“My first novel, The Stain, was set into motion by a powerful dream. That dream unleashed enough energy to fuel four novels—and this to my astonishment. I was an artist, after all, not a writer. Entering Fire, Phosphor in Dreamland, and The Fan Maker’s Inquisition were driven by an irrepressible, irresistible voice. Writing a novel can be a little like speaking in tongues! For example, I woke up one morning with the phrase “A fan is like the thighs of a woman: it opens and closes” running through my head. My novel’s narrator, a fan-maker, had arrived fully formed and clamouring for attention. She kept me busy for two-and-a-half years…”
(from An Interview with Rikki Ducornet for Centrum)
Daughter of a TV/Radio host and a professor of Sociology, Rikki Ducornet was raised on the campus of Bard College of New York where she later earned a Fine Arts degree with a minor in mediaeval studies. It was during these formative years that she met such authors as Robert Kelly and Robert Coover, experimental fiction cavaliers that would set her on the journey to finding her own authorial voice. These new influences were combined with the whispers of old sages, Leeuwenhoek and Lewis Carroll, as she had long been “infected with the venom of language” and captivated by its power and practitioners.
The least interesting thing to know about Rikki Ducornet, although undoubtedly a fun fact, is that she was reputedly the inspiration behind the hit Steely Dan song, “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” What transpired after this pop-folkloric interlude is the story of a marvellous and unique poet, novelist, essayist, painter, illustrator and aesthete. Ever the cosmopolitan, Ducornet sojourned in various locales on her illustrious path to eight novels, three collections of short fiction, and a book of essays and five books of poetry. Some of these places, both exotic and provincial, include France, North Africa, the Rocky Mountains, the Bayou, and the Pacific Northwest. These writerly peregrinations garnered numerous awards including a Bunting Institute fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a National Book Critics’ Award and an Academy Award for Fiction. Indeed her novels have been met with much acclaim from high and sundry media portals. The New York Times declared her “A novelist whose vocabulary sweats with a kind of lyrical heat.” The Nation describes her as “Linguistically explosive. . . . one of the most interesting American writers around.” The San Diego Tribune insists that she “is gifted with a talent for lush, lyrical prose.” The accolades come thick and fast following the trail of her numerous and oh so provocative books.
But it is not just commercial success to speak of – and it should be added that Ducornet has been widely translated and read in Europe as well. Quite simply she is a darling among authors and holds many of her quilled peers in awe. Ron Slate depicts her as “a being unchained, transcendent as a mythical angel.” Joanna Scott admirably clutches at some of her essence: “Rikki Ducornet can create an unsettling, dreamlike beauty out of any subject. In the heady mix of her fiction, everything becomes potently suggestive, resonant, fascinating. She exposes life’s harshest truths with a mesmeric delicacy and holds her readers spellbound.” Similarly, Jeff Vandermeer talks about the totality of her craft: “Rikki Ducornet—surrealist, absurdist, pure anarchist at times—is one of our most accomplished writers, adept at seizing on the perfect details and writing with emotion and cool detachment simultaneously. I love her style because it is penetrating and precise but also sensual without being overwrought. You experience a Ducornet novel with all of your senses.” Such novels include Netsuke, Gazelle, The Fan Maker’s Inquisition, Phosphor in Dreamland, The Jade Cabinet, The Fountains of Neptune, Entering Fire, and The Stain. Equally brilliant are her short fiction collections – One Marvelous Thing, The Word “Desire,” The Complete Butcher’s Tales, The Volatized Ceiling of Baron Munodi, The Butcher’s Tales – and her enlightened book of essays – The Monstrous and the Marvelous.
