My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke is a short novel, an impressionistic piece of eroticism, experimental and lyrical rather than realist and story-driven. Its narrator is a 64-year-old psychoanalyst on his third marriage, to a Japanese collage artist named Akiko. But the psychoanalyst obsessively sleeps with other people, from random strangers he meets in the park to his own patients.
Like a Shakespearean drama, the novel begins just as his decline begins. (I’m not one for “craft”-based writing advice—writing fiction should be like setting out on a journey without a map, not like making a desk chair—but “begin the text at the latest possible point in the story” really is a sound recommendation.) In an italicized third-person prologue, the psychoanalyst, out for a run in the park, ends up fucking another jogger in the bushes. Then, in the shower (his endless showering is one of the novel’s motifs), he reflects:
He considers the nature of women. The daisies of the field, so fuckable, so breakable. The ones who call out Hey! and stamp their feet in irritation, like mares. The ones who blossom early, only to succumb to nerves. Those who startle easily and sour in an instant; love with them is like sucking lemons. The lazy, careless women in need of pedicures, who, when darkness falls, can be seen lolling about, unkempt, in tapas bars. The aging actresses, their sweet vulnerabilities on parade. Incandescent alcoholics as troublesome as fever dreams, fantastic in the early hours of the evening, but only then. The chameleons. The gorgeous exotics prone to outbursts of temper. The luscious North Africans, their balaclava pussies. The antelope who cannot settle down—a good fuck on an airplane, taxicab, the train. The new mistresses one fucks before sitting down to dinner with one’s wife. The women who give courage (these are rare). The wild ones with magenta manes who wear boots in all seasons. The whore who brought down Enkidu, who showed him the things a woman knows how to do. The tribal types who like sex in clusters. The women who, at Christmas, consider suicide. The frisky ones. The ones who talk too much. The ones who kill with silence. The risk takers. The ones with Big Ideas. The death cunts who kill with a look. The tender ones, the Feyaways, like islands, who love in cautious isolation, who rub one’s feet; they have juicers. One abandons them judiciously, all the while cooing like a dove. The clients whom one fucks in the name of a Unique Experiment. The wives whom one betrays, extravagantly. The current wife: Akiko. The one for whom the interstices were superseded, if only briefly, by the Real. Akiko. Whose beauty no longer troubles his sleep. (His world is mazed with cunts and he has not yearned for her in centuries.)
An old Prince of Darkness—this is what he has become. His teeth worn to the gums, his tongue swollen with overuse, his cock, like his heart, close to breaking. (italics in original)
This quotation alone give us three pieces of evidence that this is experimental fiction, concerned less with verisimilitude or didacticism than with language and emotion (with “the truth of the human heart,” as Hawthorne put it in the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, one of American literature’s early manifestoes for a non-realist fiction):
1. Ducornet’s willingness to extend sympathy and give voice to forms of desire and states of mind considered socially suspect or unacceptable—and not only by the forces of school-board suburban conservatism, but also by the moral technocrats of the liberal left, against whom Ducornet, an aesthetic anarchist, has been severe in her judgments, uncompromisingly labelling them “Pol Pot persons.” For more on the politics of Ducornet’s fiction, see my essay on Gazelle. Netsuke allows its characters to render judgment on each other, but it provides no perspective from which the author or some social stand-in for the author might judge them.
2. Ducornet’s pleasure in language for its own sake, as an object of literary fascination. This list of women is interesting as a list, as an arrangement of sounds and of mental images corresponding to those sounds. Ducornet also allows language to push emotion in contradictory directions, risking the ridiculous for the sake of complexity and resonance and, yes, a saving note of play: “They have juicers,” “mazed with cunts,” “his cock, like his heart, close to breaking.”
3. Ducornet’s invocation of religious and mythical correlates for her characters (here, Enkidu and Satan), putting her fictional figures above and below the mundane realm, as representatives not just of social types (as in a realist novel) but of archetypes standing in for various human drives.
In keeping with its brevity and heightened language, Netsuke explores emotional and psychological states in a miniaturized and aestheticized world, both delicate and grotesque, for which the title objects (netsuke) serve as organizing symbol. In fact, Netsuke is perhaps less the name of a symbol within the novel than an announcement of the novel’s artistic mode.
The netsuke in the novel are a gift from Akiko to the narrator, to decorate the office in which he, unbeknownst to her, fucks his patients. Akiko is an artist who arranges every aspect of her life according to beauty, while the narrator declares himself uninterested in aesthetics and seeks instead the delirium of subjective dissolution in high-risk and unethical sexual activity.
