Rikki Ducornet has created a genuinely unique world, one of a tension between Eden and its loss, one in which wonder and magic still tenuously exist

Rikki Ducornet, The One Marvelous Thing. Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

"Winner of a 2007 American Academy of Arts and Letters, Rikki Ducornet is beloved as a novelist and essayist, but is known perhaps most of all for her work as a writer of short stories. In the tradition of Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, and Angela Carter, Ducornet creates modern-day fables filled with characters as complex and surprising as any in American short fiction. This landmark collection of new stories is generously illustrated by T. Motley, whose gritty, fantastical cartooning explores the same post-magical realism that has been the subject of Ducornet’s distinguished career."

«Rikki Ducornet is linguistically explosive... one of the most interesting American writers around.» - The Nation

«Ducornet writes like a stunned time-traveler, testifying in breathless fragments to exotic ages that have gone or never were... It's startling and refreshing to encounter a writer whose work insists so relentlessly upon the magic of making tales.» - Chicago Tribune

"Anomalous - deviating from the normal; deviant. - American Heritage Dictionary
The anomalous deserves our attention. - Rikki Ducornet
And why does the deviant deserve our attention?
Ducornet would probably say that what we call "normal" is just the routine habits that shield us from the many more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
In this, her fourth collection of short, fantastic prose poems, Ducornet rips away that shield to show us that there is not just "one marvelous thing" in the world but many.
In the title story, an ordinary event, such as a shopping trip, exposes pomposity and sets up a tender trap of caged delight. In "The Wild Child," an untamed girl is "saved" from her savagery by missionaries, but when she tells her forest story of freedom, their eyes sparkle with something like envy.
Most of the women in Ducornet's extraordinary little stories struggle with cages of "normality" in one way or another. In "Giulia on Her Knees," Giulia has become a 60-year-old woman who has spent a lifetime scrubbing spattered grease off the floor for men to walk on.
In "Mimi Ungerer and Janet," Mimi discovers several large trunks in a recently purchased property, containing a trousseau that she and her friend Janet try on, that is, until her husband brings home the ordinary. And then there is "La Goulue in Retirement," an ex-music-hall star grown old and fat, who says that although she was fated for lions, her yard now "reeks of feral creatures in idleness."
Ducornet's characters wander perilously on the edge of Alice's rabbit hole, sometimes falling in, sometimes remaining in the routine of reality that enslaves them.
This delicious little book is dotted with the sometimes whimsical, sometimes grotesque comic illustrations of T. Motley and concludes with a section titled "The Butcher's Comics" (echoing Ducornet's 1994 collection of stories, "The Complete Butcher's Tales"), consisting of three comic strips by Motley, with text by Ducornet.
"Clean" is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Christian demand for cleanliness next to godliness, while "The Tale of the Tattooed Woman" is an elaborately illustrated story of how the deviant can be beautiful. "Brillig" is a sly tribute to the world of Edward Lear's "Jabberwocky," ultimately suggesting that the entire physical universe may be an invention of demons.
If you go to Literature-map.com and type in Rikki Ducornet's name, you can watch the names of Barthelme, Borges, Barth, Coover, Lovecraft, Calvino and Angela Carter fan out around her. We should be glad that although those who know only the "normal" may frown in disapproval, there are still writers like Ducornet who have their number. For which we cannot resist singing a chorus of the Steely Dan song inspired by her, "Rikki, Don't Lose that Number." - Charles May

Rikki Ducornet, The Word "Desire" (Henry Holt, 1997; Dalkey Archive Press, 2005)

"The twelve startlingly original stories about erotic situations collected in The Word Desire are the best opportunity yet for adventurous readers to discover the fiction of Rikki Ducornet. Always at ease with the sensuous, perverse and eccentric aspects of human nature, Ducornet turns her attention in this collection to the most volatile and easily misunderstood emotion, desire.
Each of these stories centers on a pivotal erotic moment in the lives of the men and women who narrate them, exploring the many strange reverberations that occur when desire is present whether repressed or acted upon."

"As with The Fountains of Neptune and her other acclaimed novels, Rikki Ducornet's new story collection is a crystal-work of poetic dimensions. The twelve stories contained here are so organically shaped that they seem to be made of molecules, not words. They range across North Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas at different historical periods and with an ambition no less than to limn "desire" as "a sacred text that has been copied out again and again by a fallible scribe."
In fact, each story might be thought of as an unveiling of desire's multifarious nature. In "Rosevine" the scribe is in the form of a boy, the desire a pristine world suggested by seashells. "The Chess Set of Ivory" undercuts the Osiris myth by allowing its teller to walk in on his own wife dancing nude with another man. Desire as destroyer/animator; core mythology; water, earth, light--especially light, the elemental imagery that is Ducornet's signature--forces discussion of the book into an antiquated vocabulary.
Reading it, we feel, like the Mexican priest in "The Foxed Mirror," that we are looking at ourselves/desire through a dark mirror. The Freudian dichotomy of sex and death that informs "The Neurosis of Containment" becomes simply a modernist formulation of something eternal, something people have always copied out in their idiosyncratic hand. The penultimate story, "Opium," centers on a dying pope fed on breast milk and gold. It ends with a collage of violence wrought by the word desire when conceived as a noun: holy wars, murder; a historical sweep that could be the book's epiphany. But a final, extremely personal story serves as a coda that, like The Divine Comedy, harmonizes the desire of the self with the desire that moves history, indeed all humanity. A sublime achievement." - Steve Tomasula

"Desire glitters, gemlike, at the center of these tales, flashing its sharp edges and catching the reader's eye with its intense color, allure, and singularity. Desire, these stories seem to say, possesses everyone at least once in their lives, no matter how chaste and ascetic, young or old, naive, promiscuous, or neurotic. While the pursuit of desire may leave its afflicted in a muddle of humiliation and confusion, it may also place one on the brink of the divine. For Ducornet, desire takes many forms: it can be fueled by a vision from a dream or a book, driven by devout curiosity, or fired by love (or pure lust) for another human being. It is also, however, likely to be tangled up in disappointment, driven by fear, thwarted by social and political injustices or by one's own shortcomings.
In twelve stories that take place in many reaches of the world - India, Algeria, France, the U.S. - and in many periods of time, Rikki Ducornet explores "the many tenses of longing." The frail father of the first story, thwarted by his robust wife's passion for life (and officers), desires the delicacy of carved ivory chess pieces, more baffled by the disorder of love than by the complexity of the game. A young boy, in "Roseveine," wants nothing more than to capture the heart of his mother's friend, a woman who comes visiting with a mysterious collection of seashells and thwarts his father's perverse power by pissing a bright and subversive stream straight to his feet. In "Wormwood," two children whisper stories and obscenities while an old man dies noisily in the bed nearby. The giddiness of children in the face of death, a man's quest for a four-armed divinity, a young woman's ill--fated marriage--Ducornet handles these scenarios with a voice that knowingly winks at the reader, swooning in the richness of language and imagery.
Ducornet's work has always been inspired by fairy tales and The Word "Desire" takes this proclivity even further. The short form, with its simple plot and quickly drawn characters, works to her advantage; she can set up and unravel a situation with shocking impact in no time at all, meanwhile remarking on the many faces of cultural and individual violence. Like fairy tales, these stories pulse with the latent forces of lust, death, sexuality, and ambition, and though the tales are often humorous, lurking beneath them all are darker forces that threaten to unravel any illusion of simple comfort or joy. Irreverent while at the same time utterly in awe of the powers of body and mind, Ducornet handles the brevity of the fairy tale form with the power of a skilled poet.
Christianity, and its ill-fated attempts to restrict (if not forbid) desire, is a particularly ripe topic for Ducornet's sometimes devilish imagination; she turns the ideal of holy chastity on its ear, as vows are broken and passions pursued. In one startling tale, a spoiled and dying old pope, high on opium, drinks human milk straight from the source. At the story's conclusion, Ducornet slashes at colonialism, religious hypocrisy, and the abuse of power with sweeping, linguistic fury. Instead of being heavy handed or pedantic, however, she takes on the voice of a bard, singing the woes of humankind, its wars and aspirations to immortality. Christianity takes another hit in "The Foxed Mirror," the story of a bored and depressed young priest who spends one hour of passion with a dionysian (and blasphemous) painter, then lives the rest of his life in deep humiliation--not for this one great sin, but for his perpetual timidity in the face of life. What defeats him, finally, is not his succumbing to desire or even his devotion to the priesthood, but his refusal to live with any form of passion. The overly orderly woman of "The Neurosis of Containment" (a revealing enough title) not only forbids herself any physical passion, but attempts to ward off any intellectual adventure, eschewing ideas she deems Semitic, pagan, African, or unholy. The acute headache she develops, a ringing in the ears that sounds like "bees the size of... atoms, their wings... cymbals of brass," is alleviated by a supernatural convocation with some very handsome angels; frightened and aroused, she runs from the scene of her "defilement," the one moment in which her imagination overpowers her intellect and gives her a rare, if inexplicable, moment of pleasure. There is great danger in any religion (or government, or belief system) that denies desire, Ducornet seems to warn us. The demonization of nature, the denial of sexuality, and the refusal of new ideas all contribute to the destruction portrayed in stories like "Opium." There is, of course, also danger in passion's pursuit. A moment of bliss is always tempered by its opposite. Nevertheless, these stories side with surrender, no matter how short-lived or futile.
While the desire for pleasure, for knowledge, or for adventure may hold her characters in its thrall, perhaps the greatest desire of all is for a language in which to speak of such things, for words to describe the wonders of the human heart and imagination and to unravel its dangers and duplicity. This desire informs every phrase of the book and accounts for its meticulous imagery. In light of this, the title suddenly seems most apt; it is for the words themselves that the most acute desire is expressed, the word "desire" being just another step toward a singular, passionate culmination."
- Carolyn Kuebler

