ALEMBIC by Timothy d'Arch Smith


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Recondite fiction by a London antiquarian and bibliophile who seems to have figured Pynchon's voice without grasping his depth. Thomas Graves, the antiquarian narrator, is not nearly as epicene as his prose: fresh from a stint in the army, he spends moat of his time backstage with rock groups or in pursuit of underage girls. During the day he deciphers ancient texts of alchemy for ALEMBIC, a secret committee established by the British Crown for murky and probably nefarious purposes. One might say that Graves approaches his task with an unhealthy dose of cynicism, since (as a result of his army hitch) he has little faith in either the beneficence of Her Majesty's Government or the decency of the British Establishment. He is simply happy to find himself employed for good wages at an amusing job, and doesn't really piece together the bizarre ramifications of his project until close to the end--which is quite strange in light of his tendency to ruminate at great length on practically every other subject that crosses his mind. Meanwhile, d'Arch Smith buries every incident or perception under so great a sea of verbiage that the novel ultimately seems little more than a loosely connected string of digressions. One typical sentence describes the audience of a rock concert: ""As a gloomy accompaniment to the music, muffled echoes, screams, one assumed, of pleasure or terror, issued at intervals from the gang's inky black recesses, upon the surface of which occasionally broke a head or a stockinged foot betraying as feminine the otherwise unidentifiable mass of partially clad flesh that seethed in more or less regular undulations as though, at a cannibals' feast, the girls, undissected, were being cooked up alive."" Even the esoterica--the only thing that might have carried the reader along--gets washed away in this tide.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1992
Page count: 226pp
Publisher: Dalkey Archive