The almost eerie tale of a dicey, bisexual psychoanalyst gone mad might be the best way to describe Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, Netsuke. This therapist sleeps not only with his patients, but with just about anything that walks—that is, when he’s not busy tormenting his beautiful wife, Akiko, or preening in front of a mirror. Netsuke is the story of a mundane little narcissistic monster told, largely, from that monster’s point of view, and it is no small achievement that Ducornet manages to hold the reader’s attention through this sexual predator’s meticulously tedious and pornographic recordings of his conquests.
The book’s debt to the Marquis de Sade detracts slightly from its rich images and diction, particularly for those of us who aren’t fans of the old libertine. “These days he sleeps little, but when he does it is like sinking in cold mud,” Ducornet writes. This is around the time that he advances from simply calling his patients “clients” to the next inference: that since they pay him for supposedly therapeutic sex, he is a whore.
But it’s how he got this way that’s intriguing, and since he’s a psychoanalyst, he tells us. “I was bred to anger, born and bred to rage. I eat away at the ripe flesh of things like a wasp eats away at the body of a fig, leaving it to rot.” That rage, predictably, stems from a blighted childhood. “He describes the child he had been like a small circus animal unable to fulfill bewildering balancing acts for equally bewildering masters.” This could apply to his patients too, who, after all, come to him with trust, hope, and dreadful vulnerabilities, which he betrays. After a while the references to the psychoanalyst’s wretched early years begin to seem like elaborate excuses for the damage he inflicts.
That damage begins with his lie to each patient that he or she is the only one he has ever loved, a deceit that becomes psychological dynamite—for them and him—when exposed. And this is what powers Netsuke. It is not merely the anatomy of a petty monster, it is also the portrait of an insanity: from devastated childhood, to narcissistic rage, to emptiness, acting out, violent self-loathing, and finally, the complete crumbling of a personality propped up by lies. Indeed Ducornet has, rather sketchily, psychoanalyzed the psychoanalyst. The deterioration is not depicted linearly, but in smatterings, with only the most occasional shift of point of view—to that of Akiko or a patient—that reveals the extensive devastation he causes to people perhaps less enlightened but far more in touch with their humanity than he. Yet this anti-hero suffers, too. “Already the flies of death are buzzing inside his skull,” Ducornet writes. Given the novel’s denouement, the reader can only conclude that his suffering is not undeserved.