Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 176 pages. $15.95.
There’s an old saw about universities being places where everything matters so much because the stakes are so low. The sense of low stakes might explain why campus novels, from Kingsley Amos’s Lucky Jim to David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, tend toward the comedic. But maybe, it occurred to me while reading Rikki Ducornet’s characteristically luminous, lyrically charged Brightfellow, the form is overdue for a makeover. Who says the stakes are low on college campuses these days, anyway? The cost of tuition is a focus of US presidential candidates; questions of tenure, diversity, and inclusion among faculty at state-funded institutions—previously the province of relatively obscure university committees—have lately been at issue in gubernatorial races; campus protests related to cultural sensitivity, sexual assault, and gender definition have garnered national and international media attention.
Brightfellow is not located in a particular political climate or even a particular American decade, but the book’s serious tone, and its focus on an abject character with no official role in the campus community, contributes an interesting sense of heft to the campus novel that feels in line with contemporary discussions about and on college campuses. Like Jude of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Mathilde of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Brightfellow hides his life. Ducornet’s protagonist goes by many names and equivocates when asked basic questions about his background. His indeterminacy stands in contrast to the people he encounters, largely professors and children of professors, who are so firmly entrenched in college life that they cannot imagine he would not belong among them. One might say he’s an adjunct in the extreme, wandering around unnoticed, connected to the institution by the vaguest of ties. While the awkward young postgrad who doesn’t yet know the ropes is a campus-novel standard-bearer, Ducornet’s Brightfellow is a true trespasser.
The novel introduces its protagonist in his early childhood as Stub, a boy whose unreliable, emotionally unstable parents leave him in the care of Jenny from “the madhouse.” When we next meet him, Stub and his parents have abandoned each other, and Stub is living on the campus in the most literal sense, tapping its resources to survive, showering in the gym, sleeping in various unmonitored corners, and filching food from the bountiful kitchens of Faculty Circle. Stub devotes daylight hours to studying his two obsessions: the work of Verner Vanderloon, a former anthropology professor at the college, and Asthma, the “fairy child,” young daughter of a history professor.
Accustomed to going months without uttering a word, Stub is taken aback when Billy, an emeritus professor, invites him first to dinner and then to live on Faculty Circle. Having told Billy that he is an Australian Fulbright scholar named Charter Chase, Stub becomes Charter. As Charter, he awkwardly but eagerly joins Billy’s lonely household, thrilled at comforts like sleeping in a bed. “Domestic life is his, unexpected and unprecedented,” Ducornet writes. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Charter’s new life is that he can see Asthma’s room from his window in Billy’s house. He makes Asthma’s acquaintance, and amid a bright stream of chatter, Asthma dubs him Brightfellow—another new identity that he gladly inhabits. But Charter’s life of belonging in Faculty Circle is precarious, because it is based on Billy’s continued belief in a series of increasingly elaborate lies. Watching Asthma play in her room through a pair of binoculars he has stolen, Charter “knows the world is sacred. Space and time have dissolved, the window glass has dissolved. Charter and Asthma breathe the same air. . . . He knows he will never get closer to life, that this moment is as close as he will get.” In writing this outsider, Ducornet reserves judgment and instead focuses skillfully on emotion and description. In this passage and throughout the novel, she holds the joys and sorrows of her protagonist’s almost obscenely strange life in the same hand as she presents his experience.
The unnamed campus in the Hudson Valley in which Brightfellow takes place is a wonderland, teeming with the quietly unknowable, as eccentric geniuses tend to their research. In her excellent 1999 essay collection The Monstrous and the Marvelous, Ducornet writes of her own childhood “in the Hudson Valley on the Bard College campus during the McCarthy era. Despite the times, it seemed safe, an enchanted place, almost tribal because of its isolated and intimate population.” If the setting of Ducornet’s childhood was safe, Brightfellow’s is full of danger and fear. Ducornet captures his world with lyricism attuned to the forms and symbols of children, which are often unreadable to adults. Stub, writes Ducornet, is aware that “his father will never purposely hurt him, knows this in his bones, and then there is this other thing: the family. The shape, whole and good, they make together. Whole and good but also bad, a world of shadows, danger at its heart.” Ducornet is frequently described as a writer of fairy tales, and this passage offers up some of that fairy tale feeling: for example, the way that the ominous word “shadow” is cast across Stub’s “good, whole family.” But I, like Ducornet, grew up on a college campus—which is how I know that Ducornet’s stories and novels are fairy tales only as much as the world is a fairy tale: sharp with borders, beautiful, mysterious, botanical, rustling with the sound of thought. Toward the end of Brightfellow, Ducornet describes the campus as a place that Brightfellow “knows so well, yet not at all.” This formulation seems to speak directly to anyone who grew up on a campus or has lived on one for decades. At least it speaks to me: for every marble bench I could recognize by touch alone, there are a hundred locked office doors I will never enter, and I’ll never know what goes on behind them.
One of the abiding themes of Ducornet’s most recent essay collection The Deep Zoo, published in 2015, is that to write is to reveal. In Brightfellow, Ducornet, through Stub/Charter/Brightfellow, reveals strangeness in the most basic circumstances of life, flooding them in new light. Once Charter moves into Faculty Circle, for example, he is captivated by people surrounded by their stuff. “The houses are illuminated, houses filled with numberless things. What would it be like, Charter wonders, to grow up in a house filled with things so ordinary as to be invisible until the moment one reaches for them out of habit?” Revisiting this passage enlivens the “numberless things” that surround me as I type this. “What would it be like” to notice one’s quotidian surroundings as deeply as Charter does? Ducornet invites her reader to ask.
Although Brightfellow doesn’t explicitly engage with recent campus-related issues, Ducornet is a campus novelist for our time. Through her commitment to creative strangeness, in Brightfellow and across her wide-ranging work, Ducornet evokes writers like Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, and Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom openness to imaginative possibility was something close to a duty. The artistic morality by which they lived and wrote flies in the face of conventional ideas of what morality—or moral writing—looks like. In The Deep Zoo, Ducornet at times turns her wide-angle lens to American policy and politics, ruing, for example, the deadly effects of climate change on “our fragile world.” Ultimately, she suggests that there is hope in “subversive storytelling in which the world is reinvented, reinvigorated, and restored to us in all its sprawling splendor.” Revealing our college campuses, as she does in Brightfellow, seems like a great place to start.