Reviewed by David Lewis
by Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press
July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-56689-681-8, 88 pages, $14.95
Rikki Ducornet’s The Plotinus folds seemingly contradictory plots together into an elegant, absurdist, sci-fi huis clos. Set in a tyrannical future, machines called Plotinus take control, capture humans and imprison them in closets with an old sack for clothing and the minimum they need to survive. No, that isn’t a spoiler. It happens to the narrator on the first page. The rest of the novella sits with him in his dark closet, the only light coming in through a small air vent.
This claustrophobic setting houses a surprisingly lively story about tyranny, nature and love that also conducts an absurdist examination of the constructs we use to tell our stories. In effortlessly elegant and comic prose, The Plotinus probes the impulses and desires that bring joy to human life while, at the same time, upending literary conventions that contemporary readers may take as immutable truths. As though she were playing with us from the title, she signals an exploration of The Plot In Us.
A symbol any modern reader will immediately recognize is the closet: the place where the oppressed lock away their true selves; where life’s stories are hidden, not born. Happy closet stories are ones of escape and liberation. Seeing these characters strive towards greater freedom gives us a pleasure inevitably mixed with pride. Unhappy closet stories tend to be dystopian nightmares where the protagonists are overwhelmed by self-hatred as well as oppression. Their stories are silenced and crippled by their constraints. The closet doesn’t just restrain their action, but their evolution as well.
The Plotinus acknowledges and upends these narrative frameworks. The narrator’s life in his closet-cell is grim, but it continues. From the beginning of his captivity, he rejects despair, saying, “I live each day thankful for what I have, although what I have – apart from my threadbare aspirations – is only the sack.” His threadbare aspirations inspire him to tell his story, which he does in code by rapping his knuckles against the air vent. While communicating in code is common for closet stories, the narrator’s new life has unique nuances and unexpected sources of hope and happiness that vary from the tradition. His solitude is broken by different visitors: the most notable being the Plotinus, the Vector and a hornet named Smaragdos. The steely Plotinus brings him stale food and enforces regulations. The Vector offers friendship, but makes spiritual demands. The hornet takes his food and drink, giving stings in return; yet her presence inspires tenderness and love.
To an extent, we’re led to see these visitors as different centers of power: the Plotinus as brute force, the hornet as love and the Vector as religion. Is it coincidence that Vector rhymes with rector? His virulent response to the narrator’s joy at the hornet’s visits has more than a hint of homophobic fire and brimstone. Like a pastor shouting Bible verses or a witch casting spells, he tells the narrator:
For it is said:
The one who lusts for the hornet
Buggers the beardless youth.
We could take the Vector seriously and point out that hornet is just one phoneme change away from horny. But somehow I doubt many readers will pass over the Vector’s invective with a straight face. The joke is on the ridiculousness of religious dogma, but also on over-interpreters like (ahem) book-reviewers. In The Plotinus’ rabbit hole of metaphors, the Vector as a representative of religious oppression is a tidy one, showing how literary devices can clarify; the hornet is certainly a representative of love, but she’s also more complex than the metaphor imposed on her, showing how literary devices can obscure. This is all serious stuff, but the book begs you not to lose your sense of humor. The reader is constantly reminded that while the search for understanding gives us our reason to live, it also gives us many reasons to laugh.
The unique beauty and power in The Plotinus is in how it portrays hope. It’s a hymn to humankind’s ability to find love despite violence, community despite isolation. Even when everything is done to silence him, the narrator finds a way to tell his story and, most importantly, his story finds listeners – human and hornet-kind. One way or another, he draws strength and sees beauty in each encounter. In isolation the narrator still connects, communicates and forms new communities. Each new scene in the confines of his dark closet brings us on an exploration of new worlds and ideas. The desperate and hopeful sit so comfortably side by side in this book that it keeps you cycling through ideas for weeks after reading. And then when your brain needs a rest, it will show you the simple beauty and grace of a hornet drinking from a drop of water.
About the reviewer: David Lewis’ fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland Magazine, Barrelhouse, The Weird Fiction Review, 21st Century Ghost Stories Volume II, Chelsea Station, The Fish Anthology, Liars’ League London, Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 9, Fairlight Books, Paris Lit Up, Wicked Horror and others. Originally from Oklahoma he now lives in France with his husband and dog.