The Monstrous and the Marvelous (1999)–Rikki Ducornet
By Gabriel Ricard
One thing is for sure: If you think The Monstrous and the Marvelous is a dizzying, outlandish and brilliant collection of essays, you’re also going to think it’s a hell of a tease. To date this is the only collection of essays Rikki Ducornet has ever collected and published. Her bibliography contains scores of novels, poetry and short fiction collections, children’s books, anthologies that feature her as an editor and even illustrations. Only one for essays, and that’s certainly a shame. I honestly can’t speak for the rest of her writing. If it’s anything like The Monstrous and the Marvelous then I’m missing out on a humorous, unique voice that can take us in a countless array of directions without ever actually moving at all.
The title, taken from one of the essays, is an easily understood link to the material. The fourteen pieces were all published elsewhere. You can pick this book apart slowly. That might even the best way to go about it. Some of them (like “On Returning from Chiapas”) certainly qualify as challenging journeys into politics, art, literature, humanity, culture, film and much more. Going through the book as promptly as possible might leave you completely devoid of your wits and questioning everything, but that can be an immensely satisfying gain with the right mindset.
The surface of essays like “Books of Nature” and “The Death Cunt of Deep Dell” (which includes some intriguing thoughts on the film Salo and on filmmaker David Lynch) is easy to scratch. That first layer is not difficult to peel away. It’s when you delve deeper that the worlds of these pieces open up to reveal miles and miles of perspective and knowledge. Perhaps even fervor for the seemingly endless series of topics, asides and opinions covered here. Ducornet casts an imposing, confident intellectual shadow over each essay (like “Alphabets and Emperors”). They start simply enough, and quickly spiral into a voice that hopes to shatter some of our conceptions about things. In place of that they hope to leave new questions and a renewed desire for study and creative thinking.
Imposing and confident, yes, but it never takes on an arrogant, pompous tone. Ducornet writes with warmth and even doses of humor. There is openness to Ducornet’s words that belie the depth of her various subject matters. These are not writings for closed minds, but that doesn’t immediately point to conceit. The Monstrous and the Marvelous speaks to those willing to be pushed. You probably know whether or not you’re that type of reader going in, but you won’t have a shred of doubt after the first piece, “Waking to Eden.” This book speaks to its ideal listener almost at once. Sitting down to one essay may turn without intention into riding through five or six in a row.
The back of the book sheds some light on the title. It describes the Renaissance voyages to the New World, giving way to the rise of cabinets known as Wunderkammern. These were also known as “cabinets of wonder.” The best of them displayed a range of fantastic discoveries could be displayed, and these discoveries could indeed run the gamut from monstrous to marvelous (and perhaps both). That’s a perfect synopsis for The Monstrous and the Marvelous. Rikki Ducornet takes that ambitious title and its historical implications to great lengths. She probably could have run even further with it than the book’s 117 pages of material.