This review appeared in American Book Review.
Rikki Ducornet's novels published in the 21st century (so far Gazelle (2003, Netsuke (2011), and Brightfellow (2016) have discernibly evolved away from the more purely fabular kind of fiction—often veering into the surreal or fantastic—that characterized her previous work, toward more naturalistic settings and more recognizably "lifelike" characters. Although these later novels are by no means conventionally crafted "literary fiction," they draw less noticeably on the structures and iconography of fairy tales and fables than the novels for which Ducornet initially became known, especially the "elements" tetralogy, The Stain (1984), Entering Fire (1986), The Fountains of Neptune (1989), and The Jade Cabinet (1993). The recognizable motifs introduced in the earlier books recur in these later ones, but they are now not tied directly to the more imaginatively colorful contexts in which they initially appeared.
These three novels seem as well more directly autobiographical in choice of character and setting, as if only after invoking the "monstrous and the marvelous," as the title of her 1999 collection of essays has it, through emphatically invented worlds could Ducornet then turn to the monstrous and the marvelous in the actual world of experience. The early novels were, of course, ultimately grounded in experience, both personal to the author—the settings were greatly influenced by Ducornet's residence in a small French village, for example—and the very real human experience of wonder, cruelty, loss, and desire. In them, however, Durcornet chose to render human experience through undisguised fabulation, creating vivid characters who are nevertheless "flat" according to the prevailing assumptions of "depth" in characterization that inform most contemporary fiction. Ducornet's fiction is intensely concerned with the effects of psychological impulses and states of mind, but these manifest themselves in the tropes, images, and external action of her stories, which perform acts of imagination rather than laboriously simulate consciousness.
Ducornet's characteristic exercise of imagination has perhaps most frequently been described as a form of surrealism, and indeed her pervasive invocation of dreams and dreamlike situations certainly associated Durcornet's work with surrealism in its original incarnation (not simply as the general purpose term for literary works that don't strictly adhere to the protocols of realism it has largely become). But Ducornet's surrealist narratives do more than incorporate hallucinatory imagery or uncanny events, although both are often featured. Instead they seamlessly integrate these elements within the formal conventions of folk and fairy tales, revealing not least the extent to which such stories themselves are inherently surreal in the way they draw on elemental fears and desires, and depict human experience in stark contrasts and distorted perspectives. Ducornet's fictions offer distinct oppositions (good/evil, innocence/experience) that allow for occasionally extravagant plot devices, and if novels like The Stain and The Jade Cabinet draw extensively on the allegorical resources of the fairy tale (as do the stories collected in The Complete Butcher's Tales (1980/1994) and 1997's The Word "Desire"), the aura of dream they induce also works to modify their allegorical content, suggesting a larger encompassing meaning but in its altered reality also partially concealing it.
The dreamlike element has been muted in Gazelle, Netsuke, and Brightfellow, although the reality depicted in each is far from ordinary, the characters engaged in extreme behaviors that are not so far removed from those depicted in the earlier novels. The stories take place in mid-20th century Cairo, a current-day psychiatrist's office and a college campus during the 1950s rather than "Dreamland" (as Phosphor in Dreamland (1995) explicitly identifies what in effect is the setting of all of Ducornet's previous fiction), but both the often destructive latent impulses and the potentially liberating possibilities made visible in dream worlds continue to be manifest in the characters, situations, and formal assumptions of Ducornet's most recent novels. Characters persist in being confused about the nature of their own desires, acting on them in heedless and hurtful ways, seeking to control and exploit others as a means of coping with a flawed sense of themselves and their place in the world. At the same time, wonder and beauty also exist, available to those willing to accept it, free of self-interest and the urge to possess.
