Jeremy M. Davies - his book deserves a place on that high shelf of honest, hard, crazy-making, because crazily-made, American story collections. Davies himself deserves a place, on Don Barthelme's lap, in hell

Jeremy M. Davies, The Knack of Doing, Godine, 2016.

Perverse, playful, and highly comic stories that take dead aim at fictional convention.

Playful, fantastical, gruesome, and tender by turns, this debut collection of short fiction by Jeremy M. Davies runs the gamut from parody to tragedy and back. "Sad White People" follows a souring hipster love affair that finds itself brutally hijacked by a far more interesting story, while "The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)" introduces us to a dominatrix whose life is splintered into a series of children's brainteasers. "The Excise-Man" pastiches Robert Burns and Flann O'Brien in a rowdy tale of moonshine and tax evasion, while "Forkhead Box" catalogs the professional and personal embarrassments of a New York State executioner in the days of the Rosenbergs. Finally, the epic "Delete the Marquis" looks back to the nineteenth-century novel, chronicling the woes of an impecunious ghostwriter who has inadvertently turned the entire world into a lurid fiction. Overflowing with "wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance" (Harry Mathews), Davies's fiction takes dead aim at literary convention while reimagining the art of storytelling for the twenty-first century.

Davies has written a challenging but exceptional aria of a novel. This weird portrait of an unreliable and eloquent narrator could become a cult classic.—Publishers Weekly

"Jeremy M. Davies' The Knack of Doing deserves a place on that high shelf of honest, hard, crazy-making, because crazily-made, American story collections. Davies himself deserves a place, on Don Barthelme's lap, in hell."  - Joshua Cohen

"Intoxicating, really dark, like a black chocolate bar deviled with morning glory seeds and strychnine. Emblazoned on the label: Not for insomniacs. Could be lethal. INFLAMMABLE! Addictive. And very, very GOOD!"  - Rikki Ducornet

