"Netsuke" is a perverse, dark gem of a novel. Succinctly put: it's about a fucked-up, narcissistic shrink who can't stop fucking his patients & just about anyone else who crosses his ill-starred path. He labors under a half-baked delusion that his sexual hijinks are somehow therapeutic, that he's working at the forbidden matrix between psyche and soma, that he is a kind of Marquis de Sade of psychiatry, destined to be misunderstood by the majority but revered by the cognoscenti. But not even he's entirely buying that line of bull. As the novel progresses, it's increasingly clear to him that he's rapidly spiraling to hell and powerless to pull himself out of his fatal descent.
Why he's so fucked up you never really find out, which only makes his character all the more complex, all the more universal, & all the more terrifying. He's married to Akiko, an accomplished collage artist, a woman whose very perfection and understanding antagonizes him, spurring him on to even greater risks, more brazen betrayals, & deeper, more dangerous degradations. You know from the start that this is all going to end very badly. And you aren't surprised when it does. Still, like watching a slow-motion car wreck unfold before your horrified eyes, you can't for the life of you turn away. In that sense, you're a lot like the shrink of "Netsuke," fascinated by his own self-destruction.
If the world is a dream, then fucking is as close to awakening as I can get. If the world is real, then fucking is as close to dreaming as I can be.
So says our shrink-hero in one of his most lucid, illuminated, & self-honest moments. Many of us have been there, have felt this, but not all of us have followed that conviction through to its—well I won't say "logical"—but inevitable conclusion. Those that do, don't live to tell about it. Because the inevitable conclusion is death—death by sex, in one form or another. Not necessarily a bad way to go, as ways to go go, but I'll leave that consideration for another time and place. Needless to say, it's tempting and our shrink isn't praying not to be lead into temptation. He's going down that left-hand path full-speed ahead.
No less an authority than the (still, at 91) living Pope of Prose Stylists, William Gass, says the writing here "is as good as it gets." Well, he should know but he's wrong on this point. William Gass himself is as good as it gets, but an admirable modesty prevents him from saying as much and allows him in this instance to admit an equal. That acknowledged, Rikki Ducornet is nearly as good as it gets, managing a prose style in "Netsuke" that is simultaneously lush and laconic, succinct yet suggestive. This entire novel is a scant 127 pages in length but it says everything that needs to be said in a prose that is nearly as luminous as the darkest poetry. Jesus, can she write! Which seems an odd, superfluous thing to say except that so many writers today don't seem to have any ear at all for the sensuality of a sentence. They lack any feel for the heft and shape of the right word in the right place. They haven't the quickness, the timing, or the intuition required to make the leap necessary to capture the luminously apt metaphor. They have no eye for the invisible that words, skillfully employed, can give form. They write books the way you'd jot down directions to Baltimore. So many write in this desultory, painfully awkward, dumbed-down fashion that you can't help but suspect that it's actually a prerequisite to getting published nowadays! This novel, by contrast, is as finely wrought as the netsuke that serve as symbol and title of this sinister micro-masterpiece—the small and finely wrought Japanese sculptures that solidify an otherwise fleeting and inexpressible emotion.
So much of the prose you see written today is workmanlike at best and all-too-commonly so ear-jarring, so tone-deaf, in such violation of the most rudimentary considerations of rhythm that you're left wondering whatever made its originators think they were writers in the first place. That they had any facility for language whatsoever. They might just as well have been butchers or electricians. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure there is a poetry to butchering a carcass or wiring a house, just as there is a poetry unique to every other endeavor, but carving up a pig is a lot different than carving a line of prose and far too many novels are the literary equivalent of a package of badly hacked pork chops.
Significantly, "Netsuke" is published by a small press (Coffee House) and Ducornet is not, nor ever likely to be, a household name. But hers is the kind of writing that allows one to rest one's head on the pillow at night content that there is some sort of justice in the literary world, that the entire racket isn't run by commercial suck-ups, sellouts, cop-outs, and no-talent, over-hyped hacks. That everything—even literature—hasn't already been reduced to the absolute common denominator: the Idiocracy. You don't mind not measuring up in the struggle to have your voice heard when you find yourself falling short of a Rikki Ducornet. If anything, she's the kind of writer that allows you to make sense of your own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Reading a novel like "Netsuke," you can accept the idea that the world doesn't need you to move a pen across a piece of paper. It's already been done better than you could ever hope to do. That's a consolation of sorts. Maybe the world needs a better manicurist instead.