What is it about orphans and literature? Why do so many narratives so dearly love a parentless child, from Moses to the novels of Dickens on down to Batman? On an instinctual level, it seems obvious: parents are shorthand for comfort, and security, and rules, which are three elements that are not conducive to great storytelling. And nothing hypnotizes some readers like the myth of the self-made man, the protagonist who truly doesn’t need anyone else. If a child on their own with no parental support can impose order onto a chaotic universe, then maybe anyone can do it.
Port Townsend author Rikki Ducornet’s latest novel, Brightfellow, is about a young man named Stub. After a miserable childhood, Stub decides to live on his own in the woods surrounding the campus of a nearby university. There, he makes the world into some kind of a rough paradise:
His first summer alone he bathes in the river, catches shad, builds fires. He sleeps in duck blinds, under a canoe, in an abandoned truck, graduates to the gym and showers there, uncovers an inexhaustible supply of soap…In this way the years pass. He is a recluse, a scholar. He is a dissembler. When in a tight spot, he invents identities. He is strange.
Undeniably so. Stub is an autodidact, a halfway feral young man who surreptitiously steals food from students and faculty and scrounges for supplies in the decadent excess of the dorms. He is awkward with other people, but in the journals he keeps, he is erudite and enthusiastic.
Brightfellow is one of those novels that never lets you forget you’re reading a novel. Ducornet’s language is highly literary and obviously artificial; Stub’s voice bears no real resemblance to ordinary speech patterns. He is just words on a page, and he seems to know it.
I am, as are all men: mindful, artful, perceptive, creative—and an animal. Determined to survive, to sleep in safety and not go hungry. I imagine that my chosen life says something about other men, about man’s nature. And that in spite of all these digressions I am leaning toward greater things. Capable of greatness. What if my life is not only the mirror of my own thwarted destiny, or the mirror of mankind’s thwarted destiny, but the mirror of my species capacity to overcome the worst odds?
A character musing on his own innate relatability — this is what it looks like when Brightfellow veers dangerously close to incorporating its own literary criticism. It’s as though Pip from Great Expectations had directly addressed the reader in a long and embittered monologue about the narrowness of class structures in England.
Eventually, Stub finds a benefactor in an easily confused professor named Billy, and he creates for himself the identity of Charter Chase, a Fullbright scholar visiting from abroad. And as he insinuates himself fully into campus life, he becomes enthralled with a young girl named Asthma, “my little bell, my little snail, my little seaside pail; Asthma the salt, the surf of my soul.” Asthma is eight and Stub, the parentless soul, fixates on her as though her seemingly perfect young life can somehow revise his own hardscrabble upbringing; “He thinks that if he could be at play beside her, he would recover all that is lost, all that was taken from him.”
And if that last paragraph left you scratching your head: yes, a character named Stub who renames himself Charter becomes obsessed a girl named Asthma. The book is full of ferocious little linguistic jabs like that; you’ll see a word roaming far from its typical linguistic grazing fields, and you’ll stare at it for a while, trying to make sense of it all. Ducornet is a mad maestro of words. She doesn’t practice wordplay, exactly — these aren’t puns or clever little riffs with their own internal logic. Instead, she’ll jam a word into a sentence until it almost makes sense, and then the rhythm and the cadence of what she built will begin to hum.
Here, read this: “I don’t give a scatophiliac’s fig: he can percolate on an orange crate in front of the universe in his birthday suit, so what?” Sit that sentence down with a dictionary and try to puzzle it out and you’ll be up all night. But read it in the context of the story and it bobs along cheerfully from the period of the previous sentence all the way to the lapping shores of the next. Sometimes words don’t carry meaning so much as rub up against it. Sometimes a word can become separated from its definition and wander off into the wilderness, all alone; an orphan.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant