Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter 1997/1998 (#8)

The Word Desire by Rikki Ducornet

The Word "Desire"

Rikki Ducornet

Henry Holt ($22)

by Carolyn Kuebler

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.

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