By Rikki Ducornet
Publication Date: 6/27/23
Wildly comic, erotic, and perverse, Rikki Ducornet’s dazzling novel, Phosphor in Dreamland, explores the relationship between power and madness, nature and its exploitation, pornography and art, innocence and depravity. Set on the imaginary Caribbean island of Birdland, the novel takes the form of a series of letters from a current resident to an old friend describing the island’s seventeenth-century history that brings together the violent Inquisition, the thoughtless extinction of the island’s exotic fauna, and the amorous story of the deformed artist-philosopher-inventor Phosphor and his impassioned, obsessional love for the beautiful Extravaganza. The Jade Cabinet, Ducornet’s novel that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was described by one reviewer as “Jane Austen meets Angela Carter via Lewis Carroll.” Phosphor in Dreamland can be described as Jonathan Swift meets Angela Carter via Jorge Luis Borges. This is Ducornet at her magical best.
“Rikki Ducornet’s new novel is a delicious, spellbinding masterpiece. The exercise of her extravagant imaginative powers is rigorous, the richness of her writing concentrated to trenchant effect, and her enchanting narrative conducted with great intensity and seriousness. Phosphor’s bewildering, bewildered career deserves a constellation in the firmament of literary heroes.”—Harry Mathews
“Rikki Ducornet can create an unsettling, dreamlike beauty out of any subject. In the heady mix of her fiction, everything becomes potently suggestive, resonant, fascinating. She exposes life’s harshest truths with a mesmeric delicacy and holds her readers spellbound.” —Joanna Scott
“Rikki Ducornet is imagination's emissary to this mundane world.” —Stephen Sparks, Point Reyes Books
“Ducornet is a novelist of ambition and scope.” —The New York Times
“Linguistically explosive. . . . One of the most interesting American writers around.” —The Nation
Rikki Ducornet is a transdisciplinary artist. Her work is animated by an interest in nature, Eros, tyranny and the transcendent capacities of the creative imagination. She is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and artist, and her fiction has been translated into fifteen languages. Her art has been exhibited internationally, most recently with Amnesty International’s traveling exhibit I Welcome, focused on the refugee crisis. She has received numerous fellowships and awards including an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard College Arts and Letters Award, the Prix Guerlain, a Critics’ Choice Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Her novel The Jade Cabinet was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Several hundred years ago, the mendicant scholar Fogginius was roused from the depths of nightmare by a hellish bawling.
Fogginius leapt up from his bed—in truth a worn, woolen cape sewn into a sack and stuffed with shredded shirts—and threw aside his door, or rather, the crusted board which kept the wild hogs from relieving themselves in his rooms. There, upon the overturned kettle he used as a threshold, lay an abandoned human infant, soiled, clubfooted, and with crossed eyes.
Fogginius washed it, stared fiercely into its transverse gaze, and in the manner of the times swaddled it so tightly that it could not thrash but only howl—as helpless as a sausage damned with a thwarted consciousness. This done, he christened it Nuno Alfa y Omega. But because of the infant’s apparent luminosity, he called it Phosphor.
Fogginius was disliked. A deaf man, whom the scholar had cured of a coughing fit by stuffing his ears with breadcrumbs and pars- ley, daily damned him; another, whose beehives Fogginius had smeared with dung, hated and feared him. Nevertheless, up until the arrival of Professor Tardanza from Cordova, and Phosphor’s maturity, he was the only scholar in Birdland, and his the island’s only library—a wormy collection of books stuffing a trunk not large enough to bathe in. The books had been packed along with that woolen cape and those nightshirts which, a full three decades later, served the saint as mattress.
In his youth, Fogginius had been enthralled by Birdland’s unique bestiary. The island claimed a feathered serpent, a voiceless dog, a silent cat, and large albino spiders sporting pink bristles. After many years of trial and error, he had taught himself the ambiguous art of taxidermy and so was able to save the skins of almost anything he chose, although he was not an artist and was incapable of reconstructing any creature convincingly. For example, Fogginius’ snakes did not diminish towards the tail, but instead—as a specimen on display in the municipal museum demonstrates—grew progressively fatter.
So zealous was the scholar and so thorough that all the living creatures within three kilometers of his hovel had utterly vanished by the time my story begins. Only their skins remained—thousands upon thousands of them—decomposing in sisal sacks and crowding the shadows of the room Fogginius used as library, laboratory, kitchen, and bed chamber, and which the rats used as a larder. He saw to his personal needs after dark beside the path that led to a little chapel—no more in his keeping (for word of other excesses had reached his queen). Because Fogginius cured his skins with grease, the salted livers of voles, the ashes of wild hog testicles, and vinegar, his place and person smelled unlike any other. And once, perhaps in jest, perhaps the result of rare and hermetic readings, Fogginius had suggested that the Savior was a false prophet, a magician engendered by the planet Mars. He was fortunate to have escaped with his life. A new priest—Fogginius despised him—was sent to oversee the cosmic affairs of Birdland.
