Let’s get this out of the way: Rikki Ducornet is the subject of Steely Dan’s 1974 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which, regardless of your appreciation of smooth jazz rock, gives her bragging rights of a sort. Ducornet met Steely Dan songwriter Donald Fagen on the campus of Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where her father was a professor of sociology and her mother hosted a radio show. It was while growing up on that same campus, in the company of luminaries such as Gore Vidal, that Ducornet discovered the power of art as subversion, organizing a puppet show version of the McCarthy hearings with a group of children of local professors whom she affectionately calls “the brats.” Now, in Brightfellow (Coffee House, July), her ninth novel, she returns to the college campus of her youth for a tale of enchantment and fragile innocence.
Ducornet’s hero, Stub, is an isolated orphan who roams the college campus, guided only by his prodigious imagination. Living on meals stolen from the neighboring houses while posing as a Fulbright scholar named Charter Chase, Stub becomes fascinated by two beguiling figures: the reclusive and eccentric anthropologist Verner Vanderloon, and Asthma, a professor’s daughter who, with her playful nature and capacity for imagination, resembles no one so much as Ducornet herself. Of composing the book, the author recalls: “I found myself going back to my childhood at Bard. It was beautiful to return in this way, with a character who is functionally homeless; it was a marvelous way to return and remember. I was finding that my memories of the place were vivid. That campus had provided me so many amazing experiences as a child, growing up in a place like that, with its music room, its extraordinary library.” And yet Stub carries, like so many of Ducornet’s protagonists—e.g., the photographer at the center of 1995’s Phosphor in Dreamland of 1995, or even Lewis Carroll in her 1993 novel, The Jade Cabinet—the “burden of strangeness.” Speaking from Washington, where she was catsitting, Ducornet lamented: “I think all of us are more or less burdened by our childhoods. There is a dark hole at the center of our culture and children tumble into it and are twisted out of shape. Maybe it’s just the existential difficulty of knowing that one has a finite amount of time, but I think it’s especially acute in a culture that doesn’t value childhood or youth. Capitalistic society is not so interested in children except as consumers.”
Brightfellow is the second installment in a loose trilogy on the betrayal of innocence that Ducornet began with her previous novel, Netsuke. “I’m deeply interested in trying to unpuzzle it, and I write books in which that problem is really tangible and somehow revealed.” Her 2015 essay collection, The Deep Zoo, returned to themes of abandonment by meditating on legendary figures such as the Bavarian foundling Kaspar Hauser. “I think it’s a profoundly important thing to inquire about as our species implodes,” she says. “The heart of the matter is the family, and society is a mirror of the family, after all.”
Brightfellow was composed in Marfa, Tex., where Ducornet was on a grant from the Lannan Foundation, but its origin goes all the way back to the Bard biology lab. That was where Ducornet stumbled upon a cabinet of anomalies as a nine-year-old, discovering the gestation of the chicken and the human being. This revelation (an instance of what she calls “deep zoo” moments that animate a writer’s memory) spurred the sense of connection with nature that she returns to throughout her work. “We come into the world having only recently been fish and reptiles and even plants—in our youngest state, we look something like fiddlehead ferns. I think the animal, the world of nature, is essential to our capacity to live, not only imaginatively and happily in the world, but as full human beings.” Another of these “deep zoo” encounters, Houari Boumediene’s 1965 coup in Algeria, which she witnessed while living in Constantine, in northeastern Algeria, will inform the next book in her trilogy.
The ongoing presence of the natural sciences in Ducornet’s work (many of her characters are explorers and anthropologists of one stripe or another) is perhaps unusual for a writer who dwells so often in realms of the phantasmagoric and uncanny—but she would point out that nature is no less eccentric. The solace she takes in a world that contains the mysteries of whales and the impeccable design of tigers is matched by a longing for vanished fragrances, lost birdsong, and extinct species of butterflies. The pairing of wonder and loss in a disappearing world shows up perhaps most vividly in Brightfellow’s reclusive philosopher Verner Vanderloon, a stand-in for the real-world Easter Island expert Werner Wolf with a dash of Italo Calvino, whose invective to “dare to dream very high dreams” is Ducornet’s adage.
An engagement with the sometimes fickle quirks of evolution is perhaps Ducornet’s most striking contribution to the art of surrealism and the metafictional terrain of Calvino and Borges (the latter of whose books she has illustrated). “As creatures that evolve, we’re wired to play so that we can evolve,” she says, and this sense of play dictates the forms of her work, from the poetry she wrote throughout the 1970s to the tales she collected in The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994) and The One Marvelous Thing (2008). In Brightfellow, Ducornet has Vanderloon write tellingly that mankind is divided into “the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible.” He goes on to describe play as a powerful form of magic; Ducornet considers play the key to creation and sustainability: “A playful mind is a curious and inventive mind, always looking into the how and why of things and how they can be transformed or used in new ways. So, for example, there’s a clear connection between play and the use of tools. Or communicating through rhyme or spontaneously inventing music, acting out with plays and puppet shows.”
This brings Ducornet back to the pantomime of the McCarthy hearings, a playful response to a horrendous reality: “That too is a thing that we lost in a way, these very literal games of war. Somehow we evolved into sentient beings out of other sentient beings, evolved with endless capacities, and yet remain unable to sustain a healthy relationship with one another and with the planet. And that failure takes on all kinds of forms, in infinite ways, but primarily in the abuse of authority. That tragedy haunts me and always has.”
Given all this, a little strangeness may not be such a burden after all. Ducornet describes Brightfellow’s protagonist, Stub, as the product of all these tensions. As a devout reinterpreter of the world, he represents the best of Ducornet’s fiction, and the hope of creative, loving life through the experience of play.
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, Bomb, and the New Republic.