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.
Sometimes, too, the territory Ducornet explores is dark indeed. Such is the case with her latest, Netsuke, a take-no-prisoners decadent psycho-drama about a monstrous psychoanalyst, his artistic wife named Akiko, and the patients that he either tries to cure or to sexually conquer. The psychoanalyst’s self-destructive tendencies engulf his relationship with Akiko and threaten to destroy his practice. No one would mistake him for sympathetic—pompous, loathing, loathsome—yet in the Nabokovian nature of his revelries about his cruelties the character holds the reader’s attention. There’s a lightness of touch in his antics on the page that recall the attempts other ill-doers to garner favor with an audience. Indeed, the novel mesmerizes in its fascination with the psychoanalyst’s destruction of anything worthwhile around him, and the reader becomes a voyeur unable to look away.
The title refers not just to the miniature sculptures gifted to him by his wife but his own trophies: clues from his clients introduced into his home life with Akiko. He gets a little thrill from his personal connection to them and Akiko’s ignorance of that connection. Sometimes these clues are just hints he drops or places they go together instead of physical objects, but regardless symbolize the ever-growing distance between Akiko and the psychoanalyst—and, perversely, a need to communicate with her.
The writing is superb, whether detailing disturbing moments fraught with drama or revealing the doctor’s thoughts: “You fill a house with precious things; they break. You fill a heart with precious things; it breaks. In the end it all breaks. All night long I hear bones snapping. My nights are my star chamber. In my dreams the elusive sweetness of the world is just around the corner: up a tree, waiting in the silver tower, at the top of the mountain, in a box secreted at the bottom of the sea.”
Eventually, the doctor encounters a client he cannot categorize and can’t conquer in quite the same way as the others. Eventually, too, Ducornet begins to show us Akiko’s point of view, to undermine the wit and linguistic cleverness of the doctor’s account. What can at times lull the unwary reader into believing is just wickedly terrible adventures becomes imbued with a deep sadness. The ending is a short, sharp shock of the real and has an inevitability that in no way takes away from the reader’s initial discomfort at encountering it.
Netsuke has teeth and claws. It isn’t a comfortable book for a reader to inhabit, and yet it has important things to say, embedded in the deadly beautiful prose. As might be expected considering the subject matter, Netsuke has drawn diverse reactions. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, and the New York Times a mixed review that I think missed the point. Readers owe it to themselves to encounter this slim but complex novel on its own terms.