Perhaps the most helpful introduction to Ducornet’s fiction, short of simply reading through the works, is an essay by her friend, former faculty colleague, and wonderful writer in his own right – Brian Evenson. In an online work entitled Reading Rikki Ducornet, Evenson gives his own insightful appraisal of her contribution and standing in the world of Literature. He begins the Essay thus:
“There are certain writers who are deliberately out of pace with the literary lockstep that characterizes a period, certain writers who instead of going with the flow of the narrative current or trying to hitch a ride on the trends of the moment end up swimming their way upstream or coming downriver at a slant in a way that leads them into very different waters. Rather than, say, investing in American Minimalism or Dirty Realism, they pursue Italo Calvino’s notion of lightness and the more complex lucidity that this opens for them. Rather than settling into the easy chair of realism, they stand up and stare into the foxed tain of a mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of something more magical. If all writers, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, are propelled into the future while watching the ruins of literary history pile up behind them, then these non-conformist writers are the ones who manage to catch a glimpse in this wreckage of undiscovered and still-unruined avenues that offer them shortcuts to new, impossible futures.”
Evenson goes on to explain how Ducornet’s productive misstep with the rest of literature is what propels her sauntering uniqueness. He likens her to the immortal Blake in finding previously bypassed and annexed delights – and reconnecting as a prodigal Eve with the mystery of Eden and thus, its even more magical loss. In an interview with Diane Urbani de la Paz for Peninsula Woman Ducornet explains: “I really do write the books that I want to read…. Creating the story is also transforming, exciting, stimulating. One learns so much . . . every book is a revelation.”
In another wonderful essay, Rikki Ducornet: An Alchemy of Dreams and Desire, M.E. Warlick speaks of European influences both ancient and moderne. Ducornet was well acquainted with the Qabala that “increased her understanding of the symbolic weight of the word—the duelling and dualistic forces of active and passive letters and the words they create though coupling.” She also has a working knowledge of alchemical lore through such French authors as Fucanelli and Canseliet, who in turn inspired the surrealists. As Warlick explains – “All of her novels and much of her short fiction contain alchemical imagery, including the Great Work’s planetary rulers: suns, moons and planets, referenced often by their related metals: quicksilver (Mercury), lead (Saturn), tin (Jupiter), copper (Venus) iron (Mars), silver (Moon), and gold (Sun). There are references to alchemy’s masculine and feminine polarities—sulphur and mercury, the sun and the moon—and to the many variations of their sexual fusion within the alembic vessel.” This preponderance of ancient sources also seems to follow to Gnostic philosophy and ancient dream lore among other things.
As with her studied Parisian avant-garde, Ducornet is also a lover of the new or at least new discovery in the expression of old magic. Her fascinations extend beyond the first wave of de Sade, Jarry, Breton and Eluard to their natural ancestors in the postmodern metafiction and magic realist camps. Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Nabokov and García-Márquez are not only graciously nodded to in the wielding of her pen – but treasured in her exquisite essays as the Monstrous and the Marvelous. The avant-garde lineage also extends to her other love – Art. Enamoured with the work of Tanguy, Arp and Ernst, Ducornet explores such expression in her own work, whether paintings or fine art illustrations. Warlick points out that she was particularly taken with a little known work of Guastave La Rouge called Atropa Mandragora, which features the magical lore of the mandrake. “Mandrakes appear in her novels, mostly in connection with the casting of magical spells. Even in the most mundane illustration, the mandrake’s uncanny resemblance to a human being is striking.” Similarly, many of Ducornet’s meticulous illustrations have been gleaned from encyclopaedic reference and natural history books. In some circles Ducornet is indeed better known for her artwork than her fiction, with exhibitions including the 2007 solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the 2012 show at Casa Diana in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. Her artwork is in such demand that she has illustrated books by Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard, Anne Waldman, as well as a delightful volume of one of her literary heroes, Jorge Luis Borges. Examples of her work can be found here.
What is less known about Rikki Ducornet is that she is a poet extraordinaire with a wonderful muse-clad voice. Indeed one could say that her novels are laden with a rich lacework of poetics and a sonorous sense of language that sings from an older and deeper part of the soul than does the craft and nuance of a mature fiction writer. Prior to finding notoriety for her fiction she wrote a number of poetry volumes for small presses, some of which have gone sadly out of print. Skylight Press is thrilled to reissue an all-new version of The Cult of Seizure from 1989, this time coupled with her two splendid essays – Silling and The Deep Zoo. Alchemically, the book will also bear one of her splendid paintings on its cover.