Rikki Ducornet
illustrated by T. Motley
Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)

by Steve Tomasula

On the eroded hillside of a graveyard near my childhood home, we often found the bones of infants. Throughout one spring, we kids played with the tiny skulls and tried to arrange ribs into skeletons, thinking they’d come from monkeys. Then one day, our innocence evaporated enough for one of us to ask: Why would monkeys be buried in a cemetery for people?

Rikki Ducornet’s fiction has often mined the spirit of these sorts of awakenings, the moment when the marvelous becomes the monstrous or excess enlarges the world. It’s easy to imagine her fiction collections as having a family resemblance with those 18th-century wonder cabinets, containing, maybe, the last breath of Galileo trapped in a beaker, the deformed spine of a dwarf, a dragon’s tooth, or an odd fossil. Unlike a museum, the objects were gathered not into some scientific hierarchy, but as a collection meant to inspire wonder/revulsion, and through these reactions, larger meditations on the strangeness of the world, and our place in it. And so it is with Ducornet’s latest collection, The One Marvelous Thing, a wonder cabinet of twenty-nine short fictions quirkily illuminated with line drawings by T. Motley.

From the opening sentence, readers will realize they are in the presence of a lyrical author engaged with large themes: “In those years when I bounded about on all fours and on my elbows fled those I feared; when, in those lucent days I scaled trees fast as a cat and sailed the treetops as squirrels do, spreading their wings of fur and flesh, I was, I assure you, a better creature for all that, my desires both innocent and private, and what’s more, easily assuaged.” The narrator of “The Wild Child” goes on to recount memories of living as a feral child who was captured, and then beaten into conversion, by those with a “righteous need to have me tamed.” Despite the success of her patron’s program, starving her in a dungeon until she cries out “I repent!” she cannot repent her nature. Though she sits in chairs, and allows her hair to be pinned up, she can’t stop gazing at the throat of her patron’s daughter, longing for the days when she lived by eating the “hot red hearts of sparrows.” What’s more, she can’t help but notice the rush righteous visitors get, “their eyes sparked with something like envy,” when she’s put on display—like an exotic object in a Wonder Cabinet—and made to recount her formerly “wicked” and wildly free life for their edification.

The facing illustration is drawn as one of those “find-the-kettle-in-the-trees” kind of drawings published as puzzles in children’s magazines. But in this case, the child depicted is sitting forlornly up in a tree, and the cups, saucers, chairs and books hidden among the branches—the stuff of civilization and consumerism—play a role in subsequent stories. That is, “The Wild Child,” and her fall from a state of grace into the prison of religious and societal stricture, can serve as a parable for a number of the stories that follow.

Sometimes, of course, those cast from Eden manage to get back in. In the title story, Ellen dreams of a “portal opening upon a grove of citrus trees. Within it a naked goddess tossed grain to a large rose-colored bird.” Then she awakens “alone in a room so banal it made her weep.” Ahead lies a day of shopping with a friend, Pat, whom she doesn’t like. Pat, we are told, has Botox lips the size of her SUV, “is addicted to the buying and selling of properties,” and brings all the Machiavellian skill she can muster to shopping at the mall. Why? Because, she explains as the two women stand in a sea of recliners, “there is always one marvelous thing” and her life’s motto is to not “settle for less than better.” That is, no matter what a person has, it can always be better.

Pat spots this day’s one marvelous thing, a gilt, faux antique birdcage as tall as a person, just as it’s about to be purchased by one of the common herd, shopping at the mall. A battle over the birdcage ensues, with Pat trying any lie, claiming she had put a hold on it, while the other shopper, Magda, stands her ground. The more fiercely Magda resists, the more Ellen is attracted to her, to her strength, to her sensuality: all the things she’s allowed Pat to suppress in her own nature (a consumerist update of “The Wild Child”). She joins in on Magda’s side, until Pat stomps off, leaving a “stench of sulphur and White Diamonds in her wake,” and Ellen goes home with the one marvelous thing she found at the mall—Magda herself. The story ends with the two women entwined in bed.

Paintings, visual artists, gallery dealers, and collectors of various kinds figure in a number of these stories (unsurprisingly, given that Ducornet is also a visual artist herself). “Koi” (as in ornamental carp) is one of the funnier stories in the collection. An aging grande dame of art, whose gallery once gave her “status and access to men,” is growing into the realization that the “youngstuds are taking their stuff to a rival across town,” while her stable of artists are, like her, growing old fast. After thirty years of exhibiting plastic sushi nailed to the floor, or mounting shows wherein the art consisted of barrels of boiled spaghetti, she’s exhausted. What’s worse, the wave is passing her by. Indeed, the straw that breaks the gallery’s back comes in the form of a performance piece she agrees to exhibit: an idea one of her aging artists comes up with that consists of him climbing naked into a tub of centipedes. The problem is that neither of them realizes—as do the critics, collectors, and other, hipper, gallery owners and artists—how closely this work looks like a cheap imitation of a reality TV show. In the end she’s forced to sell the gallery to a Japanese teenager who exhibits erotic cupcakes as art—and, one imagines, the cycle for the gallery begins again.

The descriptions of these stories do not do justice to the most “marvelous thing” about them, though: the writing. Some stories seem to be told through a series of arresting and unexpected images, say of the pontificating woman at a cocktail party, “dressed as a goddess in the many folds of some sort of tent,” who corners the narrator with certitudes on life, on the cosmos, and has the mesmerizing power of a “herring pond.” Or when a collection of snuff boxes, “made to look like figs with hinges, precipitate a new set of private associations.” Or when a wife realizes that she’s wasted her life serving a “great man” who turns out to be a brute and the realization makes her feel as though “a swarm of bees has taken possession of her skull.” As often as not, the idea or emotion is expressed with poetic economy, as when this same wife squeezes “every last drop of bile from her bitterness so that it came to resemble worldliness.” Line by line and in story after story Ducornet does both: fusing unexpected and pristine imagery with large ideas: “He inhales; despite himself, he breathes.”

The sum effect is a collection of stories that makes the marvelous and the grotesque permeable. She moves effortlessly between the once-upon-a-time of fairytales and the here-and-now of contemporary realism (if stories told through such diamond-like imagery can be called “real”). The stories reanimate that Renaissance literary quality of “marvel”: that which creates wonder in the reader through the depiction of probable impossibilities, e.g., the ideal lover found in a mall, “bologna quesadillas” or the fact that “conversation has this ideal property: it alters our moods.” Their idiosyncratic nature makes them wholly unique, except in the context of Ducornet’s previous short fiction, novels, and poetry: a genre of one that delivers literary pleasures and surprises nearly line-by-line.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010