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.