by Rikki Ducornet
Reviewed by Mark Gustafson
Rikki Ducornet has used the pursuit of pleasure and the quest for knowledge -- as well as the hazards of their suppression -- as subject matter in other books. In Netsuke, a finely crafted object of a novel, she looks at the dark side. The unnamed protagonist, a psychoanalyst, says: "I was not intended for delight. Delight was made to elude me." An early trauma is regularly hinted at but never precisely identified, the sort of deep wound he typically sees in his clients. "I was once a little child who was turned into an imp so nasty he was made very small and put into a bottle."
Impeccably dressed and sexually voracious, this complicated character attempts to keep orderly his needs and his appalling abuse of his professional role. He is disgusted by his clients, unless he wants to have sex with them. He showers at great length, and delusionally elevates his dis-ease, his addiction, to a philosophy of life. Like the Minotaur -- devourer of humans, offspring of woman and beast -- he is trapped in a maze, but one at least partly of his own making. "I am my own hiding place" reads the book's epigraph.
Ducornet indeed draws on the mythic in her portrait. "He is a god leaping from the interstices back to the real world. He recalls that for the gods, the real world was, in fact, the interstices: a playground, a mirror of the heavens, a theater." He feels imperious, not only like the gods in their destructive capability and their "unbridled promiscuity," but also like a king, disdainful and presumptuous. Yet at the same time, full of rage and self-loathing, he knows that his own monstrous compulsion holds the real power. The connection, for him, between sex and death, is part of his paradoxical self-awareness. "I long to be discovered...to receive the punishment that is my due. To risk annihilation. I court annihilation." So also his watching snuff films with a client/lover who imagines herself domesticating Bluebeard, the wife-killer who has a horrible secret in a locked room. His downfall is inexorable.
Akiko, the psychoanalyst's third wife, provides an intriguing foil; "she is in danger because I lie incessantly...Yet I am in danger also, because I cannot help but offer her clues. It is inevitable that sooner or later I will falter, offer one clue too many and in this way bring us both down. When I fall, she will fall with me." An artist, and "like a creature from a fairy tale," she gives him presents: "Rare netsuke, for example, although I have so little interest in aesthetic devices." The irony is thick here, as Ducornet uses this Japanese art form of beautifully fashioned figurines, simultaneously utilitarian and aesthetic, as the book's prevailing image.
Several other motifs are in evidence: knives have both negative and positive uses, as demonstrated by the self-mutilating client whom the analyst labels "the Cutter" and by Shuzan, "the greatest [netsuke] carver of all time"; fire, invoked in various forms, is both a life-sustaining and a life-destroying force; and various containers appear, including the cabinet of netsuke and the "cabinets" which hold the two parts of the protagonist's "Practice," neatly labeled "Spells" ("devoted to the pleasures of transgression") and "Drear" (for all the rest of his clients). Ducornet employs ekphrasis in a few instances: with netsuke, obviously; with Akiko's collage; and here: "Akiko pointed out a series of anamorphoses and their cylindrical mirrors. Painted on paper, they were incomprehensible, an ugly spill of color. But when one looked at their reflections on the curved surfaces of the mirrors, they became fully visible....They were beautiful and they were obscene. I am like these." Later, it is said about Jello, the female persona of a transvestite client/lover: "Lovely Anna Morphosis! She wants to be fucked to death. Except it's not that simple. She has come to see him because she wants to live." Doctor and client, both distorted and beautiful like works of art, live on the razor's edge.
Ducornet weaves a complex tapestry of various and repeated colors, textures, and designs. The narrative shifts tellingly from first person in the opening half, when the main character is in control, to third person, when he has lost it and is now on display, like a captive and doomed plaything. There are many mythological allusions (e.g., Enkidu, Kali, the Minotaur, Dionysus), and some significant words are repeated with precision: "interstices," for example, and "imperious." The total effect is simply remarkable, an austere yet somehow lush beauty.
At times this chilling tale seems neo-gothic, reminiscent of the work of Patrick McGrath, though much more compact. Ducornet has the extraordinary ability to compress an explosive tale of violence and repression in a small, tight container. Her customary control, however, is lost for a moment or two, when the Freudianism is too obvious, almost cartoonish (involving a cigar store and a pen shop). Other than these brief lapses, we are simultaneously repulsed and entranced as the disturbing but gorgeous story accelerates to its forgone conclusion.
Netsuke is a tragedy, a dark drama of a mind twisted by the horror of circumstances beyond one's control, yet nourished by a willful refusal to lay bare the root of the problem. The catharsis comes as we are reassured that hubris, like Oedipus' arrogant certainty about things he could not possibly know, is ultimately punished. (Ducornet does not use "hubris," nor does she invoke Oedipus, but she is undoubtedly cognizant of both.) Unfortunately, there are many casualties among the innocent bystanders. Despite likening himself to a demon, and to the Prince of Darkness himself, the flawed protagonist is not pure evil, but rather both victimizer and the victim of an inherited curse.