WITHIN EVERY NOVELIST there lurks a pendant, variously subdued. Sometimes it comes out unashamed, as in Nabokov's butterflies or Bellow's note-making Herzog. And sometimes the pedantry is partly subjugated to the plot, as in John Gardner's rambling The Sunlight Dialogues or Thomas Pynchon's strange wanderings in V or Gravity's Rainbow.
But sometimes it takes over entirely - and the result is a truly self-indulgent book like Thomas Berger's new novel.
Who Is Teddy Villanova? is a surprising and somewhat disappointing achievement for the intensely disciplined author of Little Big Man and six previous novels which ranged from the childhood reminiscence (Sneaky People) to the crime documentary (Killing Time) to the trio of cuttingly humorous satires known as the Reinhart books after their fat anti-hero, Carlo Reinhart.
The novel is surprising because it is not what it seems. Ostensibly a detective story. Berger's novel has no more connection to the private-eye genre than Hamlet has to Danish history. Admittedly, there is a detective, the protagonist and narrator Russell Wren - a washed-out college English teacher turned gumshoe.
And there is the traditional dead body, a sexy secretary and some other staples of the shamus diet. And Wren does get caught up in a scheme which is crossed and double-crossed with characters who abuse, humiliate and finally outwit him.
But it doesn't matter. This is not a detective story because that form requires some real-life plausibility. Berger's book is a fantasy - or, to be more specific, it is a series of disjointed encounters which we can call the paranoid picaresque, with apologies to Mr. Kafka.
In fact, the dreamlike plot is only a spindly framework upon which is hung the real subject of the book; the heavy verbiage of narrator Wren, his observations, conversations and asides. Not every reader will be sympathetic. Wren's mind runs through a maze of syntax, inflated bombast and the accumulated arcana of grad-school lit courses. And it soon becomes apparent that the language in this book exists less to tell a story than for its own sake.
Here, for example, is how Wren describes entering a van full of schoolgirls: "The twin panels of the door were forthwith hurled open, and I was summoned to enter by a score of small forearms bearing fistfuls of writhing fingers, visibly an invitation to penetrate a congress of adders, while the ear was smote with the shrieking cacophony in which bluejays couch their peeves."
Or here is how Wren responds when a character points a gun at him: "The foregoing deliberations were rendered nugatory by Washburn's coming up from his naked squat with a fistful of gun, not money.
"'You won't get a sou from me, you contemptible cur.' Despite his arch terminology, he appeared authentically grim; and though I was genuinely frightened, I replied in kind, subtly trying to curry his favor by emulation of idiom.
"'I'm not the knave you take me for, sir. The day is not more pure than the depth of my heart!'
"But he was not mollified by the famous line, and it is a general pity that Racine, like Goethe, is notoriously banal when Englished."
The word-mill grinds on for 247 pages in that way, producing the rough equivalent of The Crying Of Lot 49 rewritten by S.J. Perelman. That is a fantasy in which the real appeal is the narrator's voice - which is alternatively delightful, tiresome or pretentious according to the taste of the reader.
All this is quiet self-conscious on Berger's part, and he has an awfully good time paradying his own obsession with word-play while simultaneously indulging it. Wren is charming, in his Victorian way with words, but he is also painfully vulnerable - trapped in a labyrinth of language which cuts him off from the "real" world of action and brutality where four-letter communication is the rule.
Indeed, much of the book's humor comes from the fact that Wren is generally misunderstood by the other characters. Often he has only begun one of his elegantly phrased homilies when his antagonists - unwilling to listen, unable to understand - silence him with a beating.
Typical is Wren's first confrontation with a colossal and vicious goon named Bakewell, who tells Wren to listen closely because he will not repeat himself.
"Of course," Wren replies, "if your statement proves unusually complex, there might well be some advantage in repetition, using alternative terms and varying syntaxes, not only for the sake of sheer verbal charm, but also with an eye to the state of affairs in the English language, in which, as one authority asserts, the only exact synonyms are 'furze' and 'gorse.'
"He seemed to reflect on my suggestion for a moment, and then he asserted that on further interruption by me he would kick me so vigorously as to bring my mouth and my rectum into juxtaposition, though to be sure he used different locutions to construct that vivid image."
At this point, unable to discern any apparent thematic purpose for these exhausting circumlocutions, the reader may find himself saying what the Duke of Gloucester said to Edward Gibbon after receiving the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh!Mr. Gibbon?"
Read slowly, sympathetically and at intervals, this is a tolerably amusing book for pedants, simple lovers of cloying rhetoric, and those who are fond of finding gratuitous uses for the sayings of Cardinal Newman or John Ruskin.
But for the general reader, who has appreciated Berger's past craft in telling a story, and who has no particular love of words for the sake of words, it is something else altogether.