Form’s affects are a sordid affair. In Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Viktor Shklovsky’s notes to Elsa hide longing behind every stray thought. Harry Mathews’s sixty-one pleasure-seekers turn Singular Pleasures into a Queneaun exercise in style per masturbation. At the other end of the emotive spectrum, there’s Edouard Levé’s autofictional death note, Suicide, a measured exercise in despair darkened by the author’s very real and tragic post-publication exit. William Gass, the great, late-coming curmudgeon of late modernist curmudgeons, also nestles negativity into the contours of his forms. In his “Art of Fiction” interview for the Paris Review, Gass emphasizes the force of feeling in his work: “I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects.” He goes on to apply a darker coat of blue to his already wine-dark oeuvre, stating famously, bluntly, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” Love and hate, hope and despair—our radical, if cozy, binaries. When pushed to the fore, form’s feeling comes to rest casually at the extremes.
But is there any room for, dare we say, a little fun in all this? Lo, the work of Jeremy M. Davies arrives, gags and ball gag both in hand, to fidget and fuss with our pat distinctions. For Davies—a student of Gass and a former senior editor at Dalkey Archive Press, where he was responsible for bringing Mina Loy, Gerald Murnane, and, you guessed it, Levé to U.S. readers—the game is quite seriously not that serious. In “The Pleasure of Perversity,” an essay that appeared in the 2015 collection The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde, Davies ponders the specifics of his literary project: “My commitment is, I think, to surprise. Surprise and pleasure. Surprise and pleasure and form. (Homoousios.) I’m too lazy to be ashamed of this.” The purpose of writing, as I understand from Davies’s holy trinity, is the crafting of forms that best carry, from writer to reader, this surprise and pleasure. Form is then a tool, like a basket or a gun, constructed to deliver these affective effects. “My investment is in pleasure,” he writes. “The pleasure of the reader, the pleasure of the artificer, and how/why that pleasure can be arranged or delayed, prolonged or ‘weaponized.’” Of course, one can and does derive great pleasure from Shklovsky’s sleights of hand, or Mathews’s variations, or Levé’s auto-realism, or Gass’s relentless poetics; but with Davies, the pleasures are slightly aslant. One gets the sense that what’s at stake is nothing less serious than a joke (that old “weaponizer” of language and logic); that the tension of form is the same tension we feel in the buildup to a punch line, ever-delayed; that we’re all in on it, and it’s just a matter of time before this pesky rug gets pulled out. Because Davies, in the end, is damned funny.
Fancy, Davies’s latest novel, has an elevator pitch’s elevator pitch: Rumrill, an elderly shut-in, delivers a series of labyrinthine pet-sitting instructions to a young couple tasked with watching his many cats. Along the way we learn of Rumrill’s past as a librarian, his ontological domestic anxieties, his apprenticeship in the art of cat-fancying, and a brief tryst in the stacks that haunts him to this day. It’s clear from the first page that the reader is in for something terrifyingly original, as the book is structured around a repetitive monologue wherein “Rumrill said:” and “He added:” introduce each new paragraph, alternating back and forth, ad infinitum (and ad libitum, as it soon becomes), for the book’s entirety. One inevitably catches the whiff of Beckett and Bernhard in the mix, but Davies’s structure and its startling unity of odd form to even odder content seems entirely sui generis. To wit—in an interview with Scott Esposito at BOMB Magazine, Davies discusses the constellation of writers behind his novel, and riffs on the two B’s explicitly: “Bernhard is inherently hilarious . . . while Beckett is mainly giving us set pieces which, while funny, don’t have quite the same wallop.” Fancy then navigates a channel between its form’s inherent humor and its content’s overt humor to land somewhere between the two giants of the mad monologue. Or, to dip into theory, Davies’s “Rumrill said/He added” structure allows him to be both diegetically and mimetically funny at the same time, creating a book out of a single scene—Rumrill holding court in his foyer—which itself contains the novel’s numerous set pieces. Which is to say that Fancy’s structure is a risk that pays off spectacularly, as far as pleasure and surprise and form go.
