WHEN A SLIP of a lad I had a wordhoard, kept in a small silk-bound notebook, from which I plucked "opsimath" and "heteroclite" to lard my essays with, hoping to stun where I could not persuade. Reading Darconville's Cat gave me that bravado part of my adolesence back again, although Alexander Theroux's grown-up word hoard is bigger than my kiddy one ws, meant to hail the perverse foison of vocabulary in its own right (words galore where one's enough while for some things there's still no word at all), and to limn an authorial universe so seeded with prolixity as to distance character into an heraldic figment who, on the level of language, has nine lives becasue he/she can be worded in so many ways. This is a novel about people, sadness, infatuation, and betrayal, but just as much about words themselves.
Gulsar, skite, pneumatomachian, plutonial, sinople, arteriopath, struldbrug and cataphatic hit you in the first 18 pages, then Hemerobaptist, zealator, and malplasmic on 19, and behind that enough unhoarded to send you to the dictonary every 10 minutes or make you slam the book shut, wondering why Theroux needs to make so big a smoke. Do you need to know what all the farfetched words mean? I doubt it. Pastry crust, foil, distraction, legalized graffiti, novelist's doodlings, they remind you how fabricated everything verbal is -- not words only, but the fictions they sustain. Also, throguh a clever twist, the book's verbosity gives an idea of what things were like before they had names; the word we do not understand's as a foreign as a thing unnamed.
That said, I must cite the book's prolapsing charm, the suavity with which a portmanteau narratorial exercise secretes a frail tale about how a young prof's crush on a lovely but callow student heats them both into dire infatuation until she crushes him forever. Darconville, a writer who lectures on poetry at a Southern women's college, has such an active and enhancing mind he cannot see Isabel for what she is: empty, mediocre, a bell dame sans merci but also sans moxy too. At first only her fat legs bother him. After scandalizing the campus during her student years, the two of them plan to marry; but when he accepts a post at Harvard she fails to follow, two-timing him while he falls into the cluthes of a eunuch misogynist whose demonic (and funny) ravings inspire him to revenge, which flickers like hellfire behind the vapors of the lung-disease to which he finally sucumbs. Of Venetian ancestry, he goes to Venice to die, but has essentially been living out a courtly medieval dream with dirty modern props.
"This is the story of a murder," a ponderous prefatory "Explictur" tells us, but Isabel murders him by jilting him, whereas, all along, he should have been lapping up the creamy nymphomania of the senior called Hysipyle Poore who, in her uppity venal way hoovers about the novel's action, awaiting his palm upon her, her voice of the kind that Juvenal described "as having fingers" -- "a low magical level of loveliness which absorbed with a kind of absolutness any rival utterance that might have been offered against it." Look at the padding there. Why Theroux didn't do more with this tigress buring bright, I don't know, but he certainly is quick on the southern drawl, and, while mounting a virtuoso display of narrative methods, reveals in acute detail the inanity of Quinsy College, Virginia. Darconville's first lecture pits inventive obscurity against the "farm-bright" smile and the lisp of Millette Snipes. They are doing Keats. "The simple line," Darconville says, "seeks to outwit, not merely to resist, the complexity of thought it noncommittally grows out of and, by definition, filters out the ideas it must nevertheless, to be great, always raise do you see?" But the class is still reeling with Mith Thnipeth's query: "Thwoon in the thenthe of thuccumb? "We have many of us, been there already, and foresuffered all, at the same lecturn, with smirk suppressed.
Alaric Darconville, "insurrect, courteous, liturgical" and fancy reminds me of the Latin poem in which Johm Milton writes of a girl's face seen in a London Street and haunting him ever after. A writer of impenitent unquenchable, damned nearly epic cleverness, Theroux does tender analysis just as well as broad-bottomed antic, but he says Darconville's eyes had a "strange tragic beauty." and I wonder what such a cowflop of phrase is doing in a novel so hightuned. This is not the only novel of "premillennial antihomogoumena," but of wongler, wompster, gripcruppered, tittypull, and alonk. You may trip over Greek roots in in the novels undergrowth, but your ears fill wth the blunt idom of folk alive in Quinsyburg. Discuss, then (in parody of this novel's prodies), the influence of A. Theroux of any of the following: Ben Johnson, Thomas Love Peacock, Thomas Carlyle, Muriel Spark, Djuna Barnes, G. Cabrera Infante. Then decide if Theroux's novel (a) influnces him (b) thwarts (c) silences, him. Why 704 pages exactly? The B-answer to all such questions is the novel's last sentence: "Sorow is the cause of immortal conceptions."
Once again the mulit-ring circus offers itself as that mirage, the big American comic novel, wiping out all comers with 18th-century pastiche. Here and there a Jamesiam tropism spirals up into the light, like this on Southern girls: "Such is their homogeneity, in fact, that's one particular actions are always another's in potency, and so, with each a simulacrum of the next, they must all sustain in constant reflection what approving of themselves within they must hate in others without . . ." No wonder Hysiplye Poore whispers to her date, "My silk panties are too tight." So are the book's.
Yet, when the wrting isn't just the buss of a vocabularic fly in the windowpane of Babel, things come throguh as true as trim: "He had one of those faces, ellipsoidal and criket-like, which resembled one's reflection when looking closely into a shiny spoon or doorknob." Clever Mr. Theroux is clever enough to merit the epithet, Therouche, but also not to need to restrict it to flagrant fustian. "Will I have to use a dictonary to read your book?" one character asks Darconcville, who anwers "It depends on how much you have used the dictionary before you read it." What Theroux no doubt has in mind is someone who asks him if, in order to read the dictionary, they should use his book. Had Darconville lived, he would have reproduced the dictionary, word for word, without ever having had to cheat.
Oh, for Hypsiplye, that "luscious and legendary Narcissa" with "a body as smooth and soft as nainsook," who tells "lovely, spolied rich Pengwynne Custis" in the middle of a porn book read in the dorm, "Why, Pengwynne honey . . . at fourteen I could have written me a danm ol' book I'd have blushed to read."