A lonely young man poses as a scholar to gain a sense of community.
After his mother abandons the family and his father “falls apart,” adolescent Stub decides to use a nearby college campus as his home, sleeping in labs, purloining clothes from gym lockers, and stealing food from faculty housing. A perpetual outsider, he watches the dysfunctional lives of the professors in “the Circle,” a ring of faculty houses where the dramas of “the soused faculty wives and their brats” play out. One day, Stub is discovered in the college library by professor emeritus Billy poring over the works of an obscure anthropologist; Stub pretends to be a Fulbright scholar working on a dissertation, and Billy offers him a room at his faculty home in the Circle. Stub’s new study overlooks the bedroom of 8-year-old Asthma, an imaginative little girl with whom Stub becomes obsessed. However, Stub’s life as an academic imposter threatens to undo his relationships with both Billy and Asthma, the first people he has cared about since his fraught childhood. In her slim novel, Ducornet (The Deep Zoo, 2014, etc.), who is also a well-known poet, crafts a portrait of a surreal community that defies easy categorization. Like poetry, the novel’s central aims are to revel in language and investigate the inner lives of characters who see a world that is more numinous (to borrow a word of Stub’s) than the people around them can recognize. This makes Ducornet’s choice to focus on anthropologists and young children satisfyingly apt. But readers may find themselves yearning for something more substantial from the narrative than just meditation and lyricism—the novel’s hasty and confusing climax exemplifies the ways Ducornet only sporadically considers plot.
An endless delight at the sentence level but lacking in big-picture propulsion.