Rikki Ducornet, Gazelle (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

"Elizabeth, the daughter of a professor of history living in Cairo in the 1950s, tells how she came to be an anatomist of mummies, as she opens up to us the sensations and aromas of ancient times, and explains how the city of Cairo itself gives her power - and wisdom - and takes away from her the part of the self that is necessary for love.
When her mother leaves her father to "walk" the streets of Cairo, and her father forgets himself in games of chess and war, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth ponders Scheherazade's words, "It is good for a girl to be with a man," and finds comfort at the shop of Ramses Ragab, a master perfumer dedicated to resurrecting the lost fragrances of the past (the Susinum prized by Roman women; the nardinon loved by Pliny, the hekenou of the Pharaohs).
Under the tutelage of the perfumer, Elizabeth reads ancient esoteric texts and learns the mysteries of fragrance. Ramses Ragab is a sensitive and brilliant man, and Elizabeth's burst of love for him has a child's intensity and a young woman's passion. When her father hires a magician to bring back his wife, Elizabeth discovers just how precious she herself is - and how worthless - as a girl and soon to be beautiful woman, in this ancient land of stone, sand, and darkness."

"Rikki Ducornet scares me. I don't know where all this stuff comes from: the capitalist Tubbs arriving in Egypt and wanting instantly to turn it into a pudding with raisins, Secundo ejaculating into the flames of a public execution. And yet ... when I teach, I tell my students: write about what frightens and disturbs you. "All my novels do a sort of dance over the coals," Ducornet has said. Repeatedly, she speaks of writing as waking hallucination, of fiction as a species of magic, of a fiction informed not just by the quotidian and pressures of physical experience but by dreams, reverie, philosophy, and intuition: all the noumena that form the shimmer of our minds at their meeting place with the world. She wants not just to create whole new worlds--which she brilliantly does in Phosphor in Dreamland, the stories of The Word Desire, the tetralogy consisting of The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, and The Jade Cabinet--but to take in the whole of this one as well, to mark its imprint on her soul, to possess it. In Gazelle the story is of a young girl coming to age and sexuality in Egypt. Her beautiful blond mother has departed; her father, olive-skinned and dark of hair like herself, has sunk into an obsession with chess and war games; and she has been taken under wing by a family friend, the perfumer Ramses Ragab. As always, Ducornet writes of the eternal struggle, within and without, between forces of repression and those of liberation, trying to retrieve for self and characters a space in which creation and transformation remain possible. "I believe," she has said, "in the sexual soul." - James Sallis

"Gazelle is a sensuous book. A mix of smells pervades its pages, from orange
blossoms, perfumes, mint, almonds, limes, roses, jasmine, and long-simmered delicacies to animal dung, vinegar, urine, and long-buried mummies. Great stand-alone sentences are enough to make one's mouth water: "We shall eat lamb with our fingers in the light of a single sequin blinking in the navel of a belly dancer" -- or as in this description of a lunch with "the birds stuffed to indecency and poised like swimmers on a swell of spiced lentils." — Evelyn Small

"Sepia-toned like the tea-steeped ivory chess pieces commissioned at its start, this evocative if overripe brief novel by Ducornet (The Fan-Maker's Inquisition, etc.) tells the story of a young American girl's awakening one summer in 1950s Cairo. Thirteen-year old Elizabeth is the daughter of tragically mismatched parents. Her father is a soft-spoken, intellectual scholar of war ("his Egyptian students called him His Airship"), her mother a careless, vivacious Icelandic beauty ("a noisemaker"). When her mother moves into the Hotel-Pension Viennoise, the better to carry on her affairs, her father is heartbroken, losing himself in chess and the history of war. Introverted Elizabeth takes after her father and tends anxiously to him, while feuding with her mother and finding solace in her obsession with her father's best friend, Ramses Ragab, a handsome and gentle perfume maker. His seductive lessons in the art of hieroglyphics and the chemistry of exotic scents foreshadow the novel's plunge into the occult when Elizabeth's father hires a magician to try and lure his wife back. The troubled relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully depicted, and Ducornet deftly evokes a steamy, sophisticated mid-century Cairo, casting a veil of legend and arcane detail over the city's erotic stirrings. Luminous writing is left to take up the slack left by a slow and dreamy plot, but the hothouse atmosphere is artfully contrived."- Publishers Weekly

"A young girl is living in Cairo in the 1950s when her American mother leaves her Egyptian father to have affairs with one lover after another. Elizabeth at 13 is just realizing her own womanhood and is fascinated by a friend of her father, a perfume maker who visits their house frequently and is in love with all of them, in different ways. The story reads almost as a myth or fable, but is touched by the sorrow of a young girl who has lost her mother and finds her father just out of reach. Filled with sensual metaphors of fragrance, sight and sound, this is a story of the burgeoning desire of youth and the frantic desire of those who are afraid of what they might have lost." - Nola Theiss

"Ducornet here weaves a coming-of-age story about a woman who, like Ducornet herself, spent a year in Cairo, Egypt, when she was a teenager. Now in her forties, Elizabeth looks back at this pivotal time in her life, when her lovely, wayward mother openly caroused through Cairo, picking up strange men, and her eccentric professor father deflected his sadness by obsessively playing chess and war games. She also recalls her own sexual wakening, which began when she was attracted to her father's war game companion, Rames Ragab, a perfumer who bestowed upon her his knowledge of exotic plants and scents. Ducornet effectively draws a portrait of a young girl who, privy to her father's deepening despair, starts to resent her mother intensely while discovering her own sexuality (reading a provocative translation of Arabian Nights further stimulates her fantasies). This dreamy story blends the mysteries of an unusual culture with the mysteries of sex, attraction, the body, death, and the natural world. Intellectual ponderings about the preservation of mummified bodies and of esoteric texts (e.g., the work of a 17th-century alchemist who theorized about Egyptian hieroglyphs) further enhance the narrative's appeal. Recommended for large libraries collecting literary fiction." - Maureen Neville

"Muted characterization and action and a voluptuous superabundance of arcane hocus-pocus: such are the keynotes of this febrile eighth novel from the writer-painter whose earlier, much similar fiction includes The Complete Butcher's Tales (1994) and Phosphor in Dreamland (1995). The story's narrated in retrospect by Elizabeth, a trained anatomist who specializes in examining mummified bodies, 20 years after she had lived in Cairo with her "Professor" father (bankrolled by a Fulbright grant) and epically promiscuous Icelandic mother. "Mother," a sexual force of nature devoid of moral scruples, ran through multiple lovers, seeking her ideal Egyptian man: "the gazelle type." The Professor, an expert in the mechanics of poisoning (whose book The Ethics of War had attracted CIA interest), and a hitherto strictly "rational" man, drowned his grief in chess games reimagined as historic battles with master parfumier Ramses Ragab. As always, Ducornet conjures up fragrant excerpts from texts both real (The Arabian Nights) and imaginary (the "licentious" Garden of Semblance and Lies, the writings of alchemist Athanasius Kirchner, who studied Egyptian hieroglyphics in hopes of creating an encyclopedic summa of human experience). Rather late in the game, things do begin to happen, as the Professor summons a magician to bring back his vagrant wife (she does return, after mumbling incantations replete with dark cosmic clichés-but she stays only for breakfast). Meanwhile, Elizabeth's awakened sexuality leads her to intimacy with secrets possessed and conjured by Ramses Ragab, independence from both her mother's destructive sexuality and her father's abdication from reality, and-on shipboard, as she and theProfessor, having abandoned all hope, return to America-the "gazelle man" who makes her a woman ("my heart thrashed like an eel under the net of his eyes"). Ducornet's aphoristic élan makes all this nonsense agreeably smooth, if insubstantial and arbitrary. To quote the Professor: "Time is a clutter... and it needs to be sorted out." So is, so does Gazelle." - Kirkus Reviews

