Monday, April 27, 2009

Darconville's Cat by Alexander Theroux

Lexicographic madness and Rabelaisian excess characterize this long novel of love, hate, madness, revenge and - perhaps - grace. Some chapters (particularly those pertaining to academia) are among the most hilariously misanthropic I’ve ever read. The latter portion (after the two black pages) are quite assuredly the most misogynistic pages ever written, and the lampoon of Southern culture is devastating, if unfair. Famously, Theroux wrote this after having been jilted, and having the gauntlet thrown before him - as he vowed revenge - in the words “Do your worst.” Foolish words, for Theroux is best at doing his worst. In fact, he attains here the supreme paradox of being stupefyingly brilliant. While you could skip entire chapters and not miss a beat of the narrative, you would miss out on the full force of Theroux’s treasure chest of obscure knowledge, inventive wordplay, and puns which are groaningly corny despite their sophisticated execution.

Darconville is an archetype as old as the hills - the sensitive soul undone by an unworthy woman (I think of Maugham’s clubfooted innocent in Of Human Bondage). The vituperation, the bile, is not his (he seems to remain innocent, if misguided, until the end), but rather is that of the sardonic narrator, and later given over to the Satanic eunuch Crucifer, who lives a shadowy existence in an opulent Harvard attic and pisses through a little silver tube (Theroux, the Catholic apologist, may commit many sins, but skimping on the details is not one of them).

Darconville is the object of undergraduate desire at an obscure girl’s college in the inbred heart of Virginia, but as fate would have it, he is instantaneously smitten by a mousy self-effacing girl with golden locks named Isabel Rawsthorne, a hick chick from the sticks. She constantly frets that he is too good for her, and after a false start, they are on the road to matrimony. But when Darconville publishes a respected novel and is offered a professorship at Harvard, Isabel becomes distant and uncommunicative, and then the the revelation that precedes the aforementioned black pages confirm his worst fears. Being jilted by a fat-legged girl for a jug-eared sailor does not sit well with Darconville: he falls into madness, and falls prey to the woman-hating eunuch, whose interest in Darconville seems mainly to revolve around his esteemed bloodline. True to form, the eunuch is both servant and master to the blue-blood, and leads him down unholy paths to the infernal regions of the soul, inspiring a Jacobean lust for revenge.

I will spare you the plot details. Honestly, if you like straightforward narrative, this probably isn’t for you. But if you like to savor the words and are willing to stretch your reading experience out to indeterminate lengths, and if you have a tolerance for mean-spiritedness in the service of art, you might consider looking into this philosophically rich and entertaining work.