As with any work indebted to the formalists, or the Oulipo, or, well, William Gass, there are deep structures at work in Fancy as well. The page of “Sources” at the book’s finish reads like a who’s who of the twentieth-century musical avant-garde: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Ornette Coleman, and Steve Reich all make appearances, along with a host of other figures from the worlds of classical music and jazz. Where Gass used Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism in writing The Tunnel and Middle C, Davies’s structure inFancy seems to draw particularly from minimalist, phase, and process music to create a series of phrases and motifs that develop within and across the novel’s repetitions. One need only listen to Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field or Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians to hear these dense, shifting compositions’ immediate affinities with the underlying music of Fancy. Indeed, Reich’s theoretical stake in the essay “Music as a Gradual Process” sounds an awful lot like Davies’s own: “What I'm interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.” It’s worth noting, to this point, that Davies eventually incorporates a third voice into the “Rumrill said/He added” structure: that of Brocklebank, the deceased Austrian cat-fancier who inculcated Rumrill into his practice. And through Brocklebank, Davies nearly tips his hand. Musing on cat-fancying as a system of constraints, Brocklebank notes that his method includes “successive evocations each consisting of the same sequence of thematic ideas, but differently proportioned and developed each time.”
In Fancy, these sequences are both narrative and figural—set pieces, on a larger scale, and images and vocal tics (e.g. “Istanbul” and “onionskin”) on a smaller scale, which continually reappear over the course of the novel. Of the larger units, perhaps the best (i.e., funniest) example is the phasing of Rumrill’s ontological anxiety (“fear, when one is out in the big world, away from one’s home, that home and those parts of it which have become most familiar . . . have somehow ceased”) with his sexual liaison (“a blowjob in the library stacks by someone who really knew her business”). Across much of the novel, these narrative units evolve seemingly independently of one another. To put his ontological fears to rest, Rumrill attempts to construct an elaborate system of mirrors to keep watch over his house: “The idea was to provide myself a safe path . . . upon which I would be able to confirm easily the continued existence of my home.” Naturally, in the course of such a book, this measure fails when he spies, post-construction, “nothing more than a reflection into the window of the house next door.” The next time we see him grapple with this issue of substantiality and gaze, it’s through a speculation about his once-lover. From modest “activities more or less novel to me at this time,” the tryst in the stacks develops, by book’s end, into a full-blown fantasy. The lover, having forsaken the library for more exotic locales—“let us say ‘Istanbul’”—seeks out a quickie with a foreign soldier aboard a train and soon finds herself “fucked by this starched soldier with or without a cigarette in his mouth.” As the raunch develops, it’s soon clear that Rumrill is focused not on the action at hand, but on the woman’s ability to “keep an eye on” her suitcase, speculating that “as long as she can see it in front of her—see the image that initiated her anxiety—it must be safe.” Thus we’ve circled back around to Rumrill’s object-oriented anxieties, now displaced via an elaborately imagined tableau. Like Reich’s tape loops, the narrative phases double, echo, unify, and break again into echoes, “with carbon copies on pink onionskin.”
Of course, it’s only natural that Davies’s debut story collection, The Knack of Doing, takes his commitment to pleasure and form and twists it thirteen different ways. Unlike a formally constrained novel—where structures and themes can develop and mingle and careen enough to be clear—a typical question for shorter form-focused works is how quickly one needs to begin satisfying the reader’s curiosity, how quickly to surprise and delight, before this little tales ends, or better, stops. The dynamite, in this case, must have a shorter fuse, if one at all. Where Fancy’s distinctive form creates a Total Problem for the author to solve, Knack presents a series of smaller stakes—some traditional, some extreme—for Davies to work through. One can’t shake the occasional image, when reading formally sophisticated pieces of any color, of a technician sitting in a workshop with a set of problems laid out before her; but Davies’s work always arises in toto—problem and solution, feeling and form, fully realized.