"Words often have a power to excite the senses. Losing yourself in a sensuous novel, you might find the author can make your skin feel like it's been touched, a food could be tasted right from the words on the page, or music could reach through your ears and down into your soul. In Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet, you'd swear you could smell the aromas and fragrances her prose evokes, holding the book to your nose and inhaling it to see if maybe the publisher anointed each book with some exotic scent before it found its way into your hands.
The plot in Gazelle is easy to summarize. The protagonist is a 13-year old American girl, Elizabeth, on the cusp of womanhood, living in Cairo in the 1950s while her father, a history professor, teaches there on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her mother, a beautiful Icelandic blonde in a country full of dark-haired and dark-skinned men, enjoys being the center of male attention. She leaves Elizabeth and her father to live in hotels and have as many lovers as she wants. This abandonment of the family strikes both Elizabeth and her father quite hard, creating deep resentment within Elizabeth and driving her father to depression and weakness.
Elizabeth's father (neither parent is ever given a name) becomes obsessed with playing war games. He creates whole armies of men, painting them in exact detail to re-create some historical battle. Her father makes up the rules to the games and plays these with his friend, Ramses Ragab, a creator of scents and perfumes. Ramses Ragab is an intelligent and sensitive man, and Elizabeth likes him instantly. He constantly visits her father, playing his war games with him, and doing his best to brighten his day and coax him out of the apartment. Ramses owns the Kosmètèrion, his store and laboratory for creating perfumes. As she and her father visit the Kosmètèrion for the first time, Elizabeth is captivated by both Ramses and his world:
"...In fact," he was saying, "each element, because it is a thing of Nature, each blossom of henna, each grain of pepper --" and I was taken, not only by his eyes, but the planes of his face, his features, which I realized were very fine. And his mouth. His mouth was beautiful." -- each grain of pepper, so like the next it is impossible to tell one from the other, has properties of its own. If this difference is not readily perceptible, it is revealed upon close inspection. A harvest of roses will differ dramatically from one place to the next, one year to the next. I must see to it that despite divergences, the finished perfumes are alike as possible, unchanged year after year, all the while keeping in mind that an unexpected or random note may be exactly what I am ideally, ideally," he repeated, "looking for. The subtle yet marvelous divergence that will make the fragrance more active than before, more complex, more seductive, astonishing somehow. So that the one who wears it will never be forgotten." He smiled at me when he said: Never be forgotten.
"Never be forgotten" might be the central struggle of the characters in this novel. Elizabeth narrates the story from her adult future as an anatomist who dissects mummies in the museum in Cairo, using her memories to guide us through her tumultuous world when she was 13. Her mother used her beauty and brazen sexuality to capture men and create fear and envy in other women. She was in a rush to use all the power provided to her by her looks and body before it deserted her as she got older. Elizabeth's father wanted his wife back at any cost, letting his physical and mental health deteriorate in her absence. He felt like a nobody without her, lost in a world where he was unimportant and easily forgotten. Ramses Ragab let his skills be his attraction to the beautiful women in town. His perfumes would accent their beauty and seductiveness and were his entrance to their world.
At the center of it all, though, is young Elizabeth. She is repulsed by her mother's behavior yet wanting a little of that power for her own. She obtains a provocatively illustrated and unedited version of The Arabian Knights and she comes across Schéhérazade's comment, "It is good for a girl to be with a man." What better man, to Elizabeth's mind, than Ramses, the brilliant man sensitive to beauty and nature, feared by some by his magical ability to make women more beautiful than they really are. Elizabeth is aware that Sakkiet, a young girl who works for Ramses, is only a year older than she and about to be forced into a marriage she doesn't want.
It is the unseen power and magic that permeates Gazelle. In that ancient and exotic city, unseen forces seem to be at work all the time. The fragrance of the flowers, the sounds of the vendors, the tastes of the food, and the touch of the flesh are powerful forces that affect them all, driving them to a dreamlike world at times. When that dream turns to a nightmare, even older magic, forces thousands of years old, are called on in an attempt to regain control of their world.
This is a short book, less than 200 pages, and Rikki Ducornet immediately immerses the reader in this exotic time and place. That is also its biggest weakness. It's like being dropped into a foreign locale where you don't speak the language and lack a tour guide. I fumbled through the first half of the novel, trying to understand the references and French phrases, and was lost at times. It would be a mistake to put this book down and walk away, though. Halfway through the book, Ramses tells the story, The Garden of Semblance and Lies, about a magician who discovers the hidden name of God and has absolute power over everything. He find a beautiful girl and enchants her to love him forever, but since it's only a delusion, ultimately he has nothing. From that point, everything in the book comes together and it's easy to become immersed in the story and stroll the streets of Cairo or the gardens of Fayum, wondering whether Elizabeth's father would ever recover the love of her mother and whether Elizabeth would give herself to Ramses in declaration of her burgeoning feminine power.
Gazelle is ultimately a sad, but beautiful, book. Rikki Ducornet creates a vivid world of fragrance and sensuality, and the power those forces have on those caught in their spells. Like the magician of the story, though, it can be an empty power and just a delusion. Not even the ancient powers can control a heart and bring love where it's not offered. Enjoy Gazelle for its adventure through the realms of sensuality and let the fragrance of this story waft to your mind. Rikki Ducornet casts a tantalizing spell." - W. R. Greer
Rikki Ducornet, The Fan-Maker's Inquisition (Henry Holt, 1999)

"A fan is like the thighs of a woman: it opens and closes." And so begins this lush, historical novel--a mixture of imagination and conceit, passion and suspense. In a tense courtroom during the French Revolution, a young fan-maker, renowned all over Paris for her sensual and graphic objets d'art, is on trial because of her collaboration with the Marquis de Sade. Heads will roll unless the independent fan-maker, erotically cast in the shadow of Sade, can justify her art and friendships to a court known for its rigid and prudish proprieties..."

"A fan is like the thighs of a woman," begins Rikki Ducornet's new novel, "It opens... with a flick of a wrist. It produces its own weather...." From this prime image, The Fan-Maker's Inquisition grows into an allegory of imagination's effect on the world. In place of the embuggering/throat slashing scenes in Sade's own work, the novel first follows the citizens' trial of Gabrielle, a confidante of Sade and maker of erotic fans. Sade's letters to her are brought in as evidence of her perversity, as is their co-authored novel about officially sanctioned atrocities by the Spanish in Mexico. The book then switches to Sade, imprisoned within earshot of the guillotine as he reads Gabrielle's letters and imagines meals, gardens, books--and the erotic scenes she painted on fans.
With bows to the historical Sade, Ducornet creates exquisite lists--a Sade book of hours, calendar of days--and the novel becomes a poetic rendering of this author's philosophy of the abject, a tradition extended by Georges Bataille and so prominent in contemporary body art (see Cindy Sherman's vomit photos). Here, knowledge of the world comes from the body as well as the mind, and is most eloquent about reigns of terror. Sade's literary valorization of the vile exposes that which is hidden by platitudes and other "enlightened" justifications for the literal atrocities committed routinely in the name of God and country (though, of course, the self-interest of rich aesthetes escapes critique in this aristocrat's telling). Perversity is thus revealed as a matter of inversion, a matter of perspective--a creation of the aggressive eye--the perfect complement to Ducornet's approach to art through the sublime language and meticulous attention to form that is characteristic of her prose." - Steve Tomasula

