Eve Ottenberg

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

Alexander Theroux hates injustice. In his first book, Three Wogs, he swoops down on it with a savage indignation that outstrips the prose. The racism of the white Englishmen and women who parade through this novel is at once his target and motivation. He is constantly on the attack—relentless, merciless, nasty. He has high ideals which lead him always to present his characters at their worst. His unwillingness to compromise on how people should treat each other is only matched by his views on prose, expressed in his essay "Theroux Metaphrastes" and reconfirmed in his newest novel, Darconville's Cat, the style of which is ornate, copious, digressive, modeled on that of Sterne and Joyce. In short, he is a writer determined to prove his point—something essential in matters of style and social justice. As long as he was focusing his talents on how racism corrodes character, this determination yielded that rare pleasure in contemporary fiction of seeing a complete social world through luxurious prose. But in another context, the love story of Darconville's Cat, Theroux's avenging angels are a bit out of place. Indeed, at times they descend upon the reader like a pack of harpies….

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That Darconville could all but cohabitate with Isabelle for four years and yet have so little idea of who she is would, if such things didn't happen every day, be too incredible to be believed. The same could be said of Isabel. But since this novel is written mainly from Darconville's point of view, it takes the form of an attack on her character. Hence the harpies, i.e., the tirades of Dr. Crucifer, the devil's cohort, against women, that charge down on the reader throughout the last part of the book. This attack on Isabel is instructive—primarily because she is just not there. Her character is never developed.

If Isabel were fully realized, if she actually did something besides run away, perhaps Darconville's Cat would not seem so unjust.

This really is the only defect in the novel—that Theroux's outraged sense of justice is misplaced. There is something unintegrated about it, it clamors around in the book as if it didn't really belong there. It becomes all the more noticeable by contrast to the scorn he heaps on other objects. His ridicule of American anti-intellectualism and vulgarity brings Mencken to mind, while the passages on race relations in Quinsyburg, Virginia, are some of the best in the book. What makes Theroux's observations on this Southern black community even more telling is that they occur at a time when most novelists who consider themselves stylists are treating such matters as if they had been settled 20 years ago, if they are treating them at all. But nowhere is Theroux so much in his element as in his satire of that most eminent personage, the American Professor….

Theroux's fiction is quite deliberately free of all the doctrines spawned by that wretched institution, the creative writing class, with the possible exception of the one regarding experience—the defects in the portrayal of the affair between Darconville and Isabelle somehow smack of an unreconstructed trauma in the life of the author. Otherwise the length and copiousness of Darconville's Cat are some of its strongest points. One never gets that all too common sense that the story was slapped together to meet a publishing deadline or that its unity was sacrificed to the moronic notion that unity is out of date. The style is rhetorical in the best sense, that is, the tropes are used and, for a change, consciously. And the diction—well, there is something hilarious about the nastiness of an attack that would send its objects scurrying to the dictionary in order to find out what was being said against them.

Eve Ottenberg, "'Also But Not Yet the Wombat Cries …'" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 16, April 15-21, 1981, p. 46.

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