They have given him a spacious studio. He has six months to complete his project. He persists in working on canvas. This is considered anomalous, and so he is grateful.
The studio overlooks the previous artist’s project: a series of fifty concrete ears exactly thirty feet high. Plagued by a delicate constitution, his painting is disrupted by an irrational idea that the ears are party to his mind.
He abandons the brushes and builds himself a tall ladder. He uses this to peer down into the first ear. Shouting, he precipitates a deafening echo. He suffers an imperious need to shout into each ear, and does so over the next ten days. Overwhelmed by tinnitus, he is soon incapacitated. He begins to bark. His estranged wife is flown in from Tuscaloosa to coax him down from his ladder. She deposits him in a safer place.
The bizarre landscape reminiscent of something out of Breton or Ernst, above in Ducornet’s short story, Painter, is a good representation of the surrealist images that litter her short story collection The One Marvelous Thing. Imagery plays a large part in the collection, as it does throughout Ducornet’s body of work (in addition to writing, she is also an artist). Objects that exist in the world of her writing; artistic, precious, or mundane, inherently embody their own form of beauty and as a result hold a special kind of power. In the title story, two women fight over a gilded cage that becomes a symbol for another’s erotic awakening. In Panna Cotta, it is the creation of a panna cotta in the shape of a cruel, unfaithful lover that serves as a catalyst for the chef’s freedom from the anxiety she has caused him. These objects and the creation involved in them offer the characters in the stories the chance for an act of transformation, an emerging from the cocoon, so to speak.
While the stories in The One Marvelous Thing run the gamut from relatively normal literary fiction to stories more in the genre vein such as fairy tale and science fiction, a number of themes do seem to resonate throughout. Ducornet is a very sensual writer; many of the stories focus on the relationships between lovers, the role of eroticism, and the balance of power. Often this is shown in a negative light, as in the aforementioned Panna Cotta, and Green Air, a story in which a bride is locked in a drawer with all the other past lovers of her cruel, sex obsessed, monstrous husband. In many ways, some of the stories recall Angela Carter (the two were friends, having met after Ducornet was advised to write to her by Robert Coover), especially in the opening tale, The Wild Child, in which she uses a domesticated feral girl to illustrate how the society ladies wish that they were the ones running free like beasts in the forest.
The vivid descriptions of Ducornet are complimented by wonderful accompanying inked illustrations by T. Motley. They are dark and complex, usually very busy, lots of lines, often veering towards the grotesque, and suit the mood of the stories very well. There are also a number of short comics at the end of the collection, entitled The Butcher’s Comics, written by Ducornet and illustrated by Motley, the surreal Brilling, about an odd race called the jumblies in a sort of post apocalyptic wasteland being my particular favourite.
The stories in The One Marvellous Thing are all rather short, the longest being ten pages or so, and as a result they tend to serve as impressions; one person, one event, one item, image or idea, and in that way they reminded me, as a sort of snapshot of a moment, a little of photographs or paintings. These are the things of which our lives are made and as the abrasive Pat says in the title story to her friend Ellen, “If we’re not one our toes, El, we’ll miss out of the one marvelous thing”.