"The Marquis de Sade, notorious Frenchman and sexual libertine, makes for a sensual, irreverent and politically illuminating subject in Ducornet's (Phosphor in Dreamland) lushly imagined seventh novel. This sumptuous tale is equal parts testimonial, epistolary exchange and reminiscence, opening in 1793 with the eponymous Fan-Maker (Gabrielle) facing an unidentified interrogator from the Parisian Comit de Surveillance, attempting to defend her friendship with Sade, who's already been condemned to prison for his sexual crimes. In addition to being accused of creating blasphemous, erotic fans for Sade, Gabrielle is also known to have collaborated with him on a denunciatory book exposing Spanish Inquisitor Bishop Diego de Landa's vicious treatment of the Mayas in the Y catan in 1562. Landa is accused of torturing and murdering the natives of the New World and stripping the Mayas of their pagan belief system, all in the name of the Church. While it is the notorious book that immediately endangers the composed, eloquent Fan-Maker, she's also vulnerable as a known lesbian and libertine. At the Comit 's request, she reads and explains the raging missives she's received from Sade; they are tantalizingly detailed and incendiary. The theatrical format exacerbates the polemical tone of the book, in which the excesses of French Revolutionary philistines and the Spanish Inquisition's barbarism are made exhaustively clear. In the latter half of the narrative, Sade becomes narrator, treating the reader to his perspective on the courageous Fan-Maker. He reveals the letter she composed on the eve of her execution, and he lovingly describes her devotion to Olympe de Gouges, a radical playwright and fellow victim of the Comit . Ducornet's prose is necessarily and carefully shaded toward purple, often starkly ribald or phantasmic. She convincingly interpolates Sade's audacious, epigrammatic voice, his passion for carnal freedoms and hatred for banal taboos. Her language is an ecstatic performance, with transformational potency that begs to be read aloud." - Publishers Weekly

"The Marquis de Sade is so monstruous that he ought to have been conjured up by a novelist. Here, an imaginative novelist does conjure up Sade. The story centers on a fan-maker whose creations for Sade depict exquisitely outrageous sex scenes. Now the Revolution has descended, Sade is in prison, and the fan-maker is on trial for her presumed part in his debauches. During the trial, it is revealed that the two have collaborated on a manuscript imputing acts of horrific torture and killing to Spanish Inquisitor Bishop Landa in South America--acts of course more awful than anything Sade has dreamed up. What's more, the fan-maker has been passionately involved with the notorious Olympe de Gouges. The story is related entirely through trial transcriptions, letters, and manuscript, and though the structure cracks a little mid-way through, it's mostly a bracing and original way to tell this intriguing tale. Throughout, there's a real tension: Sade is defended for "dar[ing] to take imagination's darkest path," yet ideas are also shown to be profoundly dangerous. A thought-provoking book for sophisticated readers. - Barbara Hoffert

"Freed from the constraints of plot, the reader is propelled forward by the hallucinitory strangness of the prose, hooked by a complex and subterranean emotional logic." - Maggie Paley

"It's been a good year for the dark and satanic Marquis, what with a major biography and translations of his short stories and letters from prison—and now this fetchingly perverted novel from America's answer to Angela Carter (and perhaps Isak Dinesen), the author of such baroque fiction as The Complete Butcher's Tales (1994) and Phosphor in Dreamland (1995). The story initially focuses on the trial of the eponymous artisan who's corresponded with Sade during his imprisonment (as an aristocrat targeted by the Revolution), provided erotically illustrated artifacts made to his order (flagellation is a favorite theme), and collaborated with him on a scurrilous little volume detailing the swath cut through the Mayan culture of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula by (Spanish) Bishop Landa, a murderous missionary resolved "to pacify the Indians and bring them to the Light of Christ"). In the increasingly declamatory second half, Sade himself offers a witty maledictory cataloguing of his own physical failings ("teeth as untrustworthy as dice, an anus with a mind of its own") and his ego-driven espousal of unfettered freedom of expression (his wish "to embrace the immense disorder of voluptuousness"). There's rather more detailed information about the craft of fan-making than most readers will require, and Ducornet does employ her characters—besides Sade and fan-maker Gabrielle, her intellectual soulmate and lover, feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges—as mouthpieces for the claims of individual freedom from convention and repression. But the novel is filled with amusingly irreverent stories within stories, such as Sade's miscellaneous contrary accounts of his birth and upbringing, andBishop Landa's cautionary tale of how a disguised Satan tempted angels out of heaven, causing God to banish them and curse womankind forever. Elegant jaded entertainment. Readers who aren't immediately glutted, and persevere through the calculated blasphemies and obscenities, will gratefully savor the fruits of Ducornet's hothouse imagination." - Kirkus Reviews
Rikki Ducornet, The Monstrous and the Marvelous (City Lights, 1999)

"Rikki Ducornet introduces her The Monstrous and the Marvelous, a collection of essays, by hoping that its "reveries" will evoke some of the aesthetic vertigo she has derived from gardens and paintings, films and books--beginning with the childhood moment she was stung by a B in an alphabet book and infected by the "venom of language." In the spirit of wunderkammern, those 18th-century cabinets of curiosities this collection invokes, Ducornet fits these experiences into taxonomies of fecal eyes and anamorphoses, of hunger artists and literary critique. Ranging over topics disparate enough to defy classification--novel writing, the NAFTA trade agreement; optical terror; human deformity--she applies an assumption that "one need merely look at a thing long enough to see how marvelous and how monstrous--and mysterious--it is." That is, the logic of Ducornet's whole is medieval (or if you prefer, postmodern): an allegorical examination of the world and world-making authors and artists such as Swift, Borges, Kafka, and Joseph Cornell. At its core is the paradox that the marvelous can contain the monstrous (e.g., a hydrocephalic skull), while the truly monstrous (e.g., a political system driven by markets instead of justice) always shuts down marvel, shuts down the world: a text whose meaning we must dream. By reanimating the marvelous, that Renaissance literary heuristic, she invites readers to realize how they live perpetually in Eden, bringing its animals into reality by giving them their names. And she does so with the poetic puissance so characteristic of her fiction." - Steve Tomasula

"With the great Renaissance voyages to the New World came the popularity of Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonders, in which newly discovered monsters and marvels could be displayed. Like such a cabinet, this collection of essays surveys the monstrous and the marvelous - as transmuted in the alembic of Rikki Ducornet's open-hearted vision - in literature, art, and film. For her, excess anomaly, and heterodoxy entice the imagining mind to embrace "otherness," enlarge the world, and regenerate Eden.
Ducornet playfully investigates works of literature, art, and film that create ruptures in our sense of normality... [She] shows how the road of excess indeed leads to the palace of wisdom. Most important, however, her ability to transfix and communicate her sense of wonder becomes wondrous in itself, making these essays read with the same quirky delight as her fiction." - Rain Taxi
Rikki Ducornet, Phosphor in Dreamland (Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)

"Wildly comic, erotic, and perverse, Rikki Ducornet's dazzling novel, Phosphor in Dreamland, explores the relationship between power and madness, nature and its exploitation, pornography and art, innocence and depravity.
Set on the imaginary Caribbean island of Birdland, the novel takes the form of a series of letters from a current resident to an old friend describing the island's 17th-century history that brings together the violent Inquisition, the thoughtless extinction of the island's exotic fauna, and the amorous story of the deformed artist-philosopher-inventor Phosphor and his impassioned, obsessional love for the beautiful Extravaganza.
The Jade Cabinet, Ducornet's previous novel (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), was described by one reviewer as "Jane Austen meets Angela Carter via Lewis Carroll." Phosphor in Dreamland can be described as Jonathan Swift meets Angela Carter via Jorge Luis Borges. This is Ducornet at her magical best."

«The author's fertile narrative combines the magic of Garcia Marquez with the eroticism of Henry Miller, seducing narrator and reader with a string of astonishing revelations on love, sex, and the epiphanies found when dreaming.» - Library Journal

«Ducornet's novel is both incoherent and astonishing, a complex fantasia redolent of Swift and Borges, but stranger than both.» - The London Times

«You almost feel the story giving birth as you read. By the story's end, you cannot help but agree with Ducornet that, though evil may prevail temporarily, art, love and goodness have a way of eternally resurrecting themselves.» - LA Weekly

«In a simulated, aboriginal dreamtime, Ducornet, like the narrator and Phosphor, is inventive, is in love (if only with imagination), and has a full-fledged, bizarre, and entertaining vision.» - Booklist
Rikki Ducornet, The Complete Butcher's Tales (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994)

"In the fantastic tradition of Borges, Bruno Schulz, Angela Carter, and H.P. Lovecraft, here are nearly sixty unforgettable stories that ignore the confines of space and time to offer, among other times and places: a cabinet of curiosities in contemporary Cairo, an alchemical ceiling in 18th century Naples, the hallucinatory inner worlds of psychotics, anthropomorphic planets, and an Old West ruled by necromancy.
This expanded, revised edition collects the complete short stories of one of the most imaginative writers of our time."

