Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to reveal the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. —Jason DeYoung
Coffee House Press, 2016
The prized vision in Brightfellow is that of youth and innocence, where the dream of life is perhaps the purest, strongest, and most vibrant. Over and over we are shown this vision along with how the adult characters long to return to this state, yet they are most twisted by life events: by cruelty, by misunderstanding, by repression, by the denial of the imagination. It is a convincing portrayal by Rikki Ducornet of what she writes about in her slim volume of essays, The Deep Zoo (a skeleton key, if you will, to how she thinks and creates): “The betrayal of infancy is ubiquitous, and its forms are many.” Our main character embodies perhaps the deepest betrayal—the denied childhood.
Brightfellow is a dynamic short novel by one of our most linguistically creative writers. I don’t believe I’ve ever come away from one of Ducornet’s novels uninspired. They are all marked by a fecundity and richness, yet not overwrought. She is the author of nine novels—including most recently Netsuke (2011) and Gazelle (2003)—as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has twice been honored by the Lannan Foundation, and she is a recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. She is also a gifted visual artist and collaborator, which Numéro Cinq was pleased to highlight in July.
Like much of Ducornet’s work, Brightfellow packs multitudes into a small number of pages. The cast of characters is few, but Ducornet’s craft is so practiced that it feels like a larger novel. Brightfellow is divided into two sections. Part one is brief, running only about sixteen pages; part two takes up the rest of the novel. The first part recounts a few particular childhood memories of the main character, Stub. We meet him when he is six years old, in the midst of imaginative play, an adventure he has devised of crossing pitfalls and evading animals he envisions into the linoleum. He is a lonesome boy, but happy. His mother is a local radio personality and his father is a traveling seed salesman. Of this time the narrator writes: “If you could peel him like an orange you would find laughter all the way through.” Yet there is suffering, too. Stub’s mother shakes him when she is angry, and his father, whom he knows will never hit him, is distant. When both parents are home we are told that Stub’s “secret life” is silenced.
Around this time, Stub’s parents hire Jenny, a young woman who has spent some time in a “madhouse,” to be his afterschool nanny. She is strange and vibrant—she easily enters the imaginative worlds Stub creates for them to play in, and she tells the boy of some of her hallucinations. Their play will become so intense one day that Jenny ignores the phone when Stub’s mother calls to check up on them. This becomes the reason, perhaps, for sending Jenny away. But Stub is a child, with a childlike understanding of the world and a limited understanding of how adults operate. All he knows is that his playmate has been sent away, and later, his mother, who will want “more of the world, more of life,” will leave too. “And there they are, Stub and his dad, sitting in silence face to face, the favorite green and white dishes scolding and cold to the touch, the linoleum purged of magic…”
We catch up with Stub years later in Part Two. He is now living in the shadows on the campus of the university nearby. He isn’t a student, but just someone who haunts the university. When asked who he is, he claims to be someone else. In truth, he is there researching Verner Vanderloon, an author Jenny introduced him to years ago. He lives by hook and crook—stealing food, stealing money when he can, going through the garbage at the end of each semester to retrieve the nice things well-off students toss. It’s hard to fix a time in this novel, but it is pre-internet, set after a dimming war, television is in black and white, and the Marx Brothers are still of interest and easily present in conversation.
Two people come into Stub’s life—one by observation, the other by accident. The first is a little girl around eight years old named Asthma, one of the professors’ daughters, who is “my own fairy child,” as Stub writes in his journal. “I hope to know her as well as…I know every pop and snap the library makes in the dark after hours and the taste of canned minestrone when you have spooned it into your mouth for twenty consecutive days.” For Stub she is a marvel to behold—imaginative, innocent, energetic. In Asthma, Stub believes that if “he could play beside her, he would recover all that is lost, all that was taken from him—so long ago now—when Jenny was sent away and all the games they had played together were reduced to the worst feeling of absence.”
