In the previous post I suggested that too often reviews written by novelists or poets are taken as "an opportunity to disparage an approach to fiction or poetry that isn't the reviewer's." A good example of this would be a recent New York Times review by Michael Cunningham of Rikki Ducornet's Netsuke. After faintly praising Ducornet's novel, Cunningham instructs us that
By delving into a character’s motives, a writer fulfills one of fiction’s most powerful potentials — the ability to draw the reader into a character, including the most repellent of them. Fiction can show readers what it’s like to be someone very different from themselves, even if that drawing-in is discomfiting.
Ducornet, unfortunately, "has erred too much on the side of discretion":
The pure malice of Ducornet’s [protagonist] is not alleviated by her reluctance to show us much by way of the injuries he’s inflicting on his patients. Ducornet treats the analyst’s patients as offhandedly as does the analyst himself. The book’s atmosphere of arid heartlessness begins to produce a parched feeling in the reader.
Cunningham's review betrays a lack of sympathy with the aesthetic goals of Ducornet's novel, goals that clearly clash with his own--"to draw the reader into a character"--and this unwillingness to accept a kind of fiction different from that which he writes is reinforced in the review by an unwillingness to understand what Ducornet's goals may be. He engages in no reflection on what Ducornet might be up to rather than psychological realism, and he considers Netsuke in total isolation from the rest of Ducornet''s by now rather ample body of work. If Cunningham has read any of Ducornet's previous fiction, his review seems rather determined to avoid any reference to it.
Readers familiar with Rikki Ducornet's fiction know that it does not attempt "to draw the reader into a character" in the manner--adopted, no doubt, from Virginia Woolf--that Michael Cunningham himself favors. This is not because she has no interest in character, but because in her fiction character is just one element that works to help give it its distinctive signature. Ducornet is not a realist, psychological or otherwise, but a fabulator, and were she to focus on drawing the reader inside the characters in the mode of Woolf or Faulkner she would either be undermining the very mode in which she has long worked, or be turning herself into a different kind of writer. Still, to say that Ducornet to some extent subordinates character to plot, setting, symbol and imagery, or, especially, style, is not to say that her fiction shows no concern for the "motives" of its characters. Indeed, long-time readers of Ducornet's work must be taken aback by Cunningham's suggestion that Netsuke exhibits insufficient attention to motive, since Ducornet's fiction so relentlessly chronicles what it represents as the motive force behind all human behavior: the unavoidable power of "desire."
In Ducornet's story, "The Word, 'Desire'", the protagonist, who is still experiencing the intense, intoxicating effects of new love, comes to appreciate this power when she notices her lover looking with obvious desire at another woman. She imagines herself into the perspective of both the lover, gazing, and the other woman, being gazed at, and finds herself concluding: "How far the word 'desire' goes! How it tugs us along! How it worries us, daggers us. How it lights our path." Ducornet's fables are fables of the manifestation and the consequences of desire, how it "tugs us along" and both "daggers us" and "lights our path." Her characters are driven by desire, experiencing both ecstasy and pain, come to a healthy acknowledgment of it, disastrously deny it. Desire in such works as The Stain, The Jade Cabinet, and Gazelle leads the characters to both become more human, and, in some cases, descend into the monstrous. Ducornet isn't really interested in showing readers "someone very different from themselves" because this fundamental human motivation is one to which we are all equally subject.
Thus the claim that a novel like Netsuke fails to explore "motives" arises both from a weak reading of the book and sheer ignorance, either literal or willed, of Rikki Ducornet's work as a whole. Cunningham asserts that the psychiatrist protagonist acts out of "pure malice" in seducing his patients, that he "systematically and without guilt soul-murders" them. While it is not necessarily surprising that a reader might cringe with horror at the actions of a character like this protagonist (readers have expressed similar distaste for some of the actions and events depicted in her other novels), one might expect Cunningham to examine his response, to more fully appraise the text and more carefully measure his response against what the novel actually conveys to us about the protagonist. Because this character as subject to the inescapable influence of desire as any of Ducornet's other characters. He is not motivated out of "pure malice"--he may be malicious, but the malice isn't pure, uninflected by deeper impulses that are themselves neither benevolent nor malevolent but simply are what they are.
"My clients are thwarted, famished, and lonely," the protagonist tells us. "Inevitably, sooner or later, I seize upon and penetrate the one who has wanted this from me from the first instant. Or has taken time but has come around to wanting it." The narrator both believes what he is doing is of benefit to his clients--it's what they want as an assuagement of their pain--and knows he is exploiting them. He knows also he is exploiting his wife, Akiko, an accomplished and compassionate woman he both loves and despises. In betraying his wife with his clients, the narrator is acting on desires his marriage can't fulfill--that he doesn't want it to fulfill. Cunningham is correct to say that Netsuke is "a story about a man trying to bring his own house down" (although this isn't all the story is about), but this very insight implies he isn't simply acing out of malice. His accomplishments as husband and professional are being overrun by elemental impulses for which those accomplishments are an inhibition and a nuisance. In Ducornet's fiction, carnal desires must and should be expressed, but that doesn't mean the consequences will aways be "healthy."
Ducornet admittedly makes it difficult for us to grant the psychotherapist his portion of a shared humanity by making him the narrator of his own story. Novels narrated in the first person by morally compromised characters, such as Lolita, Thomas Berger's Killing Time, John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges, or, more recently, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones can charm us into a kind of moral complicity in which we come to regard our identification with the narrator with some horror, but can also lead us to recoil at too obvious violations of ethical norms and decorum. We can both lull ourselves into overemphasizing the narrator's "human" qualities, and allow our disgust to overlook them. Judging from Michael Cunningham's response, Netsuke can provoke the latter reaction. A first-person narrator is always unreliable to some degree, but some writers especially exploit the capacity for first-person narration to create ambiguity and instability. Rikki Ducornet is this kind of writer. Whenever she uses a first-person narrator, as readers we need to be prepared for, and willing to accept, the resulting ambiguities.
Netsuke, like many of Ducornet's novels, is relatively brief, which also no doubt adds to the possibility it will be misread in the manner exemplified by Michael Cunningham. We don't "get to know" the character as we do in longer works, especially those devoted to the kind of psychological realism in which "getting to know" is largely the point. Ducornet's kind of fabulation, which can draw on the elements of the fable or fairy tale without incorporating the movement toward narrative closure ("the moral of the story"), works best both through brevity and a deliberate avoidance of psychological "depth," at least through explicit strategies of point of view or style. Anything longer could mar the delicacy of what she is after, and "delving into a character's motives" would only undermine its subtlety.
Perhaps writers who take a much different approach to their own work will be unsympathetic to Ducornet's methods, but they ought to consider that bias before agreeing to review her work.
(June 13, 2011)