"She writes like a stunned time-traveler, testifying in breathless fragments to exotic ages that have gone or never were--or howling like a medium, an enormous radio tuned into the secret dreams and irrational obsessions of ancestors and neighbors. . . . Her strongest stories invoke the hallucinatory confusion of our earliest memories in which the details are vivid but the context of the adult world is incomprehensible; little that comes later in life strikes us with the same deep resonance." - Robert Chatain

"Rikki Ducornet is a mischievous imp of an author; she ought to be spanked for having such a good time. Her stories are like a crowded nursery in a wealthy British home in the end of the 19th century; she writes with an imagination that floats off out the windows like a helium balloon, like Peter Pan. . . . She forces the language to speak with the voice of the subconscious. And the stories hold together, they feel complete (if not in the ordinary beginning and end sense of the word) but the details (an 'unusually complexioned pebble'!) are sublime." - Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Linguistically explosive and socially relevant, these works are solid evidence that Rikki Ducornet is one of the most interesting American writers around... The tales are deep pools of darkness, illumined by powerful glimmers of hope... We need writers to look at these difficult issues in a sophisticated manner. Ducornet has done this. She is a mirror or our innermost selves. And she gives us back to ourselves--despairing, hopeful, active, contemplative, fractured but surviving, playful, even happy sometimes, and always whole." - Charlotte Innes

"Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark provides the epigraph; his Jabberwocky donates the title of one story, "Brillig''; and something of his creepy whimsy--mixed with a pinch of Chekhov and a hint of Rod Serling, among others--informs all 54 of these short pieces, 30 of which appeared in a limited Canadian edition in 1980. Best known for her Tetralogy of Elements novels, a series that recently concluded with The Jade Cabinet , Ducornet here offers a brilliant, refreshingly varied collection: a shoe salesman in Florida, apparently modeled on her maternal grandfather, inspires ``Shoes and Shit''; a mysterious flying jade saucer that blots out the sun and presages other more vile desecrations is the subject of ``The Jade Planet''; in ``The Imaginary Infancy of Heinrich Schliemann,'' the young archeologist's father tries to determine his future through copromancy. Unhinged old women, fey children vaguely menaced and menacing pubescent girls also populate these stories, which are all told in prose of such beauty that one can't help silently mouthing the words. Fluid, studied, almost overripe, it is also intensely visual: ``A mature albino ape, its heart pierced by an arrow, falls from a tropical tree. As he falls he attempts to catch the bloody ropes spouting from his breast. In truth his wound is fathomless, a mortal fracture in the body of the world.'' - Publishers Weekly

"There's little straight narrative in these 50 brief, tantalizing fictions from the daring author of The Jade Cabinet, and it doesn't all work. But the best pieces are garishly vivid, splendid little nightmares. In "Max, Moleskin and Glass,'' a flamboyant, eccentric lesbian has herself enbalmed and encased in glass in the pose of writing a famous, unfinished sentence, thus becoming the darling of the surrealists. The title character in "The Tale of the Tattooed Woman'' is so consumed by hate she bites the head off a pet canary, then lures her dog into a trap and delights in watching it bleed to death. Filled with self-loathing, she first marks herself with ink as a reminder "never to kill again.'' In ``Haddock's Eyes,'' a sort of literary homage, "Borges, Uqbar's most celebrated chronicler,'' directs the author to an archaeological dig in quest of ``early Gnostic curios.'' An old hag in "Desire'' implores her daughter to ``be kind to this moldering fruit... We are all born princesses only to shrivel in the sun.'' An acquired taste, to be sure, but worth the effort." - Ron Antonucci

"Ducornet's newest "is an astonishing accomplishment, the work of an artist who can, in the course of a paragraph, convey the impact of a much longer story; given a few pages, she packs the wallop of a novel. "The Complete Butcher's Tales" consists of some 60 pieces set in times and settings as varied as eighteenth-century Naples and modern Cairo. Their themes are diverse, too, and also unsettling, often psychological, and usually surreal. In one, a man grows a tumor on his neck that, in the course of time, turns into a second head that provides a companionship he had previously missed. In the next, set in Algiers' Casbah, an American spinster and a defrocked French priest discuss the nature of dreams and desire and the unexplained disappearance of the serving boy's brother, of which the story's end hints an explanation. Ducornet owes obvious literary debts (most notably to Borges, whom she acknowledges), but her writing is so compelling that in the end one hears only her own voice, senses only her own gaudily bizarre and often erotic imagination." - BookList

"The Butcher's Tales is a collection of contes surrealistes which does everything Andre Breton and Co. said writing should and could do—release you into a world of surprise, abracadabra, poetry, humor, mad love and fulfilled desire." - Toronto Globe and Mail

"Transgressions. My heavens, aren't these Iowans wicked! In a sense, the problem with Transgressions is all there right in the tide; cozy in their belief that stuffing yet another $5 word into an already gaudy sentence is the moral equivalent of revolution, these armchair--or more often, mortarboard--anarchists continue to crank out their self-satisfied stories, and seem not to notice that they're preaching only to the choir. Iowa Writers' Workshop-style metafiction, written in the '90s, retains all the transgressive power of the Beatles' "Revolution" morphed into a Nike commercial. The real revolution won't be televised.
William Gass's foreword provides the most pretentious, and inadvertently funny, writing the volume has to offer. Thus, on at least two counts, the reader might be well advised to read the foreword and then put the book away. First off, the tone of Gass's gassing on gives fair warning of the oh-so precious writing that follows. Think of it as a kind of litmus test: if you can make it through Gass's piece without losing your temper or patience, you might well enjoy this collection. As for me, writing like this makes me want to throw the book across the room: "I detect signs of improvisation here and there, the energy of exercise, satire's smile, fantasy's furbelows and feathers, novelty's enterprise, the sweat of concision; and, of course, most pieces are a mix of this or that, with even a little of the calm and customary to cool the dish." Condescension so thick you can cut it with a knife. If Gabriel Conroy hadn't been available to give the after-dinner speech at Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia's, one suspects Gass would have been more than happy to fin in, though he too would probably resent "orating to vulgarians."
On his album I'm Everyone I've Ever Loved, Martin Mull reminisces about the "folk music scare of the '60s"--"that shit almost caught on!"; reading Transgressions calls back forcefully, unbidden--like a bad acid flashback--the metafiction scare of the '70s. That shit, too, almost caught on; and here, collected between the covers of an anthology, is a whole clutch of writers who seem not to realize that it didn't. Dipping into the Iowa Anthology of Innovative Fiction is like falling into some kind of cruel time warp; it's as if '70s metafiction never happened, and we're going to be forced to live through it all over again. Thirty years ago, this style was, as the volume's title boasts, "innovative"; now it's anything but. Maybe it's just me, rather than the form, that's tired; but when I first read Barth, Gass, et al., their experimentation prodded me to pay attention to what I do when I read. Nineties metafictionists, on the other hand, seem only to want to make me pay attention to what they do when they write. "Look, Ma--no plot!"
We readers pay--with our money, with our time, with our attention--to watch a writer wrestling with her demons only because we assume that those demons will be familiar to us. When James Joyce's Eveline makes her decision to remain in Dublin, we recognize in her situation, and in her paralysis, something of our own; we are, as the narrator of the first Dubliners story puts it, filled with fear, and yet we long to be nearer to that corruption and to look upon its deadly work. The characters in these stories, on the other hand, suffer only from the diseases of affluence; it's hard to muster a lot of sympathy for their exquisite angst. Perhaps it's because I was a teen when I first read Gass and I'm a jaded thirty-something now, but it seems to me life's too short for any more pretentious metafictional laboratory experiments. How about something with a pulse?
Grab Rikki Ducornet's wrist and you will find a pulse; she's not especially well served by being lumped in with her Iowa mentors, and in The Complete Butcher's Tales moves out to detail a terrain all her own. If the prose of the Gass Co. is experimental, the result of carefully controlled laboratory experiments, Ducornet's prose tends toward the thick growth of hothouse flowers; she is adept at the creation of what Thomas Pavel has called "fictional worlds." In many of the stories, the places, the situations, even the characters evoked are utterly unfamiliar; and yet the emotions that arise, and the responses called forth from the characters, are utterly convincing and familiar (rather like the effect of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"). If the prose sometimes seems a bit "lush," as Joyce might call it, that lushness most often is justified as an element of the characterization of our narrator. Thus, the decadence-seeking narrator of "Saida":
My father was a missionary, and I had been nurtured with the
poisoned milk of his own thwarted desires. Malevolence, in
father's fevered view, was ubiquitous, yet lacked specific
definition, so that the world was jinxed by a multiplicity of
prohibitions and temptations; everything of intensity--pleasure
and pain, beauty and ugliness, the bitter and the sweet--seduced
me equally.

