeten slots in with Arnon Grunberg and Michel Houellebecq. But his succinct style’s all his own, replete with surprising images and comparisons, which makes him entertaining to read, especially in his sketch of Leslie and his wife as archetypes of the neurotic intellectual American surrounded by an army of therapists.