Becoming a Tugboat: On Rikki Ducornet’s ‘Brightfellow’

Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.”

This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist — there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture. Brightfellow refuses to conform to a narrative logic in which events have meaning. While Ducornet is, here and everywhere in her work, expansively erudite, her use of citation and reference does not take the form of clues, or gestures toward meaning. Her Borgesian meta- and intertexts aren’t to be interpreted; they are to be experienced. Ducornet even makes a joke of the kind of embodiment her prose evokes, when the eight-year-olds debate the logistics of body dismemberment, “They suppose the thighs look like hams and that there would have only been room for two in the suitcase. They wonder if the knees would have been attached to the thighs.”

This image: grotesque and gustatory, also silly and beautiful, distills all of Brightfellow. It also evokes Ducornet’s earlier novels Phosphor in Dreamland and The Fountains of Neptune more than her last, Netsuke, which Michael Cunningham described in The New York Times as a malignant and malicious story of “soul-murder.” Brightfellow flirts with childish eroticism and terrible violence, yet, despite the Alfred Hitchcock, in it Ducornet follows Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, more than her sometime-precursors Vladimir Nabokov or the Marquis de Sade.

This novel, Ducornet’s ninth, follows its bright fellow, who we meet as a boy called “Stub,” and rejoin later as a young man calling himself Charter Chase. Stub/Charter, abandoned by his mother and then abandoning his father, winds up a feral young man on the campus of an unnamed university. His first entry into the world of the college is through the library, where he obsessively reads the works of the reclusive anthropologist Werner Vanderloon. Eventually, Stub becomes a secret resident, sleeping in a specimen cabinet in the biology lab and pilfering the left-behind contents of gym lockers and dorm rooms for an appropriately preppy wardrobe that enables him to pass as a student.

The inevitable Giles Goat-Boy comparisons are already made by Ducornet’s blurbers, and while, in some sense, this book may resemble John Barth’s feral-boy-on-campus novel, Stub/Charter’s self-invention is a red herring. This is a coming-of-age story in a looking-glass universe, in which familiar categories are meaningless. Charter presents himself as a scholar studying Vanderloon’s papers, and so gains entry into Faculty Circle, where he eventually takes a room in the home of a lonely emeritus professor. While there, Charter conceives an obsession with a child, Asthma, who lives next door (and who, in a bit of heady referentiality, he observed through the window, and who he will take to see Rear Window). Observing Asthma, Charter muses on Vanderloon’s anthropological system:

Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic — sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming a human, just as it is about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon.

This anthropological treatise recapitulates Charter’s own experience, when, as Stub, he imagined a linoleum floor as”

an archipelago that begins under his bed and goes all the way to his door. It shines with beauty and danger. There are flowers that have voices and sing to children. There is a poisonous toad that speaks in riddles, and the wrong sort of snake, thick as a chimney, concealed in the dappled light.

For Ducornet, the point of this description is its sensation. She wants you to feel “tugboat” and “galloping stallion” in your mouth when you read. Rear Window makes the act of viewing a film dangerously close to voyeurism.

Brightfellow suggests that the artifice of the words on the page and the voyeurism of a girl playing in a window, or an anthropologist observing some hitherto unknown society, are all there is. Ducornet’s is a world of surfaces so rich and textured that notions of meaning and interpretation are subsumed under a lush and seductive prose that eventually inhabits readers minds. Her writing inevitably gets described in a vocabulary of her creation: “decadent,” “anarchic,” and “fragrant.”

In Brightfellow, Ducornet forces readers to experience the physicality of reading, to feel and taste the act of storytelling. Every character perpetually self-invents. When Charter creates a fictive Vanderloon book about an obscure and isolated island culture, it is indistinguishable from the “real” Vanderloon texts. Vanderloon’s account of play both is and is not apt in the novel’s reading of Rear Window, which forces the viewer to share Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism. As the film’s audience sees the film through the eyes — and the lens — of its protagonists, readers of Brightfellow feel Ducornet’s prose as Charter invents the cultures of Vanderloonian anthropology.

Ducornet has said that everything she writes is “informed by experience, experience not limited to the street, bathroom, kitchen.” This is a novel to be experienced, not simply read. Yet to say this novel refuses meaning is not to say that it lacks event. Its celebration of the texture and contours of storytelling, of the unruly expansiveness of language, and of the relative ease with which the borders of the world are permeated by fabulation offers a rebuke to a kind of fiction in which the imagination is increasingly constricted. As ever, Ducornet wants you to feel and taste her story more than to say what it is about. Like Vanderloon’s notion of play, it is about becoming human, or a tugboat.

All of This Is Mine: A Conversation with Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism.

The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp.

