Angelica Pabst, a brilliant and beautiful graduate student, twenty-seven years old, who is the object of Persse’s chaste desire. Adept in the field of contemporary literary theory, she is writing a dissertation on romance from Heliodorus to Barbara Cartland. A foundling, she has been reared by a KLM executive who has bestowed on her the gift of unlimited air travel.
Lily Papps, Angelica’s twin sister. Their only distinguishing feature is birthmarks high on one thigh that, when they stand together in their bikinis, make them look as if they are inside quotation marks. Not knowing that Angelica has a twin sister, least of all one who works as a stripper and porn star, Persse mistakenly believes that the face he sees outside Soho clubs, in porn theaters, and in Amsterdam’s red-light district is Angelica’s. Only after he has made love to Lily (believing that she is Angelica) does Persse learn that Angelica has not only a twin but a fiancé, named Peter McGarrigle.
Philip Swallow, the head of the English department at Rummidge University and author of Hazlitt and the Amateur Reader. He is a recurring character in the author’s work; since his initial appearance in Changing Places (1975), Swallow has become professionally and sexually more assertive. During one of his lecture trips, he resumes his affair with Joy Simpson, whom he believed to be dead. He loses her later as a result of his very British preoccupation with appearances. At the MLA session devoted to literary theory, Swallow is asked at the last minute to stand in for Rudyard Parkinson and represent the naïvely conventional approach.
Morris Zapp, a professor of English at Euphoric State in California. He exemplifies the new international scholar, jetting from conference to conference. His latest book is appropriately titled Beyond Criticism. After being kidnapped by an Italian terrorist group, which mistakenly believes that his former wife will pay ransom, he decides to give up Deconstruction (and his “Textuality as Striptease” lecture) to pursue the more domestic pleasures of life with Thelma Ringbaum, who is about to be divorced from a former colleague.
Fulvia Morgana, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Padua and, with her husband, a well-to-do supporter of Marxist radicals, including the ones who kidnap Zapp. She seduces Zapp, mistakenly confusing him with the sexual animal that his former wife, Desiree Byrd, vilifies in her best-selling book about their marriage.
Siegfried von Turpitz, a former Panzer commander and currently a German scholar specializing in reception theory. He is caught plagiarizing Persse’s unpublished dissertation and mystifying one of his perfectly normal hands by concealing it inside an enigmatic black glove.
Michel Tardieu, a homosexual professor of narratology at the Sorbonne.
Rudyard Parkinson, a South African who has turned himself into the quintessential English academic, the Oxford don, stuffy, conventional, celibate, snide, and malicious. He damns Zapp’s book and praises Swallow’s in a Times Literary Supplement review solely to promote his own name and position among the possible candidates for the newly created UNESCO chair of literary studies.
Rodney Wainwright, an instructor at the University of North Queensland whose efforts to get beyond the opening of his paper for Zapp’s Future of Criticism conference in Jerusalem repeatedly fail. At the moment of truth, he is saved by an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.
Arthur Kingfisher, the major literary theorist of his time. He has had no new ideas and no new erections in years. At novel’s end, this fisher king is freed from his sterility by Persse, confers the coveted UNESCO chair of literary studies on himself, and announces his intention to marry his Korean assistant, Ji-Moon Lee. Kingfisher is also exposed as the natural father of Angelica and Lily.
Ronald Frobisher, the British novelist who has been blocked ever since, six years earlier, Robin Dempsey showed him a computer analysis of his style. He has a brief affair with Desiree Byrd.
Desiree Byrd, Zapp’s former wife and author of Difficult Days, a book about her marriage. Currently blocked in the writing of Men, she has an affair with Ronald Frobisher at the Reception Theory conference in Heidelberg.
Miss Sibyl Maiden, a retired professor and former pupil of Jessie Weston. Twenty-seven years earlier, when she was forty-six, she bore Arthur Kingfisher’s twin daughters, Angelica and Lily, then abandoned them in the restroom aboard a KLM airliner.
Robin Dempsey, who is demoralized professionally and sexually. He carries on a lengthy, obsessive conversation with Eliza, a computer program modeled on the psychiatric interview, never realizing that a colleague is manipulating Eliza’s responses.
Cheryl Summerbee, a blonde and cheerful checker for British Air at Heathrow who livens up her job by making seat selections according to her perception of passengers’ characters. She is responsible for Zapp meeting Fulvia Morgana and for Frobisher missing the MLA meeting. She loses her job but unknowingly gains Persse’s love.
Peter McGarrigle, the McGarrigle with whom Angelica is in love and to whom the Limerick University thought it was offering the job that mistakenly went to Persse.