“You cannot write for children — there’s no way,” Maurice Sendak told an interviewer in 1987. “They’re much too complicated.”
Capturing the warp and woof of childhood, even in a vessel as elastic as literature, is no easy task. The best children’s books slip beneath the surreal surface of youth itself, swimming with the current, graceful and ungainly, at ease in both the fizz and the fear. They grant shape to life’s surpassing strangeness — the knotty stuff of death and loss and loneliness — without sacrificing one whit of imagination. Good children’s literature has no need of its qualifier; it’s good literature, period.
Rikki Ducornet’s ninth novel, “Brightfellow,” is of a piece with this tradition, albeit obliquely. If it is emphatically a novel for adults — a deceptively radiant howl of pain — the froth and sparkle of its prose bear the stamp of wonder one recalls from Roald Dahl, from Lewis Carroll, from Shel Silverstein.
Our hero is Stub, whom we first meet as a child, the only product of a disintegrating marriage. He is dreamy, even otherworldly, something of a suburban sprite. But beneath the richness of his interior world — “The linoleum swells with stories,” we are told — there are intimations of absence and abuse: “Sometimes his mother will shake him so violently his teeth rattle like marbles.”
A brief reprieve is granted by way of a live-in nanny named Jenny, only recently released from an institution, “on the mend but she is still crazy, sort of.” When she is deemed too costly to retain, Stub finds himself alone again.
After his mother abandons the family, a now-teenage Stub leaves home for good to moonlight as a student at the local college campus. A kind of feral Bildungsroman unfolds in an insular, even claustrophobic neighborhood comprised of melancholic professors, drunk spouses and a brood of faculty children called “the Circle.” Stub sleeps in labs and storage rooms, stealing necessities from the neighborhood — pillows, galoshes, cans of beans, fresh pies — and spending his days at the library researching a Herzogian philosopher named Verner Vanderloon (“Our species is doomed to perish cursing its own boundless absurdity,” he is said to have asserted during his retirement dinner.)
When a professor of French literature, Billy Sweetbriar, takes him under his wing, Stub adopts a new identity: Charter Chase, a Fulbright scholar from New South Wales studying the enigmatic Vanderloon. After moving in with Billy, Stub is free to pursue his newfound obsession, Asthma, the 8-year old daughter of a history professor. “[S]he is all things to me,” he writes in his journal, “star, astral light, perfume of bramble, moonlight, and secrecy: life itself.” His misplaced affection for this strange, buoyant and distinctly Stub-like child prefigures the novel’s tragic turn.
Stub and Asthma’s world positively crackles with imaginative élan, even as the dark and unknowable shapes of adulthood fly above them.
“Play is about becoming human,” the philosopher Vanderloon writes, “just as it is also about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion.” It is within this tension of becoming that Ducornet thrives. Stub and Asthma’s world positively crackles with imaginative élan, even as the dark and unknowable shapes of adulthood fly above them. The narrative buzzes with stories-within-stories: beetles that steal amber buttons, planets made of aspic, freshly minted horoscopes. It seems, for a moment, that the imaginative potential of play might be enough to restore what has been taken from these damaged lives.
But beneath her fantastical language, Ducornet has written something of an indirect elegy here. The adults, to a character, live entombed within the inverted forms of imagination: rage, nostalgia, despair. They long for the self they embodied as children, “when [they] could reinvent the world undisturbed.” This capacity for reinvention —what comes so easily to Stub and Asthma —has seemingly vanished with age. For all of its fanciful depiction, the novel seems less interested in showing the redemptive power of imagination than in mapping the path of its disintegration.
“Brightfellow” is not without its warts. Ducornet’s language can veer a little too sharply into the precious, even given the subject matter precarious whimsy of Stub and Anna’s relationship, and the novel’s climax feels both abrupt and curiously weightless.
Still, her ability to navigate that twilight land between youthful fantasy and world-weary adulthood is, alone, worth the cost of admission. “Brightfellow” is the second book of a planned trilogy exploring the betrayal of innocence, the first being 2011’s “Netsuke.” With this thematic concern, Ducornet, a two-time winner of the Lannan Award for Fiction, has found the perfect scaffolding for her rich, darkly tinged lyricism.
“Why,” Stub wonders, “have the games of children undone me?” At the novel’s end, a terrible vision has severed him from the source of his strength. The world of wonder recedes; the veil can no longer be pierced. In tracing the shape of what is left behind, Ducornet lends dignity to the universal plight of vanished illusions. We cannot help but empathize with Stub’s perpetual dream, “when everything dissolves and something epic takes over, something coherent, a thing that again and again surpasses itself.”
Illingworth is the managing editor of the Scofield, a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.
Coffee House Press: 176 pp., $15.95 paper