Muted characterization and action and a voluptuous superabundance of arcane hocus-pocus: such are the keynotes of this febrile eighth novel from the writer-painter whose earlier, much similar fiction includes The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994) and Phosphor in Dreamland (1995).
The story’s narrated in retrospect by Elizabeth, a trained anatomist who specializes in examining mummified bodies, 20 years after she had lived in Cairo with her “Professor” father (bankrolled by a Fulbright grant) and epically promiscuous Icelandic mother. “Mother,” a sexual force of nature devoid of moral scruples, ran through multiple lovers, seeking her ideal Egyptian man: “the gazelle type.” The Professor, an expert in the mechanics of poisoning (whose book The Ethics of War had attracted CIA interest), and a hitherto strictly “rational” man, drowned his grief in chess games reimagined as historic battles with master parfumier Ramses Ragab. As always, Ducornet conjures up fragrant excerpts from texts both real (The Arabian Nights) and imaginary (the “licentious” Garden of Semblance and Lies, the writings of alchemist Athanasius Kirchner, who studied Egyptian hieroglyphics in hopes of creating an encyclopedic summa of human experience). Rather late in the game, things do begin to happen, as the Professor summons a magician to bring back his vagrant wife (she does return, after mumbling incantations replete with dark cosmic clichés—but she stays only for breakfast). Meanwhile, Elizabeth's awakened sexuality leads her to intimacy with secrets possessed and conjured by Ramses Ragab, independence from both her mother's destructive sexuality and her father's abdication from reality, and—on shipboard, as she and the Professor, having abandoned all hope, return to America—the “gazelle man” who makes her a woman (“my heart thrashed like an eel under the net of his eyes”). Ducornet's aphoristic élan makes all this nonsense agreeably smooth, if insubstantial and arbitrary.
To quote the Professor: “Time is a clutter . . . and it needs to be sorted out.” So is, so does Gazelle.