A review of Phosphor in Dreamland, by Rikki Ducornet
Published January 25th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
By Rikki Ducornet
Dalkey Archive, $12.95
Set in the mythic Caribbean island Birdland (a not-too-distant cousin to Vonnegut’s San Lorenzo and Nabokov’s Zembla), this epistolary novel chronicles the life of a seventeenth-century poet/inventor/artist named Phosphor. Written by a current inhabitant to his friend in another slightly less mythic land, this series of letters is both a study of the island’s history and an ardent examination of human connection through time. Having the narrator fall in love as he sifts through the island’s evidence is an example of this kind of connectedness, a metaphor for the affinities of history.
As the narrator examines the remnants of Phosphor’s past, he finds that love was also the main motive for his life—love of art, beauty, knowledge, and, most crucially, for an almost unearthly woman, the beautiful Extravaganza. This is much more than a romantic stroll through the past, though, because Phosphor’s love of beauty puts him in some strange territory. He’s forced to deal with the consequences of his art, such as the exploitation and simplification that can occur when the powerful get their hands on it.
One of his inventions is a mock-up of a camera obscura that can reproduce reality so clearly that Fantasma, the local tyrant, decides to use it to capture the entire island for his personal collection. This leads Phosphor to unwittingly comply with pornographers and, even worse, the ancestors of TV producers.
In addition to his art being exploited, it’s also attacked by the church as heretical. Phosphor’s work is eventually confiscated by Rais Secundo, “Grand Inquisitor, and Ecclesiastical Judge,” in an attempt to eradicate the island’s “pornography.” This confiscation, infuriating as it is, leads to possibly the most hilarious, outrageous, and ironic scene I’ve encountered in fiction. Let’s just say it involves Rais Secundo and the Pope’s hat.
As wonderful as this novel is, it does take some time to really get rolling, so give it a few pages to catch your attention. Phosphor in Dreamland is one of those books that builds until it’s virtually bursting, and with Ducornet’s richly crafted prose and considerable intellectual and techical skills, this novel can barely contain its teeming cargo.