Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rikki Ducornet’s Brightfellow

A Review of Rikki Ducornet’s


Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2016

By Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press ($15.95)

Novelist, poet, essayist, illustrator, children’s-book author, and all-around magical artificer Rikki Ducornet has been dazzling readers for more than four decades with her wildly inventive literary landscapes, her variegated works often eliciting comparisons to such polymaths as Jorge Luis Borges, the Marquis de Sade, Lewis Carroll, and Angela Carter. Her best works—especially her second novel, Entering Fire, and her two turn-of-the-millennium novels, The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition and Gazelle—defy even these affinities, as all great books must. Ducornet’s is an uneven genius, however, and her misfires can be disconcerting. Her newest novel, Brightfellow, swerves between highs and lows, offering her devotees a number of precious glimpses into her inspired inner regions while frustrating readers who might not know where to put their foot down in such an oddly balanced topography.

Brightfellow follows a wounded boy named Stub through his precarious childhood—which includes a formative episode when his parents stick him with a mentally ill nanny who introduces him to the work of a bizarre semi-mystical writer/artist named Verner Vanderloon—and then into young adulthood, when he runs away to live as a transient on the local university campus. Perhaps too coincidentally, Vanderloon had been a professor at the school and upon retirement had left his papers in a special collection in its library. Further chance brings the circumspect Stub into contact with emeritus professor Billy Sweetbriar, who knew Vanderloon. Within days he offers Stub—who upon meeting Billy chooses to call himself Charter Chase—a place to stay at his house while Stub/Charter works on his ostensible Fulbright project. Amazingly, Stub’s room at Billy’s house affords him a direct view into the bedroom of the eight-year-old girl he’s been fascinated with above all the other “campus brats,” a girl named Asthma who’s conspicuously in the Dantean ninth year of her life.

Ducornet breezes through these coincidences blithely, but what really rankles is how she treats Stub/Charter’s existence as a kind of game. As anyone who’s been homeless knows, unstable subsistence is far more dangerously uncertain than any linguistic juggling act. Stub becomes a brilliant thief, but despite Ducornet’s exuberant inventiveness, the practicalities of his day-to-day survival are totally unconvincing and keep the reader from investing in the gravity of his struggle. The worst turn comes when, finally in the luxurious cradle of Billy’s campus house, Stub/Charter decides to improvise a fraudulent research project for which he invents an entire Pacific-island people for Vanderloon to have discovered and documented, fabricating reams of notes and creating an entire language and mythology that he regales Billy with over dinners—as if any homeless person would ever play games with his meal ticket, or with his very ability to remain in his university universe, especially when his host is a Romance-language specialist who would easily see through his half-baked philological extemporizations. Ducornet has always brilliantly thumbed her nose at traditional realism, but this novel’s momentum simply doesn’t pull off the magic to bend its reality like this, the flippancy of its development betraying a classist bent that assumes that its readers have never been hungry.

Reviewing Brightfellow from end to beginning, as we’re meant to, a different pattern emerges. As in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Charter’s pursuit of Vanderloon compels him through a series of escalations that vacillate between reverence and blasphemy, to arrive at an elusive prime mover whose surprise appearance somehow works as an ex post facto reconciliation of the book’s impossible progressions. Mocking and aping his deity (or is his creator merely a gnostic demiurge?), Charter has renamed himself and has even created his own apocryphal testament, but he inexorably charts and chases his inspiration toward ends that may or may not justify the novel’s tortuous means. As in Cormac McCarthy’s Chestertonian Blood Meridian, the mystical denouement reconfigures the entire novel, and the results are similarly mixed.

Brightfellow’s success or failure doesn’t just hinge on whether this back-to-front redirection works, of course. Ducornet’s prose almost always transcends her narrative missteps, and her twistedly inspired reflections upon this novel’s field of play make for a brilliantly illuminating funhouse to get lost in. As Charter surreptitiously observes his darling Asthma—his stolen-spyglass furtiveness like a fusion of Vladimir Nabokov’s creepers Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote—his influence on her escapes his fumbling grasp so drastically that he’s several steps behind when he finally realizes that Asthma’s been observing and imitating him, nearly to the point of exposure. Readers who don’t worry about things like being hungry and who see life and literature as a mere series of signs will titter knowingly at his trip with Asthma and her friend to view a screening of Rear Window, but Charter’s fantastic final flight resonates profoundly as he searches for someplace like home and is magically ushered along to the ending in search of, in Vanderloon’s words, “just what it is you are wanting.”

—David Wiley

Monday, April 18, 2016

Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart

A Review of Neel Mukherjee’s

A Life Apart

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on April 18th, 2016

A Life Apart
By Neel Mukherjee
W.W. Norton, 371 pages, $16.95

After the enormous success of Indian-British writer Neel Mukherjee’s epic second novel, The Lives of Others, his American publisher is now bringing out his award-winning debut, A Life Apart, a much less ambitious work, but nonetheless a richer and more rewarding read. While The Loves of Others offers an encyclopedic panorama of Mukherjee’s home city and countryside, A Life Apart focuses on just two intertwining counterpoints: the life of Ritwik Ghosh, a Bengali expatriate trying to make his way in 1990s London, and the imagined life of Miss Maud Gilby, a minor character in Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s polemical 1915 novel, The Home and the World. Like Ritwik in London, Miss Gilby is an expatriate in India living “a life apart” among world events that ultimately overwhelm her intricately small experience as an observer and bit player.

Miss Gilby is a British woman hired as a companion and tutor for Bimala, the main character of Tagore’s novel, and in Mukherjee’s version it fairly quickly becomes clear that Ritwik is writing Miss Gilby’s back story as a kind of exploration of his own outsider experience. Like any good symbiotic author/character relationship, the two narratives influence and warp each other as they evolve and encompass more and more of the life around them. Needing a place to stay after finishing his university exams and failing to renew his visa, Ritwik moves in with and begins taking care of Anne Cameron, an elderly woman who he discovers had lived in India as a young woman. Her slowly unfolding history, explored through the personal memorabilia that Ritwik digs up and asks her about, subtly yet dramatically adds texture and substance to Miss Gilby’s evolution as a character and as a part of her estranged society in India. While Tagore dispenses with Miss Gilby in his book’s first chapter, Ritwik’s version sifts entirely through her rich interior reflections, which are of course also complex reflections of Ritwik’s own expatriate experience.

Mukherjee’s second novel likewise features a parallel narrative written by a young male protagonist, and while part of that novel’s drama is in discovering the secondary narrative’s intended audience—a real-life relationship that beautifully bends the reader’s understanding of the novel’s stratified world—Mukherjee’s intertwining of author and creator in A Life Apart is far more dazzling and effective. Not especially gifted at characterization, Mukherjee exceeds far more as a prose stylist who weaves brilliant interiors, and A Life Apart is by far his best writing so far. Ritwik’s own climactic experiences are somewhat haphazard and unconvincing compared to Miss Gilby’s more orchestrated denouement—as well as to the far better plotted The Lives of Others—but this novel’s supple prose absolutely outshines any other consideration to create an unforgettably penetrating work of art.

—David Wiley