Coffee House Press (May 3 2011)
Power is a potent aphrodisiac, especially fraught with the potential for inappropriate – and potentially devastating – intimacy when between psychoanalyst and patient. The psychoanalyst in Rikki Ducornet's Netsuke is never named, but the crux of the novel involves a man obsessed with having sexual relations with his clients. His name seems moot; the fact he's a doctor so deeply mired in his own psychological distress is the crucial element, not his name.
Akiko, a collage artist who sells her work at exhorbitant prices, is the doctor's wife. Independent from him financially, because she makes exhorbitant amounts of money from her career as a collage artist, she is very emotionally invested in their marriage. Sensing, perhaps not consciously, he's at the least closer to his patients that is appropriate, Akiko appears the oblivious spouse. However, her intellect and attention to detail hint otherwise.
Married for ten years, the doctor has not so much fallen out of love with his wife as begun to see her more through admiration of her purity than as a sexual object. At the same time he loves her for her dedication, he hates her for it nearly as much. She's so ethically good, still lovely, and treats him with trust verging on saintly, yet he finds himself dropping clues to her about his unfaithfulness. His mental issues involve lack of impulse control as well as narcissism as he drags his wife through an ever-increasing chain of events leading downward.
The doctor manages to keep his home life largely separate from his increasingly kinky and depraved affairs, aside from the occasional hints to Akiko, until he meets a woman he calls the Cutter. She's addicted to him, for once the sort of person he can't easily use and toss aside, unlike the other, simply lonely clients desperate for any show of affection. From this point on he begins losing control.
The title of the book refers to miniature Japanese sculptures called "netsuke." These the doctor collects, largely at his wife's urging. Relating to the themes in the book, the doctor collects sexual partners even more avidly than netsuke. It may also be relevant the netsuke are more important to Akiko than to him. In any event, as only a backdrop to the story, it's curious the author chose this as the title, tying in the idea of collecting beautiful, unusual things as well as the art produced by Akiko.
The book is told in the first person, narrated by the doctor, allowing us to see how he justifies to himself what he does, and what motivates him. Though we see Akiko's actions, only when she expresses emotion out loud do we get a glimpse into her psyche. Even then, the doctor is far from a reliable narrator. He is similar to Humbert Humbert from Nabokov's Lolita, though at no time does he maintain his own innocence. Quite the reverse, his guilt gnaws at him.
The style is more spare than lyrical, though at times it is very expressive of emotion. It's well-suited to a character who's highly educated, describing his own depravity, his own descent.
Netsuke is a little masterpiece, a gem of a psychological novel. Because the doctor's mental condition is unstable, his actions are unpredictable, lending an uncertainty to the plot which keeps the story taut and exciting. And the ending is unpredictable, though in context makes perfect sense.
Very highly recommended.
Author bio (from back cover):
The author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems, Rikki Ducornet has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, honored twice by the Lannan Foundation, and the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits internationally She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.