The city in which Fogginius lived had been named Pope Publius by a bishop in absentia. As may still be seen in the Old Quarter, its houses were of local pudding stone and coral, and, at the time of this history, well over a century old. Each had been fitted with heavy doors, high balconies, and iron-barred windows—for in its early years the island had been plagued by pirates. The shops— generously fitted with closets, storage bins, and shelvings—were for the most part empty of everything but lizards. If Pope Publius had been prosperous for several decades, it was no longer—although one rich man remained in the city’s finest house, its spiral stairs listing and its mahogany columns riddled by carpenter ants. The walls were imported marble, and the windows of Venetian glass.
This palace belonged to Senor Fango Fantasma, that same Fantasma whose grandfather had been among the first to take possession of the island. Now that his inherited wealth was running out, Senor Fantasma was waiting for a shipload of Africans—for whom he had negotiated with the papal authorities for nearly a decade—to work in mines that he feared the atomized aborigines had already scraped to the bone. And there were plantations, too: of pineapple and cinnamon and cassia. Once as ordered as formal gardens, these, for lack of upkeep, had been, in great part, reclaimed by the encroaching jungle.
Very little is known about the original population of Birdland—only that it venerated the cigar and dwelt in great baskets. As the climate of the island is extremely mild, the natives had no need of smokeholes. They cooked their meals outside in a common courtyard fenced in by the shells of outsized clams. The small hole at the top of their huts was the eye by which they could be perceived by curiously indelicate gods.
The aborigines were sculptors and truffled the mountains with sensuous bestiaries of coral, obsidian, and jade. They also hung quantities of seashells from the rafters of their basket-houses. Once during a violent storm, these shells created a noise that so enraged Fantasma’s ancestor he set the entire village on fire, thus making room for Pope Publius. The city’s first edifice—a chapel—was built on ground still warm and strewn with the fatty ashes of burnt bone.
By the time Fogginius arrived, a decade or so later, everything the indigenous population had claimed as “objects of memory” (or “objects of potency”—the translation is uncertain)—an ancient clump of parrot trees, a crocodile boneyard, a swarm of aerial orchids resembling yellow bees, a mango grove, and a fairy ring of cultivated gardens—was gone.
Strangely, the ensuing generations of Fantasmas were ruled by an obsessive terror that something should escape them—as if that initial conflagration enfevered the brains of those to follow. This and more: both succeeding generations had a terror of shells and bones and the sound of hollow things knocking together, or dangling, or ringing upon the air. For this reason, the chapel of Pope Publius was the only one in Christendom never fitted out with a bell. (Because Old Fantasma had paid for the chapel’s construction, the Designated Powers were willing to overlook this aberration.)
It has been said that Birdland was haunted by the spirits or ghosts of those the Old Fantasma had wronged; that these spirits had escaped through the cyclopean eyes of the basket-dwellings; that these itinerant spirits or ghosts materialized at the foot of a bed, in a chimney or in a high tree, in the privy; rode upon the wind as pollen and seeds, were precipitated during the chiming of a clock, or slept within a bottle of ink, or an imperfectly sealed letter—in other words, manifest so often that if they were not fixed residents, it was common enough to see them or to meet someone who had. So that when they did appear they created no surprise. Only Senor Fantasma went wild when haunted.
And it was said that during the construction of Pope Publius these spirits or ghosts exposed themselves so fearlessly that Senor Fantasma’s grandmother was constantly enraged by their incessant interruptions, and driveled on and on to anyone who would listen that, although she would not allow cigars into the house, a uniquely obnoxious phantom insisted on smoking a monstrous black one in her very own boudoir. She described him: naked and fiercely hot, his shadowy particulars tattooing the walls as he galloped back and forth upon the bed’s counterpane in the moonlight, blowing smoke rings around her nose and causing her lovebirds to throw themselves to their cage’s floor in paroxysms of emphysemic terror. To keep the infection from penetrating the hollow recesses of her head, the old biddy went about her business in a veil. For a time it was feared that she had been impregnated by the smoke from the naked ghost’s cigar, but chamomile and patience proved the old lady suffered gas.
What is curious is that these were the only spirits to haunt the island. No one ever saw Senor Fantasma’s ancestors sitting in trees or smoking. Fogginius—who eagerly took down testimony from whomever would give it—and more testimony from school- boys than one would think possible—explained the phenomena thus: heathens cannot enter heaven and must remain behind to haunt their former homes, whereas the Old Fantasmas were all Catholics and had been seized by heaven whole. Fogginius feared that if the Africans—for whom the entire island waited with hope and misgiving—were not baptized, their spirits, too, would infiltrate the island—making it inhospitable.