Unlike Lovecraft’s story, The Ballad of Black Tom is resistant, like all of LaValle’s work, to allegory. Black Tom, both the hero and the villain of this novella, delivers LaValle’s rebuke to Malone, the police officer who is the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook,” and who shares the center of LaValle’s revision with Black Tom himself. Tommy Tester, as Black Tom is known at the beginning of the book, is seduced by the supernatural in part out of a desire for revenge. A small-time, self-described hustler, Tommy lands on the wrong side of a pair of detectives, who turn out to represent a much more terrifying evil than any ancient god, killing Tommy’s father in his bed and justifying the killing by claiming to have seen a gun. This murder, sanctioned by the same ugliness that motivated Lovecraft’s work, quite explicitly drives Tommy to Lovecraft’s supernatural realm, “Outside,” a terrifying world invisible to those without knowledge of the occult. At the end, Tommy, now Black Tom, tells Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”

I spoke with LaValle about his lexicon of horror and how it shapes his thinking about narrative and language (during a reading at McNally Jackson promoting his novel Big Machine, he screened 12 minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Representing monsters is one of LaValle’s strengths, from the Devils of the Marsh in Big Machine to the buffalo-headed demon that torments New Hyde hospital in The Devil in Silver. Not surprisingly, LaValle’s monster references come from an exhaustive knowledge of horror. “A few summers ago I reread the first six or seven Stephen King novels,” he told me. “In Salem’s Lot, there’s a moment when the main character finally, finally, finally sees the vampire, the count. And he does this amazing thing. He’s brought you — with all the tension — up to the house, this abandoned house, and then the guy breaks into the house, and he’s going up the stairs, and then there’s the moment when it appears — and I’ve noticed he does this all the time — he then picks a thing that is disgusting or horrifying, or weird, but is completely normal, realist…So he might say, the Count came out and it felt like when a cat licks you on the back of your hand with its tongue. It burns at your skin and sort of cuts. And the point is not that he’s seven feet tall and has fangs, it’s that you probably know what this feeling of the cat tongue is, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. And it’s visceral.”

That visceral horror of suggestion is quite different from Lovecraft, who tends toward the overblown: “In the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” This couldn’t be more of a departure from Tommy Tester’s Harlem cool: “This is how you hustle the arcane.” I ask about this contrast, and about Lovecraft’s appeal. I began reading him in my early teens, as did LaValle, yet if I tried to include prose like Lovecraft’s in my courses for first- and second-year college students, I’m sure they would rebel. LaValle theorizes that Lovecraft’s tone — “someone who comes in and says, like, ‘THE WORLD IS SO BIG!!!!’” — is “not cool” for people at the skeptical ages of 19 or 20: “I had friends who would laugh at me at 14 or whatever because I loved Lovecraft, and then they turn around and love The Smiths. And it’s the same thing!”

LaValle’s horror lexicon allows The Ballad of Black Tom to pay homage to its source, while also transcending Lovecraft’s own paranoia, in which throngs of immigrants overrun the good, “Aryan,” in his word, inhabitants of New York, using supernatural horrors as allegory for overwhelming racist paranoia. I ask whether LaValle thinks that good horror is possible without Lovecraftian allegory, without a pathological fear: “I can’t think of any good horror, any horror that has lasted with me that isn’t based on some kind of ugly terror.” But LaValle expects more of existential terror: “One of the reasons that ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ is not one of his best is because he doesn’t do quite enough of the magic.” Pathological fear should be universal, LaValle thinks. “His really good stories, are also about a lot of fear, but the fear might be about the fear of the scientific revolution going on at the time. Even if he loved it and he was himself an atheist, it still rattled him to find out, or have proof of the insignificance of humanity in the larger realm of things. But by embodying it in Cthulhu or in the Old Ones and all this stuff, he finds a way to not just have a guy sit around saying, like, ‘isn’t it crazy! We’re insignificant!’”

The racism underlying “Red Hook” is too parochial to resonate; LaValle’s paraphrase is apt: “I’m being rattled in my cage by my fear of non-whites, and my fear of human insignificance. Here’s a giant octopus head.” LaValle’s assertion of ownership doesn’t supersede Lovecraft, but rather situates him, forcing him out into the violent, messy world he was so afraid of, showing him what’s really frightening.

LaValle’s current work-in-progress is about the particular, modern terrors of the Internet, dealing with fears at once more benign and ubiquitous than the monsters of The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom. The new book is about parents posting pictures of their children on Facebook, something he does regularly. “It’s about the technology but really even more particularly it’s about what are the ways that we volunteer to lose control or we choose to open a door to monsters. You know, a vampire can’t enter your home unless you invite it in, that kind of thing.” True to form, however, LaValle is quick to see through any moralizing about whether or not parents invite and thus deserve these monsters. Such moralism, LaValle observes, “is a way of policing each other,” and, in particular, a way of policing women. In the new book, “the father is more often than not applauded or rewarded for exactly the things that the mother is punished for.”

Finally, I ask whether we will see more work in this LaValle-Lovecraft universe. LaValle has said elsewhere that, although he intended Tommy Tester to die at the end of The Ballad of Black Tom, his editor suggested he leave things in a more ambiguous place. LaValle’s response is profoundly revealing in its reckoning with Lovecraft — not only the world he created, but the world in which he lived. While he expresses enthusiasm for supernatural ghost stories, the real monsters, the ones to which LaValle lays the strongest claim, are not imaginary: “There would be a certain pleasure in expanding that universe and continuing the story, continuing a story. And certainly there’s tons of ghosts. But there’s also human violence. So much violence. So many people getting shot up. Cut. Drowned. Die of drink. Die of cocaine. All this great stuff. What if you could take all of that in, Lovecraft too, and just say, ‘all of this is mine.’”