J. O. Tate

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

If Sidney's Astrophel and Stella had been composed by Urquhart of Cromarty; if Poe's "To Helen" had been written by the Melville of Moby Dick; if the cookie-cutter form of the Harlequin romance had been glossed by Boethius—then the result might have been the sublime mulligan [satura>satire] served up to us by Alexander Theroux. (pp. 620-21)

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The substance of Darconville's Cat is Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl. The end is Death in Venice. But the "novel" or "romance" breaks off into the form of Menippean satire, or anatomy, and proceeds by way of encyclopedic recapitulation of forms: a sonnet, a blank-verse dialogue, a formal oration, a formal essay, a vulgar sermon, etc., and a multitude of lists. Theroux is a master of tropes, schemes, and rhetorical devices; and for him as for Blake, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom….

As in Three Wogs, in Darconville's Cat we discern the theme of revenge. But dark emotion is only one excess: we have as much of amo as of odi. The rhetor excels also in naming his lady's beauties, and exalting them. At the end, the struggle of Love and Hate is resolved in a superior synthesis: the last sentence gives the theme of the whole: "Sorrow is the cause of immortal conceptions." The work itself exemplifies the thought, and the ancient wisdom is made new….

[Theroux] defies criticism: the hands holding Darconville's Cat, when they do not race to turn the page, pause to admire a beauty or examine an obscurity, or shake with the rebound of laughter. The theme of Love's transmutation into Art subsumes a plethora of side-dishes, including a digression on ears, a travelogue worthy of Marlowe, a catalogue of mercantile mottoes, a list of Southern girls' names….

The book's satire on the one hand, and Jacobean efflorescences on the other, are sufficiently dazzling to tempt one to neglect its success as a "straight novel": we have the virtues of tangible setting and developed characters, the pleasures of suspense and even shock. Darconville and his perfidious Isabel … are as "real" as any characters in universal fiction. And in the person of Dr. Abel Crucifer, that demoniacal Coptic eunuch who would have enjoyed a confabulation with Dr. Dee and Aleister Crowley, we have a creature of intimidating power and resource.

Darconville's Cat may be the strongest work of fiction published in the United States since Gravity's Rainbow—and Three Wogs. (p. 621)

J. O. Tate, "Bedtime for Boethius," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1981; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXIII, No. 10, May 29, 1981, pp. 620-21.

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