~by Rikki Ducornet
When Rikki Ducornet's Netsuke was offered through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, the title immediately caught my eye. I had recently seen a collection of netsuke--miniature sculptures used as toggles to secure personal belongings in traditional Japanese dress--at the Toledo Museum of Art. Now, Ducornet's Netsuke isn't actually about netsuke, although they are used symbolically. Instead it is about the sexual proclivities of a troubled psychoanalyst, but I found this premise to be fascinating as well. I haven't read any of Ducornet's previous works but in addition to Netsuke, released by Coffee House Press in May 2011, she has written seven novels, three short story collections, five poetry collections, and a book of essays, many of which have been translated into multiple languages. In addition to being a writer and a poet, Ducornet is also an illustrator and a painter.
Netsuke closely examines the internal turmoil of an unnamed psychoanalyst. Akiko is his third wife and their marriage is close to failing as well. If she suspects him of being unfaithful, she mostly keeps her suspicious to herself. In the meantime, he feels compelled to drop hints and leave clues about his many and frequent affairs although he claims not to want to hurt her. He sleeps with complete strangers and people he picks up at local establishments. Most damning of all, he abuses his power as a psychoanalyst and seduces his own patients, trying to convince himself that it is for their own good as well as for his own. But it is only a matter of time before his life completely unravels as he struggles to keep control of the volatile situation he has created.
The protagonist is really not a likeable guy or a sympathetic character. He is completely aware of what he is doing but does not fully understand the extent his actions affect other people although he obviously knows that they do. His betrayals of his wife, of his patients, and of his sexual conquests are harsh, brutal, and ultimately explosive. I can't help but wonder about his previous two marriages; surely there must have been some indication or warning for Akiko that he would be dangerous person to become involved with. It is apparent from the very beginning of Netsuke that things cannot possibly end well for the psychoanalyst or any of those connected to him. And although it is often painful to watch his demise, unlikeable though he is, it is also oddly compelling and difficult to look away. The ending is not entirely unexpected but it still makes a stunning impact.
Netsuke is a very brief but very intense novel. From most of the review I've seen, it is a book that readers either absolutely love or absolutely hate. I can certainly understand why some people have problems with the novel. The subject matter, for one, is rather dark, difficult, disconcerting, and distressing. The language that Ducornet employs is strong and could easily be offensive. Just about every iteration of "fuck" is used as well as many other choice words and phrases. I didn't have an issue with the language and found it to be appropriate to the story, but others would probably appreciate the warning. Ducornet's narrative style in Netsuke, while lyrical and often evocative, is also fragmented. Of course, this is a reflection of the protagonist's state of mind and Ducornet captures it extremely well. This does mean that the reader never gets the full story and is almost exclusively limited to the extraordinarily biased viewpoint of one character, but the technique is very effective.