Across each of its thirteen delirious stories, Knack displays a menagerie of brilliant and bizarre explorations of the short form—cataloging diverse approaches to structure, perspective, appropriation, and genre—always with the same revelation of humor and wit. To pick on a few—“Sad White People” interrupts a hipster love affair with a freakish accident when the lovers are torn apart, literally, by a falling sheet of glass. Davies, as you might imagine at this point, is more interested in the glass: “Consider: the pane had suffered for forty years with a single, fixed view, seen complexions clear and cloud inside the office . . . countless faces excavated by age.” In “The Excise Man,” a lynch mob hunts a fellow moonshiner caught in the custody of the exciseman, who leaves strangely divine happenings along his route. This particular piece draws its pop from a collective perspective, that is, the mob’s: “[So] we go down to the lockup in a lynching mood, but as yet undecided who it’d be best to string up.” Struck by an unnamed diagnosis, the narrator in “Illness as Metaphor” contends with a host of family friends eager to identify the bug. But soon, language—or an elliptical, diseased version of it (à la Wallace’s “The Depressed Person”)—takes over: “[In] order to speak with clarity about my illness, I would first need to be well; but, being well, it would be impossible to know the first thing about my illness.” The title story traps its protagonist between two generations of do-ers: a granduncle, “a machine fit only to talk about the Hitler war,” who survived the Holocaust by means of a knife, and his own son, “Junior the cabbie Casanova,” who spends all his time seducing passengers, “particularly if [he happens] to forget about the fare.” Whether it’s sex or violence, the narrator can’t quite find his own knack for action, and is cast instead upon the precipice of doubt:
Is it that it skips a generation? He means this knack of doing. His uncle and now his son are or were, what, in the thick of life, the marrow or whatever, they decide and their decisions have consequences, they are agents, they act, they effect. Or: the species, the culture, it acts through them—they are in concert with what is basic in the animal, while he, in his neck of the woods, at his desk, in the dark . . . he is the chaff, he is what’s discarded, cut out, boiled away; already he’s overripe.
As with much of Davies’s best work, there’s a candid sense of authorial anxiety underpinning the passage, as the narrator himself calls into question, albeit obliquely, the nature of character, action, and plot. He identifies these specters of Literary Empire as necessary—desirable, even—only to march forward as stubbornness dictates. It’s a thorny response to the culture, both popular and literary; a march out into the darkness.
Knack’s finest story is perhaps its opener, “Forkhead Box,” which shows Davies at his most sensitive—to language, to story, to feeling—and illuminates a possible way forward for the author’s future work. The piece  unfurls its contours in the first sentence: “What interests me most is that Schaumann, the state executioner, bred mice.” The story of Schaumann, an executioner “inclined towards plainness,” arises as an interest of the narrator, who sets about telling his version of a life’s story, even going so far as to cater to his character’s preferred aesthetic: “In deference to Schaumann, I too am trying to adopt a style of meticulous plainness.” And plain is what we get. For Davies, who often writes long, the sentences in “Forkhead Box” are noticeably clipped. Of Schaumann’s profession, the narrator quickly notes, “He never wrote his memoirs. All his predecessors did. But he had missed killing the Rosenbergs. By just a few years. Can you imagine the sense of professional loss?” It’s a fascinating gesture toward a bare free indirect speech, where style substantiates affect and form rustles up feeling; not quite caring, but close. A mock-interview portion threads through the story, asking questions of Schaumann, or the narrator, or both: “So was he ashamed of it . . .Are they scared of you?” Much like Fancy, it’s a playful sequencing of narrator and character, form and content, with neither leaping on the back of the other. And Davies warms it all with the sheer wealth of his humor. “I am trying to adopt a style of scrupulous plainness!” Schaumann shouts up from the grave, to his family, to his coworkers, to the reader. In the end, there’s room for a last rib between life and death, a joke fit for the coffin’s constraint.
So, is the way forward thorny or plain, or some heady hit of both? Knowing Davies, it’s certain to be a surprise. - Hal Hlavinka

