This is a book about love. And hate. "The history of romantic disappointment," to quote its author, or "the schism between Beauty and Truth." "Darconville's Cat" is a long (704 pages long) romance about an instructor of English who falls in love with a student. The instructor, Alaric Darconville by name, is 29; the girl, 18. At one time he had almost become a priest, but now he drives a vintage Bentley, has a pet cat named Spellvexit, keeps on his desk a human skull, and writes a book called "Rumpopulorum," "a speculative examination of the world of angels, archistrategetes, and the archonic wardens of heaven in relation . . . to mortal man."
That such a man should fall in love -- she was "a faery's child, the nameless maiden of the meads, full beautiful, sitting in the front row seat at the far right with her eyes lowered to the desk in a kind of fragrant prayer" -- is all too human. That the beautiful faery's child should break his heart is all too sure.
The man is in love with a myth: "The wanton air in 20 sweet forms danced after her fingers and flashed its transparent song about her golden air, blowing as blond as once in the same light blew that of Helen, Polyxena, Guithera."
The mortal girl is not about to satisfy the angelic hopes of the priestly man. Her heart divides. She loves another, Govert van der Slang, and still another, Gilbert van der Slang. She is a Virginian, sweet, Southern and social-climbing. A faery's child with feet of clay -- and heavy legs if truth be told. Ah, love.
"Darconville's Cat" is "The Sorrows of Young Werther" writ large. Much, much too large. Besides being a love story, it is a campus satire. Theroux's biting pen chews mercilessly into faculty meetings: "The discussion, rarely deviating into sense, grew round with resolutions and amendments as they sacrificed the necessary to acquire the superfluous and did everything twice by halves. . . ." Quinsy College.
The satirist's wit lampoons little Southern towns: "It was a place sunk in blind ignavia, a chaos, a nulliverse of stifling monotony, little movement, and a ZIP code of ee-i-ee-i-o." Fawx's Mountain.
Theroux, to be fully democratic, gnaws also at the governance of Harvard College. Harvard is said to be run by an Arabian eunuch lodged in the top floor of Adams House. We meet this mystery figure and he proves to be a monster, a madman, a murderous mysogynist.
Theroux-Darconville leaves few topics unscatched in this torrential outpouring of love-turned-hate, idealism-turned-sour. His novel is -- as readers were quick to note of his first novel, "Three Wogs" -- a potpourri of language, a torrent of verbalism, a feast of vocabularies. Words like "philonoetic," "hypnocaust," "protoglottological," "jingbang," turn up on every page. The novel includes a list of the titles of Darconville's students' freshman themes, an essay on love, a blank-verse dialogue, and a library catalog of antifeminist literature.
Yes, this is a hobbyhorse of a novel. Hobbyhorsical. Some will love it. Others will hate it. Like Darconville's only love -- Isabel Rawsthorne (rosethorn, raw as thorn) -- it both satisfies and disappoints. It needs pruning, but would suffer from the shears.
Theroux is a conjurer, a spellbinder, a master of the ironic put-down. His Quinsy College girls are as wackily done as anything in Updike; his faculty frolics as funny as Mary McCarthy's "Groves of Academe"; his grotesque Harvard as hyperbolic as Thomas Wolfe's.
Theroux deserves his readers - - and they deserve him.