Saturday, May 30, 2009

Alexander Theroux's "Darconville's Cat": Book Review

Deservedly praised, unjustly neglected, this novel captures Theroux's favorite theme: a rejected lover's revenge. Based on a girl he taught at a woebegone third-rate women's college in early '70s Virginia, the plot, as with many of his works, is less original than his prose. Theroux delights in savage excoriation of Southern decay, academic cant, romantic gush, and generally everything lazy, misguided, or stupid.

He's also a snob, however, like his protagonist. They both never let you forget how smart they are, and this accounts probably for the status of this as a novel few know of but those few know it well. As with "An Adultery" and especially "Laura Warholic," Theroux's fiction works by excess. His protagonist, stuck teaching in a backwater burg, labors over a masterwork that oddly or intentionally we learn nearly nothing about, although it will earn him an appointment at Harvard soon enough.

Other Amazon reviewers relate the wordy delights, the catalogues of arcana, the rhetorical flourishes that comprise, often in different styles and registers, these hundred chapters. Halfway, without giving away any story, the break occurs, and you do get the impression always with this author that he's happier in telling of the aftermath of the affair rather than its ascension, the turmoil left after the jilt. My favorite among many sections: Chapter 93 records the hundreds of ways to leave a lover, in splendidly misogynistic (if you can't stand those two words yoked, than this novel's not for you) litanies of lavish hatred.

"Replace her nose with a headlight and drive her into a plate-glass window painted the color of money!" (663) "Dress her up like Satan and walk her into the Valley of Mina to be pelted by outraged Muslims!" (666) "Scotchtape three-hundred pigeons to her arms and then hurl sacks of popcorn into a rocky gorge!" (668) "Grill steaks out of her baby's feet!" (669) I could go on; the exclamation points appear superfluous.

The tone rises and falls and rises again; the book has its languors over so long a course, but it gains in intensity and energy as it accumulates in the latter stages into a Gothic extravaganza, married somehow to a "Death in Venice" coda that, as with his later novels, manages to tamper down the eccentricities and onslaughts for a poignant conclusion. Buried within but never quite killed off by the wordplay and invention and corrosive satire, there's a humanist message for decency that remains.

He records in his journal: "'Will I have to use a dictionary to read your book?' asked Mrs. Didypol. 'It depends,' says I, 'how much you used the dictionary before you read it.' Witty. But cruel. We are all too cruel." (330) Theroux sums up his own persona and that of his character, a formidable and verbose, savage and idealistic, humane yet cutting type of male overachiever who nonetheless fails to find a partner worthy of his love.

Is Darconville deluded in making Isabel his target of so much affection poured on seemingly so ordinary a young woman? Or, do we all share such confusion in pursuing our dreams of love? This question will obsess Darconville, and his creator, for Theroux will return to this quest and its thwarting in later novels after this 1981 tome established, if only for a discerning few, his reputation. (I've reviewed all his major works on this blog and on Amazon US, where this review appeared 5-29-09.)

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