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Brightfellow
Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press
www.coffeehousepress.org/shop/brightfellow 176Pages; Print, $15.95

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Rikki Ducornet’s last three novels, Gazelle (2003), Netsuke (2011), and now Brightfellow, 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 first 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.

The characteristic exercise of imagination in Ducornet’s fiction 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 The Word “Desire” [1997]), 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...

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