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 and genre and circumstance. Imperial novels—Gunter Grass’s The Flounder and Joyce Carol Oates’s Bellefleur come quickly to mind—run the risk of being too flamboyantly busy, of exhausting the reader with their nearbelligerent brilliance. It can become tiresome watching writers unload all the cargo of their erudite learning, trying to appear nimble and nonchalant even as they strain to impress.
Strain Theroux does, and yet he does impress—his gift for satire and abuse borders on (no shrug intended) genius. Theroux, who taught at the University of Virginia, writes about that patch of the South with the cultivated scorn of someone who sees chinless Snopeses scratching their crotches behind every bush and post. Circle by circle, Darconville descends into redneck Hell.
This was not the doo-dah South of the Camptown Races, good bourbon, and the smell of honeysuckle in old shambling yards where at dusk one heard the sound of risible Negroes pocking out “Dixie” on hand-hewn banjos. It was far more dreadful and far less eloquent: a kind of cimmeria, a serviceable huggermugger of old wooden tobacco sheds; auction barns; too many hardware stores; a dismal shoe factory; and a rundown dairy bar into whose neon “foot-long hotdog” sign, at night, sizzled bugs blown in by the stale breezes of the dung-drab Appomattox River….
Even more of an eyesore are the residents of Quinsyburg, from the “cut-to-the-pattern townies” who play dominoes and bicker at the Timberlake Hotel veranda to the passersby who all have faces resembling “the trolls on German beer mugs, the curious result, perhaps, of poultry-like inbreeding (farmers, farmers’ daughters, farmers’ daughters’ farmers)….” The result? “[Quinsyburg] seemed an orgy of kin, with everybody anybody’s cousin.”
Unlike the late John Kennedy Toole, Theroux hasn’t a trace of affection for his confederacy of dunces; he enjoys mounting their heads on his trophyroom wall. The campus scene provides Theroux with some of his choicest heads. After A New Life, The Groves of Academe, Giles Goat-Boy, and (especially) Pictures from an Institution, another send-up of the absurdities of the academic life could easily become dry, but Theroux unleashes such a fusillade of sarcasm and bombast that the reader dissolves in helpless laughter.
One chapter describes a faculty meeting in which every bore, booze-hound, and dried-up harpie is paraded before us like exotics from a Victorian sideshow. A colleague is “a history professor with afflicted eyes and a Transylvanian hop in his speech who despised the left-wing American press (‘Intellectschultz! Velfare! Gummonism! Rewolt! Neekroes!’).” Another rabid right-winger bullies his students with lies about how when he was a student “he’d lived on ketchup sandwiches, got hookworm from going barefoot, and had to study upside down to keep awake.” But the most exotic catch is a notorious member of the art department who throws gender-switching parties where he paints the windows black, slips on a few Mabel Mercer records, and coaxes everyone to put on boas and run around naked. (He would have made a wonderful publicist for Music for Chameleons.)
The keeper of this zoo is the bellowing President Greatracks, who’d rather be dirt-simple and ignorant than put on highfalutin airs. Addressing the freshman class, Greatracks tells them they’re going to study and plug away until they ain’t got the wind “to blow the fuzz off a peanut.” Not all of the freshies are captivated by his version of the work ethic. “One daring little beast in the back row frowned, held her nose, and said, ‘Puke.”‘
The novel loses much of its verve once Darconville leaves the peckerwood South for Harvard, where he’s been offered a job as a teacher. Theroux, who was born in Massachusetts and has taught at Harvard, writes with wistful prettiness of Cambridge’s shops, vineblanketed houses, and smoke-seented evenings; but the satirical impudence of the early chapters disappears. Are all of America’s dunces rolling around like loose cannons below the Mason-Dixon line?—surely Harvard has its parcel of fools. Perhaps Theroux pours on the syrup so thickly because he wishes to deepen the mood of the novel, to bathe his hero’s thoughts in the rich sweetness of maple-brown melancholy. But as the leaves flicker and the air coolly nips, the narrative energy leaks away, and this talky novel turns hoarse.