For the flatland reader like myself, the heavy, exotic atmosphere of The Butcher's Tales does begin to cloy after a time. But while, in reading Transgressions, I became irritated with the writing, Ducornet's prose instead made me feel inadequate; like the prosaic Rochester in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, I felt overwhelmed by odors, sensations, and scenes far removed from a college professor's day-to-day existence. In the story quoted earlier, "Saida" (dedicated to Salman Rushdie), Ducornet implicitly sets herself up as an altogether different type of prof:
First the professor pulled forth boxes two inches deep and
tightly covered with glass. Here infinitesimal insects gummed to
mica triangles glowed like elements in a vast chain of
mythological associations: the corporealization of a lunar dew,
the corneas of wizards, the lenses of another world.
Here again, of course, the awful specter of metafiction raises its ugly head; but the double-take it occasions helps us to imagine ourselves in an altogether different place." - Kevin J. H. Dettmar

Rikki Ducornet, The Jade Cabinet (Dalkey Archive Press, 1993)

"Made speechless by her eccentric father, the beautiful Etheria is traded for a piece of precious jade. Memory, her sister, tells her story, that of a childhood enlivened by Lewis Carroll and an orangutan named Dr. Johnson and envenomed by the pernicious courtship of Radulph Tubbs, Queen Victoria's own Dragon of Industry. The novel travels from Oxford to Egypt where one million ibis mummies wait to be transformed into fertilizer, where Baconfield the architect will cause a pyramid to collapse, and where a scorned and bloated hunger artist who speaks in tongues will plot a bloody revenge. The fourth element in a tetralogy of novels - Earth (The Stain), Fire (Entering Fire), Water (The Fountains of Neptune) and Air - The Jade Cabinet is both a riveting novel and a reflection on the nature of memory and desire, language and power. Following the novel is an afterword, "Waking to Eden," in which Ducornet reflects on the sources for her writing and on the quartet of novels completed by The Jade Cabinet."

"THE JADE CABINET is the last in a tetralogy of novels based on the four elements: earth, fire, water, and now air. But THE JADE CABINET is also what its title suggests, a highly crafted showcase for its author’s narrative artistry. Put simply (and therefore misleading), THE JADE CABINET is the story of Etheria as told by her younger sister Memory. As beautiful as she is brilliant, the childlike Etheria is also mute, the result of her father Angus Sphery’s obsession with primal language, itself but one manifestation of his “insatiable desire for knowledge both worldly and divine.” A version of Sleeping Beauty and of Lewis Carroll’s Alice (Dodgson being a family friend, the Liddells neighbors), Etheria is kept in a state of innocence if not quite ignorance until the arrival of the wonderfully Dickensian Radulph Tubbs, caricature of virility and embodiment of the Industrial Age. Married to Tubbs, who buys off the bride’s father with some jade, Etheria turns to magic first for relief then for escape, preferring “vanishment” to Tubbs’ ravishment. Spurned and vengeful, Tubbs steals away the elder Sphery’s latest exhibit and Etheria-substitute, the Hungerkuntsler of Prague. He then goes to Egypt to supervise the processing of Ibis mummies into soup and, failing in that, fertilizer. But Tubbs never gets over his loss, a failure which infuriates the now enormous former Hungerkuntsler and leads to the novel’s surprising climax, about which the less said here the better.
This, however, is only half the story of THE JADE CABINET, the other being the tale of its telling, the unreliability of Memory (the faculty as well as the character). As she tries to explain, “Let’s suppose memory is like a jade cabinet, but a cabinet belonging to an infinitely irresolute collector. Each time we look inside, the jade appears to be the same, yet the mind is forever replacing one chimera for another that resembles it. Let’s suppose the memory is a cabinet of chameleons and the mind as unstable as the moon.” That instability, that transformational quality, is an essential part of a work that sides neither with the prelapsarian perfection that Angus Sphery desires nor the practicality that Tubbs demands. It sides instead with the protean, which is to say with the art of conjuring, an art that includes both Etheria’s tricks and Memory’s tropes."

"This is the fourth novel in Ducornet's brilliant and provocative tetralogy based on the elements - in this instance, air. The story is told by Memory, whose father, an eccentric natural historian, believes that her sister, Etheria, will bring forth the Primal Speech of Adam if she never hears a spoken word. Her resultant muteness and the etherial quality of her pale beauty hover over this magical, surreal tale. All the photographs taken of the two girls by their delightful neighbor, Lewis Carroll, are destroyed by the jealous Tubbs, a gross, abusive industrialist to whom Etheria is given in marriage. He violates her with a jade phallus, and, when he begins to raze her beloved gardens (they lack symmetry and are seen as unsafe), she flees. Etheria reappears years later as a magician named Zephyra--or so the aging, remorseful Tubbs wants to believe. Rich in subplots (e.g., Tubbs's plan to pulverize thousands of ancient ibis mummies into fertilizer and potions) and bizarre characters (a lusty harpy of a hunger artist who stalks Tubbs with a silver pistol), this lovely, exotic fiction is highly recommended." - Ron Antonucci

"IN "THE WALRUS AND THE CARPENTER," Charles Dodgson poses two sentimental gluttons on the beach who put to themselves a problem of tidying:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
'If this were only cleared away,'
they said, 'it would be grand.'
But there are no felaheen to do the scrubbing, and the weepy pair take solace in stuffing themselves on sadly naive oysters, the walrus hiding the numbers he's gorging behind a cascade of tears. Who knows how many children carry in their heads this desolate, equivocal landscape where there are "no birds to fly"? Rikki Ducornet certainly was one, and this comic parable of appetite and absurdity, the monstrous urge for a clean sweep, haunts her novels, rising almost to a retelling in The Jade Cabinet.
From the outside she would appear to have had a childhood to envy: daughter of a Cuban emigre academic, she grew up in the forties and fifties on the campus of Bard College with a library whose windows of green glass suggested a sunken archive and biology labs whose strange bottled contents left her childhood smelling of formaldehyde. Her father took her for a year to Egypt which "stunned" her, and she retains cherished memories of old Havana. She mentions a grandmother, however, a "perverse storyteller," an anti-Semite who never forgave Ducornet's father for marrying a Jew, and a figure who has become "the bad wind behind much of my work."
As an adult, she first made her career in art, though she noted later that she never realized her ambition "to paint the museum scenery behind walruses and saber-toothed tiger." Dali's paintings and Cocteau's Blood of a Poet which she saw at the age of eight, infused her imagination and set her to pursue works by the surrealists, putting Breton's Nadja in a central place of her adolescence. Her deep sympathies with the surrealists not only influenced her drawing, but went on to fuel her writing as well, first in an outpouring of poetry and short stories then in her Tetralogy of Elements: The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, and The Jade Cabinet, and finally her two most recent, yet more historically remote novels, Phosphor in Dreamland, and The Fan-Maker's Inquisition. There is a persistence of motif and concerns to all of these works, a Manichean quality in their struggles and a sense of Grand Guignol, which suggests a larger whole, even though in terms of events and characters the books refer to one another only once or twice. In its brief span, however, The Jade Cabinet, contains many of her finest moments,
The story of The Jade Cabinet is that of Radulph Tubbs' pursuit, marriage, and loss of Etheria Sphery, sister of the narrator. Tubbs, pure Walrus, is a wonderful grotesque, an English industrialist who dotes on Stilton cheese and builds a home that is to be a Temple to Industry and Infancy. Etheria, creature of air, is by nature his opposite; unable to speak after an experiment in natural language conducted by her father, she communicates through notes which only aggrandize her distance from the mercantile hubris of Tubbs. Since childhood, she has been a friend of Charles Dodgson, posing naked for him with her sister, and delighting in his native inventiveness which Tubbs can scarcely tolerate, his envy of the man is so great. Yet, while the struggles arise between such antagonistic characters, the story's narrator, the younger sister Memory Sphery, watches on at a remove which is never chilly, but comes from a basic kindheartedness and concern for all, even including Tubbs, whom she loathed as a girl. For Tubbs, following his loss of Etheria, loses himself in a hunt across Europe, beset upon by people even madder or more loathsome than he is. He arrives in Egypt to buy mummified ibises and grind their corpses to gravel for export to France as fertilizer. The country horrifies him, all the more so as he possesses an unnatural gift for stumbling upon disturbing relicts ("the matted viscera of a princess, the paw of a sacred cat"). Yet it is there that the bizarreness of Ducornet's vision and her empathy allow her to satirize with sharp effect while retaining the possibility that to know all may indeed be to forgive all. Beauty and pity hold equal sway in The Jade Cabinet.
Throughout her writing career Rikki Ducornet has demonstrated how broad, supple, and penetrating literary surrealism can be, in part by exposing its roots in the humor of Dodgson, Swift, and Rabelais. In her hands, surrealism is no genre but a tool for satire, for intellectual exploration, and for empathizing with the most extreme mental states. If that is the case, it is likely because she, as Dodgson before her, remembers well how charged and enigmatic the world is in the eyes of children." - Paul McRandle
Rikki Ducornet, The Fountains of Neptune (McClelland & Steward, 1989; Dalkey Archive Press, 1992)

"My sleep began in the spring of 1914. I slept through both World Wars and the tainted calm between. It was as if I had been cursed by an evil fairy, pricked by an enchanted spinning wheel; an impenetrable briar had gripped my mind."
Thus begins Rikki Ducornet's brilliant lyric novel about Nicolas who, as a result of witnessing his mother's murder, falls into a decades-long coma. Awakened in a seaport town in France, he reconstructs his past through storytelling and myth, resulting in an astonishing exploration of memory and imagination."

