The novel focuses on Lenore Beadsman, a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator from a wealthy and eccentric family, who isn't sure whether she exists or not. Over the course of the novel, she has to deal with the disappearance/escape of her great-grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, (and a number of other patients and employees) from the nursing home the Beadsman family also owns, the increasingly obvious neurotic jealousy of her boyfriend Rick/Dick Vigorous, and the sudden verbosity of her cockatiel Vlad the Impaler and his proceeding fame as the co-host of an Evangelical Christian TV show.
Of course, this just scratches the surface. The novel is primarily preoccupied with language and the power of words, and is told using various formats, including straight narrative, sections of just dialogue, therapy transcripts, tv transcripts, Rick's journal entries, and a in-universe-fictional writing by Rick centering around a man named Monroe Fieldbinder. There are also Loads and Loads of Characters.
This work provides examples of:
- Big Eater: We first meet Norman Bombardini, owner of the building in which Lenore works, at a restaurant where he's beginning his plan to eat until there's no more room for anyone else in the universe. It's described... horrifically.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Beadsman clan, wealthy from baby food ever since great great grandfather, Stonecipher Beadsman, founded Stonecipheco.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: Youngest brother Stoncipher La Vache Beadman, though he does do a lot of work, just not his own.
- Cry into Chest: Lenore cries into Andrew Lang's chest towards the end. This is contrasted to Rick's breakdown in the Great Ohio Desert (Inelegant Blubbering below):The time last night when Lenore Beadsman cried in front of AndrewSealander Lang was the first time she ever cried in front of anybodyelse, at all.Rick Vigorous has cried in front of lots of people
- Freudian Excuse: Rick has a really really tiny penis. There's a lot of talk of "membranes" and "penetration" and "incapability".
- Generation Xerox: Lenore has the same hair cut as Lenore.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Rick Vigorous turns into one over his ironically green-eyed rival Andrew Lang.
- Good Ol' Boy: Invoked by Andrew "Wang Dang" Lang starting in college because he was from Texas and everyone at college has to have "a thing".
- High School Hustler: La Vache helps other students with their work in exchange for drugs and money. He also gets way with almost never going to class, because, hey, you can't expect the poor kid with one leg to crawl his way to class every day.
- Inelegant Blubbering: Rick Vigorous near the end. See Cry Into Chest above.
- Mary Sue: An In-Universe example in the hero of Rick Vigorous' stories, Monroe Fieldbinder. Initially fairly realistic, by the end of the book he is facing down RV's therapist in a twisted, idealized version of a scene we have just seen play out in reality. In RV's version, Fieldbinder excoriates and humiliates the therapist, who is characterized in increasingly insulting terms. This shows not only what RV wishes had happened, but his slipping grip on reality.
- Missing Mom: The mother of Lenore and her siblings has been in a mental institution since the birth of the youngest sibling. The events leading to this are... bizarre.
- Single-Issue Psychology: Averted. Despite all the talk of membranes, the characters' neuroses are... complex. Although Dr. Jay seems to be rather fixated on hygiene.
- There Are No Therapists: Averted, although it's questionable how good a therapist he is.
- Villainous Breakdown: For the first few hundred pages Rick comes off as rather sympathetic, if pathetic and clingy. Sometime around going with Lenore to Amherst and bringing meeting Andrew Lang, his possessiveness and insecurity start getting scary.
- Villainous Glutton: Norman Bombardini, of a sort. He plans to eat until he's as big as the universe and there's no room for "other"... not exactly heroic. He does invite Lenore to be his yin.