Try to classify Rikki Ducornet’s fiction and you’ll likely find that the words at your disposal have come up short. The phantasmagorical imagery found in her collection “The Complete Butcher’s Tales” at times takes these stories into the realm of the fantastical while retaining a singular unpredictability. Her novel “The Jade Cabinet” evokes literary history and the devices of fables. And “Brightfellow,” her latest novel, unfolds in a dreamlike space, making a familiar setting into something much more surreal due to the unique perspective of its protagonist.
The first line of “Brightfellow” establishes the mood of the novel to come: “The linoleum swells with stories.” It suggests a mystical potential for the narrative that follows, but it also echoes the most mundane of building materials. And here, the quotidian and the strange will rapidly become intertwined.
Soon, readers are introduced to the protagonist, an emotionally stunted young man first known as Stub, who spends his time living on the margins of a college campus. He adopts a new identity to blend in with the student population, taking the name of Charter and occasionally making use of a hastily summoned accent to keep his origins ambiguous. He is given lodging by Billy, an academic, and slowly forms a bond with Asthma, a troubled young woman.
That summary, however, doesn’t get at the emotional tension that suffuses this novel, or the carefully modulated tensions that run between the book’s major characters. Stub conceals his true identity, and his survival instinct puts him at odds with both Billy and Asthma. His fixation on the work of an obscure author provides some momentum to the story, but fundamentally, this is an atmospheric glimpse into an unconventional, damaged life.
There is plenty of room here for a sense of wonder and discovery, but there are also more jarring moments that stem from Stub’s furtiveness and his inability to connect with others.
Amid these unusual characters, a detailed portrayal of a place also emerges. The campus on which the novel is set is located in upstate New York; as Ducornet has spoken about growing up on the campus of Bard College, aspects of this novel may also act as a funhouse mirror to her own life. And the way that action quickly cascades is also memorable: Ducornet often blends actions, thoughts and emotions in a manner that evokes the onrush of disquieting feelings experienced by her characters.
“Brightfellow” travels into an offbeat mind, but it’s an enlightening voyage.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
By: Rikki Ducornet.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 143 pages, $15.95.