"In this allegorical novel--part absurdist fairy tale, part Mad Hatter's tea party--poet and novelist ( Entering Fire ) Ducornet renders a vexatiously baffling account of a mentally troubled childhood. Confined to an exotic spa, middle-aged Nicholas recreates for psychoanalyst/water therapist Venus Kaiserstiege his fantasies and obsessions, dreams that have occupied his subconscious during the several decades he has spent in the coma that mysteriously began when he was nine years old. In a flashback to early childhood, Nicholas recalls a hodgepodge of adventures in a French seaside cottage, pre-WW I, where noisy nursery-tale personages (Other Mother, Toujours-La, Totor) cook him delicious dishes and tell stories. A prevailing metaphor is the sea with its marine denizens, e.g., the old sailor, Shark and Cod's wife. Nicholas's analyst calls him Froschlein (tadpole), though he is also known as the Sandman in a case study devoted to his life. Eventually the reason for Nicholas's madness emerges: when he was two, his adulterous mother Odile was murdered with her lover. Both had drowned. In the novel's mythology the sea suggests the amniotic waters of the maternal womb. Ducornet, whose poetic imagination has vividness and charm, acknowledges a debt to the work of clinician Oliver Sacks, but her writing lacks his clarity. Ultimately her novel capsizes under the weight of its own playfulness." - Publishers Weekly

"Nicholas spends 50 years in a coma, cared for by the brilliant Dr. Venus Kaiserstiege, and awakens to a completely new world. As a child in a French seaport, he was taken in--in more ways than one--by aging stepparents and surrounded by colorful salts with names like Aristide Marquis and Toujours-La. Who were his parents, and what happened to them? The answers lie deep in his own mind. As in Ducornet's previous novel, The Stain ( LJ 9/15/84), the world portrayed here seems to belong to a much earlier time than the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps because the author wishes to evoke the ancient roots of the unconscious. First published in Canada in 1989, this fine novel might give the American-born Ducornet the big break she richly deserves in the United States. Highly recommended." - Jim Dwyer

"Rikki Ducornet's The Fountains of Neptune is an extraordinary work of the imagination: an old man's poignant memory—all he has left after a lifelong coma—of the seaside village of his boyhood before the Great War. The wonderful adventures and fabulous seafaring tales of Totor, Toujours—Lŕ, Rose and the Cod's Wife, Aristide Marquis, Charlie Dee the chimp, and all the rest, might aptly have been titled by the name of their favorite inn in a nearby riverside village: A La Recherche Du Paradis Terrestre. This third book of the projected Ducornet "tetrology of elements," following upon The Stain and Entering Fire, both remarkable achievements, is her best so far." - Robert Coover

"A book saturated with seawater and myth, a novel rippling with the underwater life of the unconscious, of the bawdy, the drunk and the uninitiated." - Harvard Review
Rikki Ducornet, Entering Fire (Chatto & Windus, 1986; City Lights, 1986)

"This startling and brilliantly comic novel tells the stories of two men: a father and his estranged son. Lamprias de Bergerac is a gentle mystic and amateur botanist who spends his middle-aged years in an erotic utopia deep in the Amazonian jungle, collecting specimens of rare orchids and ultimately finding Cucla, the young and free-spirited native woman who has become the love of his life. Meanwhile, his demented son Septimus is raised by his mother in prewar Europe, seething with hatred of the father who abandoned him. He rises to power in Nazi-occupied France, where he goes mad in an obsessive pursuit of racial purity.
Rikki Ducornet has a gift for combining the horrific with the hilarious, the realistic with the fantastic. Through a wildly inventive narrative, Entering Fire scrutinizes the sources of fascist mentality in nations and, potentially, in all humans."
Rikki Ducornet, The Stain (Chatto & Windus 1984; revised edition Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)

"In The Stain Rikki Ducornet tells the story of a young girl named Charlotte, branded with a furry birthmark in the shape of a dancing hare, regarded as the mark of Satan. "Sadistic nuns, scatology, butchered animals, monkish rapists, and Satan" (Kirkus), as well as the village exorcist, inhabit this bawdy tale of perversion, power, possession, and the rape of innocence. Ducornet weaves an intricate design of fantasy and reality, at once surreal, hilarious, and terrifying."

«A tale of witchcraft, prostitution and sex... the images in relentless detail recall Brueghel and Bosch... the atmosphere is steamy and pungent, indubitably a powerful nightmare vision.» - London Times

«This is the most brilliant first novel I have read in years... Rikki Ducornet's real talent is for language. She is a minor lord or lady of it, achieving abstruse comic effects by a kind of clowning classicism. The Stain is a very odd, accomplished and memorable novel by any standards.» - The Guardian

«At once surreal, hilarious and solidly evocative of malign village life, this black fairy tale, with its echoes of Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles, crackles with the wit and originality of a new and startling talent.» - Chatto Fiction

Rikki Ducornet, The Deep Zoo, Coffe House Press, 2015.

Rikki Ducornet’s essays explore eros, violence, dreams, fairy tales, and art as alchemy—the Deep Zoo at the core of humanity.

