"A GOOD CUP OF CHOCOLATE," the Marquis de Sade remarks in Rikki Ducornet's new novel, "like a good fuck, begins with a vigorous whipping." This bald language of things, of chocolate and whips and fucks, is at the heart of The Fan-Maker's Inquisition. While the novel is not pornographic in the sense of delivering a reliable and recognizable "copulation of clichés" (Nabokov's definition of pornography), it does ask how a word can sting you like a whip.

Ducornet's new book of essays, The Monstrous and the Marvelous, opens with a similar meditation on the effects of a book. As a child, Ducornet was struck by the letter B and its accompanying illustration in an alphabet book: "the letter B, so solid and threatening, was the bee." And the force of this revelation was such that her "entire face--eyes, nose, and lips--was seized by a phantom stinging, and [her] ears by a hallucinatory buzzing." The illustrated book and the pornographic novel, stepchildren of literature, both lay claim to an intersection of the written and the real that is easily dismissed as crude. But Ducornet doesn't dismiss the longing, shared by picture books and porn, to close the distance between the word and the thing. Instead, she records the marvel of this monstrosity that is writing: the persistence of phantasmal effects brought on by nothing other than words.

Set in Paris during the French Revolution, or more precisely, during the Terror, the novel follows the inquisition of a fan-maker--that is, a manufacturer of luxuries--at the hands of the Committee of Public Safety. For the first 100 or so pages, the tale of the fan-maker is told solely via questions and answers at her inquisition. There is no omniscient narrator, and there are scarcely any dialogue tags except for a few in brackets, like stage directions. With its lack of narrative integument, this part of Ducornet's novel is like an écorche, the flayed man whose skinless corpse illustrated 18th-century anatomical texts.

The second half of The Fan-Maker's Inquisition is more conventionally narrated, by the character Sade and by the fan-maker's letters to him. In place of a description of revolutionary Paris, which any decent historical novel would give us, this indecent novel gives us a Paris as imagined by Sade: "The first thing I do is to give Paris back her ornaments--that is to say, her signs, which were outlawed thirty years ago by that prick Sartines. He resented their size, unbridled paganism, ribaldry, and subversive humor (for there were caricatures of the clergy--wonderfully cruel--and pictures of kings being buggered by bankers). 'Paris,' said Sartines, 'chokes on obscenity.'"

Sade turns Paris into an illustrated book, and once again illustration demonstrates a curious affinity with obscenity. The illustrated Paris, where a sign denotes a thing with the simplicity of a children's picture book, is not limited to common things like bankers and buggers. The signs tend toward an excess of pageantry: "I like to imagine my Paris hung not only with pork hocks and wheels of cheese but--and why not?--with the lost phallus of Osiris!... Here: Perseus holds the Medusa by her hissing hair! There: Diana, buttocks alert, stands beside the plumed Serpent of the Mexicas!" Scarcely able to stop enumerating the wonders of his Paris, Ducornet's Sade is a maniacal cataloguer, a frenzied producer of lists.

In fact, Sade's own writing tended toward just such a frenzy. His 120 Days of Sodom begins in narrative complexity (there are four narrators whose lives illustrate the 600 erotic passions), but it quickly devolves into a mere outline. After the account of the first 30 days, the remaining 90 days dispense with storytelling altogether, becoming essentially a list of carnal outrages. This devolution from tale to list is usually taken to be an accident of history: Composing The 120 Days in the Bastille, furiously scribbling it on a single long roll of paper, Sade simply did not have the time or space to properly finish his novel. However, as Joan de Jean has argued, in Sade's "unfinished" novel his writing achieved its most perfect, finished form: the list.

It is a cliché to point to the boredom induced by pornography in general and by Sade in particular--the boredom of the implacable and utterly unsurprising progress of Sade's catalogue of infamies. The bored reader thus marks his superiority through his indifference to the pleasure of pornography, but Ducornet returns us to the overlooked pleasures of Sade: the intoxication of the catalog, the giddiness of the list. The list induces giddiness because it is potentially infinite. Its serial, alogical construction (one and another and another...) will always admit at least one more, just as a Sadean orgy can always undergo one more complication: Still one more dissolute abbé can wander onto the scene; still one more orifice can be filled. And if Ducornet's writing is too allusive, rich, and complex to restrict itself to such a Sadean purity, it nonetheless regularly gives itself over to the pleasure of lists, abandoning narration in a swoon over the profusion of things.