Why does the narrator have this erotic death wish? What separates him from such venerable literary figures as Gustav von Aschenbach, Humbert Humbert, or Mickey Sabbath? In a few brief scenes, Ducornet sketches an amazingly insightful origin for the narrator’s doomed quest. It appears that the narrator has never gotten over an experience most men endure at some point: their exile from the world of women in which they spend the years from zero to about six. In early childhood, the narrator mistakes the phrase “the land of milk and honey” for the name of a real place, perhaps with cookies, and begs his mother and aunt to take him there. For a joke, they take him to a department store instead:
The thrilling rotating doors. Their highly polished brass. And everywhere the smell of women. A rich perfume almost overwhelming. I may have sneezed. The smell of powder so rare these days and perfumes rosier than now. Far sweeter, far too redolent of mothers and their sisters and friends and yet intoxicating—as was Loll’s invisible bosom, weighty as a watermelon.
There we were. It was a palace devoted to women’s clothing. Not a cookie in sight. Only the infinite air, a female ocean. My mother brayed: Look at his stupid face!—her laughter bouncing off the countertops like spheres of glass. It was a lesson, one of many. In this way I was trained to despise all my dreams.
Eventually, the narrator meets his ultimate lover, a man named David Swancourt, also known as a woman named Jello. (Ducornet, with whatever psychological aptness, seems to portray David/Jello not as a transgender woman—i. e., an integral self with a gender identity that may not align with a social identity—but as a man with multiple personalities, a male self and a female self in one body.) David, like the narrator, is a sensitive and fragile psyche seeking a feminine interior for himself (“Lovely Anna Morphosis,” “A woman coiled within a man the way a cock coils upon itself within a pair of silk panties”). The novel thus suggests that male sexual obsession and predation is both a revenge on femininity for being unattainable and a desperate attempt to return to the source of the feminine self in every man—as the narrator puts it, he “take[s] his war back to the womb.”
In Akiko’s collage, a triptych showing Hell, Paradise, and Limbo, a blindfolded Eve in the center of the image is offered fruit by her husband, the Minotaur. In this conflation of myths, domestic man is recast as the devil/monster who gets us expelled from the garden by desecrating woman, of whom he is also the prison-keeper. What in the feminine does the man both hate and need?
Her Minotaur’s sex is scandalously large, gorged with blood, striking Eve’s thigh. His balls, dark as plums, quiver beneath. If Eve is aroused, creamy, her sex is folded into itself, hidden. Only the cleft, like the mark on a plum, is visible.
The vulvic involutions that manifest hiddenness: the ability to be and to be hidden, to show forth and to conceal. An image of art, the aesthetic, which the narrator disclaims any interest in. He pledges his allegiance to its opposite in the practices of men, including psychoanalysis and religion:
The infant…will become a hoodlum, a maniac, a soldier; he will become a priest, a prison guard, a cop. A dogmatist, a patriarch—decidedly a public danger. He will become a psychoanalyst. He will have a Practice.
Ducornet’s novel itself contains (i. e., minotaur-mazes) this monster, who is only a latent possibility of the human male, within the boundaries of the aesthetic—a Japanese aesthetic at that. It may be read as Akiko’s revenge, the woman’s and non-westerner’s revenge, at the level of form, for the male narrator’s ugly but socially-sanctioned transgressions.
One criticism. I am puzzled by the quantity of cliche in Netsuke’s language. I am not a “war against cliche” person; I think original language can be sacrificed to other virtues—plainness, speed, verisimilitude—in narrative prose, and I don’t admire the type of criticism that attempts to dispense with whole novels by pointing to a few solecisms or infelicities. But in a novel this short, with language this stylized, it is startling to read such phrases as the following on page after page:
They keep me on my toes.
They like it down and dirty.
Her sex was like a beacon at the end of a tunnel…
She has a temper hot enough to fry an egg.
…a life lived leaping from one frying pan into another.
He likes what he sees in the mirror. He can pull this off.
Both of them clinging like glue.
…fucking like beasts on the floor.
It’s a risky business.
Maybe each cliche, like “the land of milk and honey,” contains an embedded utopia to which Ducornet tries to draw our attention, sometimes by slightly altering the cliche or using it in an unfamiliar context; or perhaps Ducornet intimates that Akiko, for whom English is a second language, is really our narrator, trying out her facility with the American idiom (lending credence to this idea, the narrative does occasionally enter the third person and proceed from the viewpoints of characters other than the main narrator); but if so, this is one experiment that seems to me to fail. There is moreover a character—Kat, called “the Cutter” by the narrator due to her pathology—who herself seems to be a cliche; even if she wanted to do something new with the paradoxically eroticized figure of self-harming female fragility, Ducornet does not spend enough time on Kat to accomplish it. (Also, the narrator and the Cutter watch snuff films—plural—together, whereas I thought snuff films were an urban legend.) All in all, I know the novel is the husband’s story, but I would have liked to hear more about Akiko: she is the novel’s most interesting, if not most extreme, character.
Those complaints aside, Netsuke succeeds as a charged miniature of desire gone awry, desire that, even after the marginalization of marriage, attests to the complications—evocable only in language answeringly oblique—of desire.