"There are certain writers who are deliberately out of pace with the literary lockstep that characterizes a period, certain writers who instead of going with the flow of the narrative current or trying to hitch a ride on the trends of the moment end up swimming their way upstream or coming downriver at a slant in a way that leads them into very different waters. Rather than, say, investing in American Minimalism or Dirty Realism, they pursue Italo Calvino’s notion of lightness and the more complex lucidity that this opens for them. Rather than settling into the easy chair of realism, they stand up and stare into the foxed tain of a mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of something more magical. If all writers, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, are propelled into the future while watching the ruins of literary history pile up behind them, then these non-conformist writers are the ones who manage to catch a glimpse in this wreckage of undiscovered and still-unruined avenues that offer them shortcuts to new, impossible futures.
The curious thing about literary history is that writers who buck against the accepted norms of their time are often the writers who survive. And, paradoxically, they are often the writers who later come to characterize a given moment. They come to feel necessary partly because we sense in them a particular and peculiar visionary quality, a method of transforming all they touch into something that feels uniquely and complexly their own, and allows it to keep unfolding for the reader.
Rikki Ducornet is such a writer, mercifully and productively out of step with her time. She brings to her work a sense of curiosity that many contemporary writers have forgotten. Every object for her, as for Blake, has the potential to be an immense world of delight, opening perpetually up, with this delight being mirrored in the twists and turns of the language that both reveals and evokes it.
Ducornet admits, in her essay “Waking to Eden,” to being “infected with the venom of language in early childhood.” Her charged language, textured and deft, has the complexity and resonance of the best eighteenth-century authors. It fulminates and fulgurates, refusing to be polite or to stay still. It is perhaps not surprising that she began her literary career as a poet; she continues to handle her words with an almost mystical respect, with great care and precision. She is able to take everything in with an almost mystical openness, to see the beauty in a dead fox covered with wasps. As a result her work replicates the enchantment we felt when hearing fantastic stories as children or when we first fell into books considered too mature for us.
Thematically, her work spools out the struggle between the doctrinaire impulse to control and contain—an impulse leading at its worst to a resentful and deadly fascism in Entering Fire—and the more dynamic (albeit sometimes equally dangerous) impulse to transgress, struggle, and create. In The Jade Cabinet, this impulse is explored in the struggle between reason and imagination, in a man’s lust to conquer and possess all he touches, a struggle that ultimately leads to him being unable to have the very thing he most wants. In books like The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, there is a struggle between nature and civilization—that which frees and that which binds—but this is coupled with an awareness of how freedom can open into death, and the knowledge of how certain boundaries can be productive.
Throughout her work, Ducornet explores the nature of love, desire, and attachment. In Phosphor in Dreamland, her exploration touches the way desire and erotic longing can complete two people. In Gazelle, it is the complex interactions between a young girl and two very different parents—one piningly faithful; the other, painfully, not—and the aftershocks this infidelity will have on her later life.
Ducornet’s first four novels make up a loosely connected tetralogy of the elements, with each book commenting on and complicating the themes and ideas of the others. The Stain (1984), her first novel, is about an illegitimate child born with a birthmark like a dancing hare, a mark that her community is sure is the sign of the devil. The novel comes complete with a village exorcist, sadistic nuns, and sometimes blunt visions of village life. Written in the third person (the only novel of the tetralogy that is), it explores the tension between earthly desires and the fantasy of sainthood. The writing is wonderfully textured, the communal theology sometimes exceptionally odd—“ ‘God is contained in plants,’ the Mother Superior cut in eagerly. ‘When we eat plants, we eat Him.’ ”—with the traditional lines between good and evil replaced by distinctions that cross and writhe like worms.
Entering Fire (1986), the second book of the series, explores the resentment of a son for his naturalist father, and the way that his religiously rigid (and frigid) mother encourages this resentment to blossom into fascism. Shifty, unable ever to bring himself to confront his father directly, he lets his resentment boil into passive murder, taking actions that will send his father’s former lovers and friends to their deaths.
The Fountains of Neptune (1989) is about a young French boy named Nicolas who falls into a deep sleep at age nine, waking up decades later, having slept through both World Wars, to find the world he knew changed or gone. With the help of a psychoanalyst, he begins to reconstruct his past and to recapture the magic of the lost world of his childhood. It is a magic which, he comes to realize, has been constructed over a repressed act of violence which finally surged up to take him in its watery arms. The Fountains of Neptune is a story about storytelling and fables, in which ex-sailors and drunks fill a child’s head with fantastical yarns that seem to him a code for expressing reality. Here, language is manic as well as magical, more evocative than descriptive. The Fountains of Neptune is a story too about a changed world, about the effort to reconstruct a lost world from its ruins.
The final book of the trilogy is The Jade Cabinet (1993). In it, a mute girl named Etheria is traded for a priceless piece of jade to the vain Radulph Tubbs, a grasping industrialist who effortlessly increases his wealth while his imaginative life remains desolate. When Etheria, abused, vanishes into thin air, Tubbs becomes involved with a woman called the Hungerkünstler who at first seems to live by eating nothing but air, but soon swells to become a sort of metaphorical tornado, threatening Tubb’s peace and sanity. Told by Etheria’s sister, the novel plays with the conventions of nineteenth-century authorial storytelling, but revitalizes them through the uniqueness of its content and approach.
In the afterword to The Jade Cabinet, Ducornet speaks of the tetralogy as a whole. “If fiction can be said to have a function,” she states, “it is to release that primary fury of which language, even now, is miraculously capable... So that furred, spotted and striped, it may—as it did in Eden—scrawl under every tree as revelation.” For Ducornet, language is not simply a mimetic device, something to depict or describe. It is, rather, something that stirs things up, that enlivens and evokes, something both profoundly creative and profoundly affective. “All four novels investigate the end of Eden and the possibility of its reconstitution,” she suggests, along with “the process of fabulating, creating and remembering.”
Phosphor in Dreamland (1995) is putatively an account of the history of the fictional island of Birdland as described in letters by a scholar to a friend. Riffing loosely off Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it chronicles the life of Nuño Alfa y Omega, called Phosphor, a club-footed seventeenth-century poet and scientist who invents his own version of the camera obscura, develops a process to record images on glass, and sets about chronicling the life of his island in image and verse. Phosphor falls in love with Extravaganza, the daughter of a professor, whose whole family is cursed with an inability to dream. The last third of the novel explores their blossoming relationship, with dreaming and loving being intricately entwined, and with the narrator’s own newly formed relationship paralleling their own. Full of inventive topographies, places (including an arboreal barbershop), and creatures, this is perhaps the most Borgesian of Ducornet’s novels. It might also be seen as the secret fifth book in her element series, with “dream” holding its own as an element that contains all the others.
The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition: A Novel of the Marquis de Sade (1999), centers on Gabrielle, a fan-maker who had created fans with erotic scenes on them for the Marquis de Sade, and who is now accused by the French revolutionary government of taking part in the now-imprisoned Sade’s debauches. The eroticism of the fans and Gabrielle’s descriptions of them are counterpoised to the philistinism of the new order itself and to Bishop Diego de Landa’s genocide of the Mayans in the sixteenth century (about which both Sade and Gabrielle have publicly written). The first half of the novel is presented in dramatic form, as a non-narrated transcript; the second half is narrated by Sade himself, after Gabrielle’s execution. This novel is the most overtly political of Ducornet’s works, though the pleasures of her beautifully rendered style keep it from ever becoming too polemic.
Ducornet’s most recent novel, Gazelle (2003), had its origins in the short story “The Chess Set of Ivory” (collected in The Word “Desire”), which now forms its first chapter. It is the story of a young American girl named Elizabeth and of how she comes of age in 1950s Cairo while her parents’ marriage is collapsing. Obsessed with the city and with perfumes, obsessed in particular with her parents’ friend the master perfumer Ramses Ragab, Elizabeth finds the world around her to be a kind of embodied magic, a magic she is opening up to and is ready to be seduced by. Counterpoised to that magic is her father’s lassitude and collapse after Elizabeth and he catch her mother with another man. Elizabeth, despite her youth, is put in the position of having to fulfill a more adult role. Her mother’s betrayal of her father culminates in what Elizabeth sees as an act of profound betrayal of herself, by Ramses Ragab. Realistically and masterfully written, exotic and erudite, Gazelle shows Ducornet equally at home in the so-called real world as in the worlds of her imagination.
In addition to her novels, Ducornet has produced three strong volumes of short fiction: The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994), The Word “Desire” (1997), and her latest book, The One Marvelous Thing (2008). Very few writers have the ability to move fluidly back and forth between long and short forms; usually they excel at one or the other. Yet Ducornet’s stories are as fluid and lucid as her longer work, often embodying in only a few pages the coherent sense of a strange or different world. The stories from The Word “Desire” take more traditional forms, and have a real elegance to them as well as real narrative satisfactions. The book is thematically cohesive, with each story focusing on a moment of desire or eroticism that ends up being crucial or key to their characters. The stories in The Complete Butcher’s Tales and The One Marvelous Thing, on the other hand, are generally fairly compressed, taking place over a few pages, sometimes over just a single page. They structure sometimes anecdotally, sometimes as character sketches. Sometimes their narrators are human, sometimes not. Sometimes the stories focus on characters who misspeak and mangle language in very funny ways (c.f., “The Doorman’s Swellage”). Often the stories are deliberately clipped or unpredictable, and as a result get to places that a safer story couldn’t reach. And yet, a piece like “The Volatized Ceiling of Baron Mundi,” which concerns the destruction of a beautiful painted ceiling by the Inquisition, as well as the myriad echoes of that loss, can have all the heft and weight of a novel. In addition, The One Marvelous Thing is decorated throughout by T. Motley’s drawings, which actively respond to the text, with the last several stories rendered as beautifully detailed and oddly disturbing comics.
By being out of step with the literary world, Rikki Ducornet has created a genuinely unique world of her own, one of a tension between Eden and its loss, one in which wonder and magic still tenuously exist. A consummate stylist, she has created a body of work that is unique, dynamic, and important, and, above all, that will continue to impact readers for many years to come." - Brian Evenson

Read also:
Sinda Gregory and Larry McCaffery: "An Interview with Rikki Ducornet"

M. E. Warlick: "Rikki Ducornet: An Alchemy of Dreams and Desire"

Lisa Joyce: "Memory and Oblivion: The Historical Fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch"

Alexander Laurence: "Interview with Rikki Ducornet"

Raymond Leslie Williams: "Ducornet and Borges"

Allen Guttmann: "Rikki Ducornet's Tetrology of Elements: An Appreciation"

Rikki Ducornet: "The Death Cunt of Deep Dell"

Rikki Ducornet: "Excerpts from Five Novels"

Rikki Ducornet: "On returning from Chiapas: a revery in many voices"

Richard Martin: "The Tantalizing Prize": Telling the Telling of The Fountains of Neptune"

Giovanna Covi: "Gender Derision, Gender Corrosion, and Sexual Differences in Rikki Ducornet's Materialist Eden"

Lynne Diamond-Nigh: "Phosphor in Dreamland"

Warren Motte: "Desiring Words"

Sinda Gregory: "20th century AD"

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