Perhaps it is no accident if the swoon over things is so pronounced in the novel's character Sade; the real Sade spent a good part of his life shut away from the world. Imprisoned, he imagined a clear and direct language of things. Roland Barthes wrote that Sade's style was "pure denotation." Another imprisoned writer, Jean Genet, dreamed of a still purer denotation, of putting the thing directly on the page. At the end of Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, Darling writes to Divine from prison: "'I only wish I could have you in my arms so I could hold you and squeeze you tight. Remember the things we used to do together. Try to recognize the dotted lines. And kiss it. A thousand big kisses, sweetheart, from Your Darling."'

In the final words of Genet's novel, the narrator explains the illustration in Darling's letter: "The dotted line that Darling refers to is the outline of his prick. I once saw a pimp who had a hard-on while writing to his girl place his heavy cock on the paper and trace its contours. I would like that line to portray Darling."

Wayne Koestenbaum remarks of this passage: "I do not want to write 'about' the prick, I want to write the prick." And yet, however much a writer wants to write the prick, however much Genet "would like that line to portray Darling," the word takes the place of the thing, and thus in a sense annihilates it. This is the other side of the frenzy of list-making: It is a frenzy of destruction. Ducornet gives that destructive frenzy a voice--the novel's character Landa.

Bishop Diego de Landa (1524-1574) was among the first translators of Mayan hieroglyphs, but he considered the Mayans to be recalcitrant idolaters. He carried out an inquisition in the Yucatan, torturing the Mayans and burning their books in an auto-da-fé. Ducornet folds Landa's tale into the fan-maker's by supposing that Sade and the fan-maker were collaborating on a book about Landa--a book the Committee of Public Safety deems obscene. The book Landa actually wrote, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, has been translated as An Account of the Affairs of Yucatan, but "cosas" could also have been correctly translated as "things." Landa's book had lists to rival Sade's: lists of Mayan foods and practices and idols, of herbs and goblets and glyphs. In her version of Landa, Ducornet rightly brings out the revulsion with which he recoils from the marvels of the New World: "Night after night, after the cries of the tortured had stilled, Landa examined the things he was so eager to destroy. The most curious were very old sculptures of human monstrosities: hunchbacks forced to their knees by the weight of humps rising like hills from their backs, dwarfs barely able to stand on withered legs, idiots grinning with cleft palates, a howling infant metamorphosing into a jaguar, a truly satanic figure with a snout and hooves." Later, at home in Spain, Landa would write his account of the world he'd helped to destroy.

This is not only a novel of the list-makers, however. The second half of the novel is titled "Les Dròlesses" (the hussies), and it concerns, in part, the fan-maker Gabrielle and her lover, the feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges. (In history, as in the novel, Olympe de Gouges was arrested and beheaded; the revolution had little use for women who wanted liberté and égalité for themselves.) At the end of the novel, the condemned Gabrielle is writing to Sade about the now-dead Olympe, recalling Olympe's utopian schemes for the reformation of the republic. The novel ends in a lovers' reverie, and it's here that the simple relation between word and thing begins to dehisce in the hands of the women, becoming something altogether strange. The language that is shared by Olympe and Gabrielle offers a different way out of prison than the one imagined by Sade.

With Gabrielle and Olympe, language turns from Sade's pure denotation to a sort of dream language: "'To read,' I told her, 'I confused with "to reed."' That is to say, to float in a little boat with my father among the rushes." If language continues to point to things, it now does so illogically, as in a dream. Not only do words operate with the shifting logic of dreams, they also afford a material pleasure to the women: "We relished words of particular potency... just as Cook's 'tahiti' caused us to yearn for his tale, to lean into it as one leans into a fragrant breeze." As a child reading an alphabet book, Ducornet had a glimpse of Eden, as she writes in The Monstrous and the Marvelous: "The page afforded a passage--transcendental and yet altogether tangible." This is the passage that the doomed lovers take:

"'And now, as you read the title of this book aloud, dear Olympe--'

'To the Austral Pole and Around the World.'

'--my reverie deepens. Boat, sky, and water dissolve and give way to distant times, and places I have never seen but where I would travel gladly, if sometimes with sadness.'"