Posted in Book reviews, On writing, Writers at 9:18 am by Marion

A study of two novels
The Gold Bug Variations
and Darconville’s Cat

Why these two novels? They capture the elusive qualities that for me, take a novel beyond its words and make it a sublime window on humankind. One succeeds; one fails.

First, the failure.

Darconville’s Cat, by Alexander Theroux. I was so excited to find this book!! A great title, a tormented, intelligent narrator, a nontraditional structure. A cat in the title!! The plot, however, took the novel south and I kept reading, disappointed, nearly to the end.

Critics didn’t necessarily pan the book, nor have readers. Some sing its praises. Still, I felt betrayal, because of the books shabby plot, its superficial, cliched and sexist approach.

The narrator is a writing teacher at a Virginia girl’s school. Who falls in love with a student. Who is crushed when she leaves him.

First rule: Please, unless you’re Paul Auster, do not write about writers!!

After several solid chapters, once his girlfriend leaves him, the narrator falls into a funk, and so does the novel. In meandering chapters, the narrator vents, as you might say; expectorates in several thousand words.

The biggest indication that this book has failed? The fate of the beloved cat of the title is completely unresolved … in the middle of a rant, the narrator mentions that the animal ran away. There is no emotion, no sense of grieving or loss, not even a speed bump for the feline.

If you’re going to put a cat in the title, then you better be prepared to make it mean something.

Now, the success.

The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. Another novel written in a nontraditional form. Richard Powers is a fascinating writer. He studied physics, then instead of going off to calculate quantum projections, realized he wanted to write. He has worked as a computer programmer in addition to his writing.

His 2006 book The Echo Maker was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

The plot focuses on a trio of DNA researchers, but as the name implies, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are also involved … music and its power over us. Like the great book (I’ve never finished) Godel, Escher and Bach, the Gold Bug Variations incorporates themes of all stripes — love, passion, science, melody, human striving and failure.

The framework, however, is striking for its unexpectedness. Anyone can write a love story set on a college campus (or a Virginia girl’s school). But who can pitch a love story among DNA researchers, with a beloved music-loving older scientist in the mix to give it heart?

In the end, despite the science, The Gold Bug Variations captures what it is to be human, to love and to hope, to search and to discover.

Do I feel touched by Mr. Powers’ work? Absolutely. Do I feel betrayed by Mr. Theroux’s? Yes.

Novels are profoundly complex, emotional creations. Until a writer can be humble, we cannot succeed. I believe Mr. Powers brings that humility to his work, and that’s what gives it life.


  1. Gene-o said,

    November 12, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    In the name of heaven, how do bad novels get published when so many good novels never see daylight? I understand that the public represents a vast array of tastes and preferences. However, an editor should be able to identify work that is sub-standard and either help the author fix it or reject it outright.

    Note: This is not sour grapes. I have written very little fiction, none of it remotely publishable. It is stated on behalf of all the real writers who are struggling, sweating, laboring every day to get their message to the planet.

  2. Marion said,

    November 12, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    It doesn’t hurt that your brother is Paul Theroux.