The Knack of Doing, Jeremy M. Davies’s first collection of short fiction, is a master class in writing by constraint. The constraints are playful, as if Davies has posed a series of small challenges for himself — write a story by letter, by repetition, by list, by blurb. Davies delights in the unlikelihood of stories. That he can draw drama from unlikely forms and sources animates his writing. He has the defiant air of an escape artist, finding elaborate ways to constrict himself, then freeing himself with a flourish. These escapes are displays of his talent: his virtuosic language, his grammatical panache, his narrative dexterity.
Davies is quick to establish the rules for each story. In “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” these rules are literal: Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing serve as the story’s scaffolding. The narrator composes a sort of essay-story as a response to Vonnegut. In “The Sinces,” each sentence begins, “Since you went away.” The sentences grow longer and more complex, taking on more emotional freight as the story progresses. “On the Furtiveness of Kurtz” is a six-part treatise on the fellow faculty member who ruins the narrator’s career and marriage. “Delete the Marquis,” told in competing numbered sequences, takes place in a carriage en route to a mesmerist’s estate. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is both a blurb for a friend’s book and a backhanded takedown. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” describes sixteen items, asking after each description, “What am I?” The story, about a fetish worker named May, emerges from the Q and A. For instance:
11. A tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a stapler, a jar of mayonnaise, three paper clips, a rubber bone, a pocket fan, a blindfold, three rolls of quarters, pancake mix, a nine-pin, two thousand dollars in cash, a Japanese radish, a water pistol, carpet samples in beige and white, fifty yards of twine, a yellow pad, a phone-book, a fountain pen, a brass alarm clock, a clown’s nose, a cowboy hat, fishnet stockings, a bottle of mineral water, a jump-rope, a square foot of Astroturf, a baguette, a nail-file, an inflatable flotation device, rubber gloves, felt gloves, three handkerchiefs, a false beard, a wig (blonde), a wig (white), a football, five refrigerator magnets with painted representations of classical composers, a slender vase, a box of Epsom salts, and a VHS copy of Lucille Ball in The Fuller Brush Girl (1950). What am I?
(Answer: The customer’s briefcase is full of strange shapes. May, on tiptoe, can’t keep from trying to see the combination he dials to open it.)
Davies revels in list-making, and here, a story formatted as a list of objects contains its own virtuosic object-list. The objects are familiar, mundane, but collected in the customer’s briefcase they become strange, even menacing. The customer takes on a vaguely sinister quality — as vague as his unidentifiable fetish. Davies is attracted to lists as an organizing rule, especially numbered ones. It’s easy to see why: enumeration forces the writer to operate in sequence, helps control the acceleration of the piece, and provides a channel for escalation. For a writer seeking a form of constraint, a numbered list is a pretty generative one. Both “Vonnegut” and “Riddles” are numbered, as are “On the Furtiveness of Kurtz” and “Delete the Marquis.” “Marquis” presents the three characters — the narrator, the fellow traveler, and the Marquis — in three numbered sequences, which begin to overlap as the narrator’s reality starts to fracture. The story is further formatted by indent variations, so that the narrowest account, that of the Marquis, occurs as quoted speech within the traveler’s account, in turn contained within the narrator’s. The three perspectives nest within each other. The numbered sequences, proof of the writer’s control, prove the narrator’s imprisonment.
Davies’s stories are energetically self-consciousness and self-scrutinizing. In “Vonnegut,” the rules for writing become a prompt for writing; as the narrator responds to and amends the rules, narrator and writer converge. In “Kurtz,” Kurtz gives the narrator storytelling tips, saying, “I hate . . . stories that begin with a pronoun.” In “Delete the Marquis,” the story gives itself, and the collection as a whole, a onceover:
I hastened to clarify to the man a point of rudimentary narrative logic that I felt had long since slipped through his inexpert authorial fingers, namely that there must be something at stake in order for a story to hold the interest of a reader or listener, and that his tale had already sacrificed all possibility of achieving this necessary tension with the introduction of the notion that there were no reliable incidences whatever in his fiction but only suppositions that could at a moment’s notice be overturned by the unbelievable character of the Marquis . . . such that, all in all, Victor was positing a world without rules and without consequences and so without, in a word, drama.
Davies does furnish his stories with traditional sources of “necessary tension” — there are dissolving relationships, estranged parents, even a manhunt. But the constraints, funneling the stories into unexpected channels, generate their own drama: will the writer be able to pull off these daring tricks? Is he insane? Can this really be the stuff of fiction?
Implausibly, against his self-imposed odds, Davies executes. Each tidily constructed story possesses its own logical rigor. Davies is an incredibly gifted writer whose stories contain wit, humor, and compassion — the stuff indeed. He is also a careful one — a sure-stepper. His constraints are parameters. He engages a sense of play, allows himself to enjoy the pleasures of language, but it’s a circumscribed play. In his attention to detail and design, he’s like a watchmaker — a compliment, as watches are nice and very hard to make. But in fiction, it’s more fun when the watch, after pages and pages of diligent ticking, explodes, starts screaming, or shoots poop out of its dial — does something, anything, to upend the pattern or upset the conceit. I longed for the fictive mechanisms to bust down their retaining walls — or at least to see more wobble and tremble. Enough tidiness, enough constraint. By the end of the collection, so constrained, I felt a sense of my own confinement; so confined, I could only admire the well-built prison walls for so long.
These stories reward re-reading, and each time I returned I sensed a stronger emotional presence, felt more acutely the plight of the narrator. Here is the father-narrator of “Ten Letters”: “And I, in my office, have become ashamed of my arrogance. I don’t know a thing about any of you. I don’t know a thing about the world.” Davies can call up a tender moment, but often his narrators possess an intelligence and erudition that can feel cold and clinical — of the mind and not the heart. It’s the narrative voice of the smartest person in the room, too smart for his own good, his gifts a torment. Davies exudes that Wallace-like quality: the intelligence with no off-switch, not even a dimmer. Davies’s fiction, like Wallace’s, shows that possessing such intelligence can be alienating, that an analytical mind can be self-consuming, and that the smartest people can be the biggest dopes. That is perhaps the emotional thesis of this collection: to be wary of, and certainly to pity, the intellect that precludes happiness. Davies’s narrators, a collection of misfits, pedants, and layabouts, are compelling voices, but difficult people. They are easy to listen to, hard to love. Yet that is what they long for. They’d even settle for not being alone. - Walker Rutter-Bowman