Netsuke was a further departure from Ducornet's usual practice in that its protagonist is an adult (a middle-aged verging on elderly adult at that), although the psychoanalyst whose account of his own sexual exploitation of his patients (and concurrent mistreatment of his wife) is the focus of the novel certainly well represents the Ducornet character type who, through an apparent inability to become properly attuned to the influences of desire behaves at best in a manner indifferent to the needs and well-being of others (and in the case of the psychoanalyst, that is ultimately self-destructive as well). More often the protagonist is young, if not a child (as in Gazelle) then a youth on the cusp of maturity. Brightfellow is more in keeping with Ducornet's characteristic depiction of a youthful perspective on the world the character inhabits, featuring a young man of 19 whose "world" is mostly restricted to a college campus, where he is a ghostlike presence after he leaves his troubled home and takes residence there, successfully occupying its nooks and crannies and avoiding discovery.
Given access to the college library, the young man, who is identified simply as "Stub," begins to read the works of an obscure anthropologist (and former professor at the college), an endeavor that pays off handsomely when one day Stub encounters an elderly man he presumes to be a retired professor and to avoid exposure claims he is an Australian student on a Fullbright scholarship studying the papers of this anthropologist, Verner Vanderloon. The professor, who insists that Stub call him "Billy," invites Stub to live with him for what Billy assumes will be the duration of his visit as an exchange student. Stub, adopting the pseudonym "Charter Chase," accepts, and for a while he flourishes in his new environment, cultivating with Billy what is obviously the most substantive human relationship Stub has ever experienced. In the meantime, however, Charter also develops a fascination with a young girl named Asthma, a fascination that quickly enough moves from heartfelt to creepy.
As a character, Stub/Charter seems most reminiscent of Nicholas, protagonist of The Fountains of Neptune, even though in that novel Nicholas is portrayed first as a nine year-old boy and then as a much older man who has awakened from the coma into which he fell after a near-drowning, a sleep lasting 50 years. Essentially each of these novels is a coming of age story (a favored narrative mode for Ducornet). Nicholas must cope with the emotional and psychological impulses of a pre-adolescent boy as he tries to catch up to his 60 year-old body; he has missed the maturation period that Stub is going through and must struggle to compensate. But where Nicholas finally succeeds in reconciling his mind/body split, Stub's passage to maturity is blocked by his own emotional impairment. Eventually Stub begins to fear his masquerade is about to be revealed, but even more devastating is his disillusionment with Asthma when he finds her engaging in activity inconsistent with his romanticized vision of her. One day he sees her playing with her friend, Pea Pod:
. . .He sees Asthma slap Pea Pod across the face with such force Pea Pod stumbles and falls, vanishing as if swallowed by the floor—only to rise and fly at Asthma and, like a wild thing released from its cage, bite her arm.
Charter turns away. Repulsed and despairing, he falls to his knees, his hands held to his ringing ears. . .He has seen something primal, grotesque. He has seen two little girls transformed into harpies before his eyes.
Not long afterward, Stub sees Asthma and Pea Pod again, but to him it is as if "he has seen the end of time. . . severed from what he has come to count on, what he has come to know." Feeling "solitary now in new and expected ways," Stub takes his leave of Billy and proceeds to set Asthma's house on fire, pausing only long enough to watch Asthma leap from her bedroom window and become caught in a tree before he walks away from the campus and makes his way through the woods to an isolated house that turns out to be the house of Verner Vanderloon. The novel ends on Stub's acceptance of Vanderloon's invitation to spend the night. "And in the morning you will be telling me just what it is you're wanting," Vanderloon says.
The novel's conclusion is sudden and disconcerting. It doesn't work only if you believe it isn't consistent with Stub's character as presented in the rest of the novel, but his actions force us to reflect on our response to Stub until these moments. Initially we are no doubt inclined to sympathize with him, considering the circumstances of his childhood related in the first chapters: abusive and neglectful mother, bitterly resentful father, Stub constrained to act on his own resources at an early age. When Stub takes up residence on campus (the descriptions of which seem to directly reflect Ducornet's own experience growing up as the daughter of a professor at Bard College) and shows his skill in surviving despite his utter isolation, many readers are likely to admire him, to be rooting for him to overcome the obstacles that life has so arbitrarily put in his way. Even when he assumes his false identity and begins to take advantage of Billy's goodwill, we might feel that, however much Stub is engaging in deception, his attempts to better himself through self-education have been real and Billy is benefitting from Stub's companionship as much as Stub benefits from the momentary stability Billy has provided. Moreover, that Stub comes to feel a genuine attachment to Billy seems undeniable.
