Never kiss off a wooing author, that’s the lesson of Alexander Theroux’s sly and resourceful new novel, Darconville’s Cat. Dressed in pious black, a twenty-nine-year-old academic princeling named Alaric Darconville hauntingly wanders about the campus of Virginia’s Quinsy College, a romantic apparition out of the pages of Hawthorne or Washington Irving. In his room, Darconville spins out his neomedieval ruminations on angels and archangels, “marching across the page a newly commissioned army of words-on-maneuvers, all decorated in loops, frets, and arrowlike flourishes.” Like Lord Byron, Darconville keeps a human skull on his desk, its noseholes filled with pencils; and ever vigilant at the windowsill is his beloved cat, Spellvexit. One September evening, a discreet admirer leaves a pomander ball on Darconville’s doorstep. In a tiny envelope attached to the gift is a note which says, “For the fairest.” Notes Theroux: “They were the three words which had started the Trojan War.”
To fidgety readers, the 700-plus pages of Darconville’s Cat may seem as long as the Trojan War. The contested Helen in this saga is Isabel Rawsthorne, a shy bud with thickish legs whose smile brings a glimmer of beatific grace to Darconville’s English 100 class. Into love teacher and student stumble, their days together ripe and sweet with carefree bliss.’
They packed lunches and took trips, the sunroof of the Bentley thrown back, its radio playing, driving to Richmond, to Appomattox, to Charlottesville, telling stories, taking pictures, and always laughing, laughing from horizon to horizon, as if space were endless and they’d triumphed over time.
But this seemingly Endless Love eventually comes to a screeching halt. Visiting Isabel after a nervous absence, Darconville spots a facetious new bumper sticker on her car fender: SAILORS HAVE MORE FUN. Yes, admits Isabel, there’s someone else in my life, a sailor named Gilbert. Crushed, despairing, Darconville pleads for Isabel’s love, asking, “What have I got left?” “Your genius,” she shrugs. “Everything.”
Isabel’s unfeeling shrug is the spur for this novel. Shrug at my genius? fumes Darconville/Theroux—by God, I’ll show you what wordy genius can be. So Darconville’s Cat becomes not merely the tracing of love’s tragic art, but a bravura display of earthly powers. Theroux attempts to show that with the full muscle of his talent he can fling open crypts, lift Atlantis from the sea, snuff out the stars with his finger tips, do things one would hardly expect from the author of his previous novel, Three Wogs.
Nothing seems beyond Theroux’s ambitious reach: he hurls at the reader poems, diary excerpts, fire-heaving sermons, satanic invocations, an explosion of baroque tortures, a catalogue of all the books in a misogynist’s library (Theroux’s passion for lists rivals Gilbert Sorrentino’s in Mulligan Stew), and meditations on love, hate, revenge. Clearly Darconville’s Cat is (to use Roger Sale’s phrase) a work of “imperial” fiction, a novel which plunders all forms of style …