The other character Stub meets is Professor Emeritus William Sweetbriar, ‘Billy.’ As with most encounters with professionals on campus, Stub invents a spur-of-the-moment identity for himself. He tells Billy that his name is Charter and that he’s from South Wales, and he affects a slight Australian accent. He tells Billy that he is on a Fullbright, there to study Verner Vanderloon’s archived papers and writings. Billy, a sympathetic and kindly old professor (also gay) takes a shine to the young scholar, and insists that he come by for dinner, which leads to Stub (who is now known in the text as Charter) moving into Billy’s upstairs. Billy lives on the “Circle,” where many of the professors live. Astonishingly, by proximity and angle, the upstairs apartment provides Charter an unobstructed view of Asthma’s room.
What we see between this point and the final (but brief) cat-and-mouse game that culminates the novel, is a kind of doubling of shaded relationships—Asthma is to Stub as Charter is to Billy. These relationships don’t necessary take on an erotic coloring (or if they do, it’s faint and something not necessarily recognizable in a common sense), in fact the erotic is often denied. These relationships are built instead on imaginative play; characters are nourished by other character’s imagination, vision, creativity. Billy is enlivened by Charter’s fanciful tales of Verner Vanderloon’s more esoteric and obscure writings—all of which Charter invents. Charter/Stub is enchanted by the earthiness and wonder of Asthma: “[He] relished the proximity to her skin, her little ears, her impossible eyelashes, a vague smell of piss, of violets. He thinks she is oblivious to her beauty, which is like a flame. He thinks, That is what angers Blackie. This flame. (Blackie is Asthma’s hateful mother.) Despite the intimacy of these details, however, it doesn’t seem to be erotic love Stub feels, but the “child’s promise,” which is described as “immeasurable.”
Running like a dark wave through the novel are quoted passages from Verner Vanderloon’s works. Vanderloon was a reclusive professor at the same university, his coevals being well-known scholars such as Levi-Strauss and Geertz. Known to be eccentric and irascible, his sociological writings describe a “dark” and “cruel” world; campus legend has it that at his retirement supper, he’d asserted “our species is doom to perish cursing its own boundless absurdity.” Some of the works cited by Vanderloon are quite kooky—as this fictionalized academia takes a disrespectful view of his work—but in one quoted section we grasp something at the center of Brightfellow, which offers a philosophical backdrop to the novel:
Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the one who ‘knows how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic—sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming human, just as it is also about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away for the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon’
It is this passage that Charter dwells upon while gazing at Asthma from his window, knowing that he would “never get closer to life,” despite entered the “fabric of things” by creating the fiction of Charter. He laments that his new identity will not get him closer to “true life,” which he wants. Yet what he doesn’t know is that many of the other characters live a fiction. Mirroring Charter’s struggles are the sketched subplots of the other professors living on the “Circle”—each one isolated by desire, circumstances, misunderstanding, and envy. In Brightfellow, a portrait emerges of a lonesome boy surrounded by other lonesome people, their loneliness unbeknownst to one another—not one understanding, as Dr. Santa Fofana puts it toward the end, that the “world is a dream.”
As I mentioned above, Ducornet’s prose is consistently fun to read for it rhythmic qualities and primal exuberance. There is a kind of uplift to her writing, even if it’s dark; and there a potency and passion in its more quite corners too, where she sprinkles in a odd detail or gives a new name to the mundane. It’s somehow elemental and lights the mind. Here’s a lively passage, just as Charter is becoming a little more comfortable in his new skin:
How good it is to smoke a cigarette, one’s back against a solid wall, the breeze playing in the leaves, the Circle silenced, each window the promise of a shadow-puppet play. Pathos and terror, black comedy, tenderness and loss, fire and ice, pleasure and punishment—all this surging and ebbing in those ruthless, wondrous, persistent rooms. Such sweetness! Such menace! He looks on as lives grow stale, are renewed. As kittens grow into cats; as betrayal rustles the sheets, rolls under the crib, and comes to rest there; as Death catches a glimpse of a maiden and cannot turn away.
“Beautiful words are the mind’s animating flame,” Ducornet writes in her essay “The Deep Zoo.” A delicate and airy novel, Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to bare the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. Albeit a tragic short novel, its scope revals a hopeful glimpse into one of the things that make us human—our ability to imagine.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
 You’ll notice the character names in this novel are downright Dickensian: Stub, Pea Pod, Goldie’s Rod, Verner Vanderloon, Jiggs Wiznet, William Sweetbriar, and (my favorite) Dr. Santa Fofana.