Doing most of the talking is a mysterioso figure called Dr. Crucifer, who invites Darconville up to his rooms at Adams House. Crucifer, a flab-encased eunuch with clammy palms, turns out to be a connoisseur of the dark acts—a cross between Dr. Strangelove and one of Huysmans’s more sinister creations. (Indeed, the dripping-with-posh-decadence decor of Crucifer’s rooms suggests a bloodshot Against the Grain.) After Isabel leaves Darconville in the lurch, Crucifer enflames his desire for bloody vengeance, offering hundreds of suggestions on the most satisfying ways to tear the unfaithful bitch to pieces. “Scald the bottom of her feet with a candle until the fat drops down to fan the flame! Fill your library with books fashioned with skin provided by her first child!” are among Crucifer’s less amusing suggestions. Others are giddily surreal. “Scotchtape three-hundred pigeons to her arms and then hurl sacks of popcorn into a rocky gorge!…Decapitate her, mesh her mouth, and make her head into a radio!”
When it comes to invective, Theroux is a tireless ranter, and he has Crucifer rail on for over ten pages. (“Pisk her! Smout her! Minge her! Whinge her!”) But all this makes one’s head throb. Wizardly as Darconville’s Cat is, it could do with some reticence and suggestive calm—whispers instead of shouts. Theroux erects so many burning rhetorical cathedrals that you find yourself shading your eyes from the dazzle of all that opulent blight.
A more bookish book would be difficult to find. Dickens, Rabelais, Alistair Crowley, Swift and Sir Thomas Browne, Elizabethan and Jacobean sword-rattlers—Theroux has devoured them all. But hovering over the novel like a smoke-ring is the ghostly grin of its presiding influence, V. Nabokov. One of the most famous asides in postwar literature is Humbert’s parenthetical explanation of his mother’s death in Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three….” On page 43, Theroux tosses off a knowing salute to Lo: “She had lost her own husband, she told him, eight years ago (tainted knockwurst, Jaycee picnic), and now it was just hell dipped in misery.”
The novel also teems with Nabokovian doubles. Among them: Isabel and Darconville’s cat;* party hosts Felix and Felice Culpa; Gilbert the sailor and his brother, Govert; and—most significantly—dour Darconville and his creator. (Darconville, we learn, is descended from Pierre Christophe Cardinal Théroux-d’Arconville. That hyphen joins them at the hip, like Siamese twins. Theroux has a Nabokovian love of puns—“It was a fête worse than death,” he writes of one Southern gettogether—and of odd coinages. In one chapter alone, the following curiosities turn up: meacocks, coprolaliac-écouterist, roulade, fardel, voivodes, sudoriferous, aeroferic, fatidic, facioscapulohumerial. In the self-toying spirit of Nabokov, Theroux also gets off a wonderful joke about his own oeuvre on page 90 when one of Darconville’s students turns in a paper titled “Three Wogs: My Favorite Novel.” The dear girl wins herself an A.
Comparisons with Nabokov aren’t always flattering to Theroux, however. Isabel may be the light of Darconville’s life and loins, but compared to Lolita she’s a drab little smudge—a puff of sugary tenderness who drifts into Darconville’s life, then indifferently drifts out. She’s a vague charmer, too vague to be the source of all this anguish and poetic fury. Indeed, Theroux’s language, usually so electric and ultraprecise, turns to mush when he tries to describe Isabel’s hold on Darconville—he even stoops to clichés like “Her silence spoke volumes.” Perhaps that’s Theroux’s ironic point—that it doesn’t really matter whom one falls for, that the passion that gutted Troy can as easily be invested in a dormouse as a princess. Love as a fiction shaped by fancy and desire is a notion given its most eloquent expression in Proust, of course; and yet Isabel is no Odette or Albertine, either. She is somehow…out of focus.
Out of focus in ways which suggest that Theroux is writing about an experience from which he hasn’t yet achieved sufficient distance. The only truly memorable things about Isabel are her unfortunate legs, and as the novel proceeds the cracks about her trunkish gams become so stingingly unkind that the remarks—to me, at least—pass out of the realm of fiction into the realm of obsessive pique The author seems, at least, to be getting in private licks. Artistry as astonishing as Theroux’s provides a succession of highs, but his portrait of Isabel is laced with such meanness—such glistening dabs of poison—that the novel doesn’t leave behind an afterglow. Word-rich and word-intoxicated, Darconville’s Cat is somehow emotionally and spiritually pinched. It doesn’t sit well on the soul.
May 14, 1981