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A rage against middle years

The One Marvelous Thing Rikki Ducornet, decorated by T. Motley Dalkey Archive Press: 164 pp., $13.95

November 16, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

"It is the work of the writer," Rikki Ducornet told an interviewer, Joanna Scott, in 1993, "to move beyond the simple definitions or descriptions of things . . . and to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language." By adhering to this credo for almost four decades, Ducornet has flummoxed the literary authorities, the gatekeepers at places like the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle -- she has beguiled them into giving her a place of eminence (prizes, notable mentions) that they would not otherwise do for such a transgressive (sexy, ethereal, imaginative and, yes, at times unreadable) writer. Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" must be Ducornet's "The Elements of Style."

In other words, she's a witch. Beguiling is what she does best. Writing is her modus operandi, her web. Ducornet appeals to her readers' feral natures; their covetous side (she is a master collector of glittering objects -- corsets, linens, gold and dumplings -- which are sprinkled generously throughout her prose) and their lascivious, voyeuristic tendencies. You feel naughty reading Ducornet, you hide the book. Gonna have to face it -- you're addicted to lit.

Because her work is full of rich, literary, sophisticated, worldly, historical references, the lucky reader (as in, to get lucky) can be nerdy and sexy at the same time (the naughty librarian syndrome). All this and heaven too, as my grandmother used to say.

That said, "The One Marvelous Thing" is a manifesto of middle-aged rage. Rage has always been an ingredient in Ducornet's writing: against the establishment, authoritarian (not in the good way) men, unimaginative bureaucrats, crusaders and ideologues in all venues. And there's no hiding behind characters: This is not a book of strong characters, in spite of their zany names; instead, we are the beneficiaries of Ducornet's elaborate narcissism. "There are many reasons why I offer myself . . . to a staggering number of young men, all Japanese. The divorce above all; the divorce that has so thoroughly exhausted me and what's worse, marked me with a chronic look of irritation so like Mother's." "Yet, such interruptions: Pearlmutter! Pie-cake! Giblets! Should they be frequent, could lead to irresistible rage. . . . Should I run amok, I will reveal myself to the Powers as one who is no shopper."

The accompanying drawings are vampish, willfully ugly monsters and women. They erode the text, and maybe that was the intention. We are so used to drawings enhancing prose that it wouldn't surprise me if Ducornet and illustrator T. Motley had cooked up something different. "The Jade Cabinet" and "Gazelle," to name two favorites, were pretty (disturbing, weird, but pretty) books. This is not a pretty book. It is an angry book.

Again, this does not surprise me. Ducornet, for all her lack of convention and disgust with the received, by opening herself to the dream world is bound to reflect our rotting culture. Narcissus, middle-aged, looks in the pool and is afraid.


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