Alembic – Timothy d’Arch Smith
Dalkey Archive Press – 1992
Alembic is a novel about alchemy, insanity, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and magic. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, this blog isn’t the place for you. Alembic is the only novel by Timothy D’Arch Smith, a name you might recall from my earlier posts on his bibliography of Montague Summers and Books of the Beast, a collection of essays about the books of Aleister Crowley, Summers and Austin Spare. D’Arch Smith is a pretty cool guy.
The plot of Alembic is fairly puzzling. The narrator works for the English Government’s secret alchemy department. While he’s taking some time off work to visit his famous rockstar mate, he bumps into his coworker’s daughter. He falls in love with her, and they have some adventures. This story is punctuated with flashbacks of the narrator’s days in the army.
In truth, it’s not a very good story.
Most of the novels that I’ve read this year have been of the trashy horror fiction variety. That style of writing is usually fairly to the point, and the books are plot driven, focused on the tale, not the telling. Alembic is quite the opposite. It reads like a book written to showcase the author’s writing. D’Arch Smith uses his verbiage to great comic effect at times, but overall, the writing style is overwhelming. Several secondary characters get lost and blend into each other in the dense text.
The cover image of the book is a drawing of this statue. Originally the statue held the actual heart of René de Chalon. Cool.
When I started reading this book, it reminded me of the early novels of Flann O’Brien. This might have been due to the fact that Alembic was put out by Dalkey Archives, a publisher named after one of O’ Brien’s novels, but the grandiose descriptions of the utterly banal definitely seemed a bit Flannesque to me. The other influence that I couldn’t help but notice was Nabakov’s Lolita. Yes, unfortunately this is another book about a grown man falling in love with and raping a child. I didn’t like this part. The girl in here is 14. The male is in his mid twenties. Aside from one comically repulsive scene, this book isn’t sexually explicit, but it was still unpleasant to read the narrative of a diddler.
Timothy D’Arch Smith has also written a book about the Uranian poets. These were a gang of paedophiles who liked writing poems about little boys. Hey, reading/writing books about something doesn’t mean you like it, but why put it in your own fiction? I don’t mean to be accusatory, but I did wonder why he didn’t just make the girl two years older.
One possible explanation might be the fact that the book revolves around a Led Zeppelin styled band named Celestial Praylin. I’m not a big enough Zeppelin fan to have been able to understand the similarities between them and the fake band, but the cover of the book and every review I’ve read of it has mentioned Zeppelin. D’Arch Smith used to be close with Jimmy Page. He was the guy who got Page all his books on Crowley, and he later dedicated his Books of the Beast to the rocker. Anyways, as we all know, Jimmy Page repeatedly raped a 14 year old when he was in his late twenties, so maybe it just felt natural to include a bit of child abuse in a Led-Zeppeliny book. Anyone wanting to play the “14 is old enough to give consent” or “times were different back then” cards can fuck right off. He knew it was wrong and he did it anyway. Page is a nonce.
The lettering of the title on the cover of Alembic is clearly based on the signature of Aleister Crowley although I’m not entirely sure why. It probably has something to do with the magical child/homunculus motifs that run through the book.
I was a bit surprised with Alembic. I really liked the other books that I’ve read by this author, and I had wanted to read this one for ages. There were several parts that made me laugh out loud, and there are some cool ideas in here, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected to. Given the role of alchemy plays in the narrator’s life, I suspect that there were levels of meaning in this book that went totally over my head.