Perhaps it is even possible to regard Stubb's infatuation with Asthma, at least at first, as a sincere appreciation of her childhood innocence (leavened by her cheekier qualities, as she is not always entirely respectful, especially toward Stub, to whom she has given the nickname, "Brightfellow"). But long before Stub releases his barely suppressed yearning in a literal conflagration (which must also be called an act of attempted murder), it is apparent something has gone awry in his psychic development, that his emotional wiring has become seriously crossed. If we are not quite prepared for him to lash out in such a deadly way, it finally should not really be a surprise that Stub's idyll would come to be spoiled, most likely by his own actions. Still, the novel's resolution is disturbing (a quality that should not be unfamiliar to long-time Ducornet readers), not least because Stub's story is presumably still unresolved, or at least resolved only to continue, slightly revised in a different setting.
But this conclusion might provoke us not just to consider what lies ahead for Stub but also return to our initial view of him as an infant, left alone and playing on a linoleum floor: "He doesn't know how beautiful he is," the narrator tells us. "He doesn't know he's lonely and that his fear is not of his own making, that it will haunt him for the rest of his life. It will impede him years from now—twist and turn him just as an incessant wind twists and turns a tree—just as it will in unexpected ways nourish him. Yes: it will both nourish and impede him. And this is a terrible thing. How can he undo such a tangle?"
Since we have not yet been given illustration of the source of Stub's fear, or just what makes such fear "a terrible thing," it might be easy to take this lament as just part of an expository invocation, a lyrical flourish designed to suggest a kind of generic innocence, but Ducornet has actually provided the solution to the final mystery of Stub's behavior at the beginning. The fear is not simply the fear of being abandoned or mistreated (both of which he suffers nonetheless), but a fear, bred from the inherent hostility he absorbs from his surroundings, of fully asserting the sort of allegiance to imagination we find him expressing as a child, as "the linoleum swells with stories" he is inventing. Consequently, his orientation to the world, to his own experience of the world, is warped, along with his relationships to other people. "At home his isolation deepens," we are told just before Stub leaves it for his new existence lurking in the shadows of the campus. "But instead of dying, his affections are displaced."
Those displaced affections find their ultimate displacement when Stub meets Asthma. In the solitude he has been unable to escape, his conception of beauty and wonder has not advanced beyond the childish versions he acquired while entertaining himself on the linoleum. Finally Stub's interest in Asthma is not really sexual (although no doubt his post-pubescent libido has a role in coloring his interest), but instead he has idealized her from an infantilized perspective (probably reflecting Stub's forced separation from Jenny, his live-in babysitter) that demands reality conform to Stub's imagined perfection. One could say that Stub's assumption of an invented identity is also a manifestation of his impaired sense of the role of imagination, an attempt to bring his spectral reality into actual existence through an act of make-believe.
But the primordial fear has indeed nourished Stub as well. If his presence in the world is askew, he is also undeniably resourceful, curious, and self-reliant. He skulks behind the façade of the college and its campus because he could never really participate in the routine, if often hypocritical and tawdry, life he observes on and around it. For better or worse, he is different, more alert and alive than those around him who are otherwise privileged to lead a "normal" life. Finally Stub is a character whose spirit has accommodated both the monstrous and the marvelous, so much so that they threaten to become indistinguishable. This makes him one of Rikki Ducornet's most compelling characters, and the reason why Brightfellow leaves such a lingering impression.