Mr. Theroux can't get through a sentence, much less a paragraph, without sticking his thumb into the reader's eye with a word we've never heard or a word he just makes up…. After 100 pages [of "Darconville's Cat"] you will want to punch his face out with a thesaurus. Trying too hard is always having to say I'm sorry….
Mr. Theroux, like P. G. Wodehouse and the lamentable Dickens, leans on names for humorous effect. Miss Xystine Chapelle, as student body president, is permissible, maybe. But shouldn't the line have been drawn at Guggenheim Grant? Mr. Theroux, in addition, puns promiscuously. His characters drink tea at the Seldom Inn. They dance to the music of a band named The Uncalled Four. They experience "a fete worse than death." It has, unsurprisingly, "been raining longer than Louis XIV." We need some anti-DeVries. Moreover: if he is going to use words like "wimpled," "quincunx" and "dopplerian," he should use them only once. (p. 368)
And now a few words about the structure of this book. Darconville, a wimp, falls in love with Isabel, a tub of goat's milk and sheep dip. On being rejected the first time, he licks his wounds in London while writing a book. On being rejected the second time—after Harvard has accepted him because of his book—he plots murder and fiddles with black magic. Aside from many descriptions of faces, all of them ugly, that's the narrative.
Narrative, however, is seduced by technique. Mr. Theroux is equally at home—indeed, he lolls—with 18th- and 19th-century British fiction, Greek myth, Elizabethan drama, Jacobean revenge, German romanticism, French sickliness, the fathers of the Church, various heresies, including Venice, logic, alchemy, philosophy, philology and Charlottesville. He descends to the sonnet, the sermon, the heroic couplet, nursery rhymes, a diary, questionnaires, a bibliography of misogynists, formal essays on love and hate and ears, and a genealogy, which one hopes is spurious, of the Theroux family.
Mr. Theroux is, you see, very tricky and showing off like that pool player in the television commercial for watered beer Much of "Darconville's Cat" is immensely entertaining, and none of it is maladroit. I would complain that if he insists on savaging education in the South, and the entire South as well, he owes it to us to afflict his satiric gifts on Cambridge, Mass. He refrains, because in Cambridge, in the rafters of Adams House, he meets Dr. Cruciform, who is a eunuch, the devil, and Darconville's double. By this time, the novel is out of control and we drown in metaphysicians.
Darconville will die in a decaying Venetian palazzo, pretending to be a Proustian priest of art, singing, like a swan, his single song. Isabel will marry a sailor. Whether or not a murder occurs is up to the reader. Perhaps the cat dies. Perhaps you were wondering about that cat. That cat is art, vision, the erotic, Jesus, jealousy, memory, conscience and everything else that is silent and black and vanishes, like Shane. That cat is asked to be either Satan or a saint and, refusing to die for love, leaves town. That cat's name is Spellvexit.
And yet Mr. Theroux is serious. After rummaging through old trunks of Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe; trying to better the various novels of academe perpetrated by Nabokov, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell and Bernard Malamud, not to mention Dorothy Sayers; after combining French farce and Italian opera and Gothic romance, his target is God. Dr. Cruciform, who is wholly unbelievable, explains to Darconville: "God, I tell you, is the center of the pathetic fallacy." Literature meets religion. A curtain is drawn. (pp. 368-69)
John Leonard, "'Darconville's Cat'," in The New York Times, (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 8, August, 1981, pp. 367-69).