When hyperirony meets sincerity: A writing manual for the present
This note is divided in two parts: a general complaint, and lots of praise for one story.
I don't usually read short stories; I chose this because the author was editor at Dalkey Press, and because he'd published the wonderful Gerald Murnane. These stories are in a mode that's been common since Barthelme and other first-generation postmodernists, and especially since McSweeney's: it's as if writing needs to show that it is sharply self-aware at all moments; the author can't let a sentence go by without tweaking it to demonstrate his awareness of the contemporary quandary of writing, which can never be sufficiently distanced and ironic, and which seems always to be about to collapse into the naively fictional. Because this strategy is applied to nearly every sentence (it's as if a lapse in energy would ruin everything), the opening of the first story is enough to conjure it. I'll quote sentence by sentence so I can provide the sorts of comments a reader might ponder as she reads:
"What interests me most is that Schaumann, the state executioner, bred mice."
The first four words: it begins informally, apparently. But this informality is studied, and the reader should appreciate that fact. An executioner who breeds mice: the double surprise implies it wouldn't have been enough -- not surreal enough, not imaginative enough -- if it had been either mice or an executioner. The double surprise is a signal of the signal strength, to use the kind of self-reflective punning metaphor Davies enjoys.
"In his spare time."
The second sentence is a second sign of the story's apparent informality, but once again it's actually carefully chosen, in this case to balance the longer first sentence and to underscore the informality, among other things.
"Sirens, ozone, exhaust are all words I might use to entice you into thinking yourself interested in the scene at Sing Sing where Schaumann, of whom you'll hear quite a bit more, was dispatching such and such a killer on a day, let's say, in spring."
First three words: the narrator's telling us that he's not telling us, not quite at least. This isn't a naive realist story. "To entice you": means this is going to be a monologue between the narrator and each reader, imagined individually, and that it's going to be in the conditional mood, because the narrator knows us well enough to go ahead and write his description, but he won't, because we're the kind of reader who wouldn't put up with anything so straightforward. "Let's say": same. "In spring": emphasizing the narrator's familiarity with us, in that he knows what sorts of things don't interest us -- such as precise meteorological descriptions.
In general I find varieties of "McSweeney's" prose hard to take. I don't find them funny, first of all, even though I realize that ideal readers often do. This kind of prose can be entertaining, but only in an exhausting way, and I don't usually know why I need to be exhausted. As I read I tend to think less about the way the narrative's going, or the narrator's or implied author's proposed forms of self-awareness, or his positioning himself among his predecessors, but instead about concepts like the precious, the coy, the arch, the fey. From my point of view it isn't funny or amusing, for example, to read this halfway through the opening story:
"Sorry, did I say that Schaumann didn't equate his mice and his prisoners? But you know I can't be trusted. I come from a broken home."
My unsympathetic and impatient perspective prevents me from being an adequate reader of much of this kind of relentlessly self-aware North American style postmodern writing. However there is one very interesting story, or essay, in this collection: "Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta."
It is a sort of manifesto of the impossibility of teaching fiction, or (the same thing) of knowing what fiction is. As such it rivals anything that's appeared on the subject since Ben Lerner's novels, the discussions around Knausgaard (of which the best so far is Toril Moi's essay, online), or Shields's "Reality Hunger."
The story (or essay) opens with a half-page story fragment in italics. The narrator then wonders what he's got, and how he might use it. He decides to transcribe and comment on Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction from "Bagombo Snuff Box." Davies's narrator is nonplussed by Vonnegut's instructions, and he treats them as if they made no sense. These pages are still arch, coy, wilfully dense, obstinately ironically obtuse about Vonnegut's simpler senses of fiction. Davies's narrator pretends not to know what characters, plots, and such things are. But then, near the end of his comments to Vonnegut's third rule, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water," after remarking on a story he'd heard about someone who wants to go blind, Daniels has his baffled narrator say this:
"... I don't see how words want, or what words want. I know, however, that I do want to read a story that wants me to want to go blind. I want to root for a story ["rooting" is another of Vonnegut's desiderata, which the narrator affects to not understand] that wants me to want something I could not possibly want." [p. 87]
This is sincere, suddenly. Similar moments are scattered through the story:
"Unbelievable that fiction, still, to teachers of fiction, is a dollhouse in which to stage-manage suffering effigies." [p. 94]
And he then presents a series of questions, boldfaced like Vonnegut's, as his response:
"1. Is it an aid to the writing of fiction to be told to think or not think a certain way about the writing of fiction?"
"3. Is it an aid to the writing of fiction to be told to read everything, or to read certain things, or to avoid reading certain things, or to avoid reading at all?"

He then remarks that "it may be accurate" to describe fiction "as essentially a form of attention, attention specifically to language, attention to the 'absent friends' we can make believe that this language describes." (p. 96).
It's a spectacular list of six questions, all very serious. If I read it as a sketch for a critique of teaching, it's as pessimistic and corrosive as some ideas I explored in relation to visual art in "Why Art Cannot be Taught." It would be an effective manifesto against teaching.
There are more conclusions and also insights about the failure of people who teach fiction to understand fiction (p. 97, third paragraph). And then, suddenly, disappointingly, he returns to his jokes and ornaments (p. 97, penultimate paragraph). And before he ends he quotes, unironically and without criticism, a passage from Murnane about putting sentences together. What makes all this more convincing than Lerner's multiple poses and proposals regarding the veneer of fiction is the suddenness of the drop to straightforward statement and the anxious scramble back into character(s).
This is a really wonderful essay (or story), with the Zeitgeist packed into it. It's the sudden veering from dizzying precipices of irony and self-awareness, down into really refreshing but apparently dangerous depths of conviction, that makes it good. - James Elkins https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2291353328

Not Sorry: An Interview with Jeremy M. Davies

Jeremy M. Davies, Fancy, Ellipsis, 2015.
an excerpt published in The Brooklyn Rail
an excerpt published in The Collagist

An elderly shut-in delivers a series of pet-sitting instructions to a young couple who’ve come to watch over his many, many cats. A story (or series of stories) about the ways that methodical, abstract systems interface with messy, personal obsessions, Fancy is a kissing cousin to the work of both the late Henry James and the  early Thomas Bernhard: an object lesson in how our need to make sense of the world winds up devouring it whole.

Rumrill, the narrator of Davies’s (Rose Alley) fanciful novel, lives alone, surrounded by cats. He tells his story to a couple, the Pickles, who are there to interview for the position of caretakers for the cats. What unfolds is Rumrill’s wordy story of how he came to fancy cats under the tutelage of an eccentric and senile Austrian widower, Mr. Brocklebank. Each paragraph of the novel begins with “Rumrill said” or “he added,” and this repetition has a hypnotic effect, nudging the reader deeper into the underground caverns of the story. Later in the book, the narrative is interspersed with writings from Brocklebank’s surprisingly lucid and insightful multivolume system of cat fancying. Brocklebank views cat fancying as an art and philosophy—a way of organizing the world. Davies slowly peels away layers of contradiction to reveal the abstract mental gymnastics Rumrill uses to function in the world. The implied question is whether Rumrill invented Brocklebank, or the other way around? Is Rumrill/Brocklebank insane and simply speaking to a cat named Pickles? Is it all a dream? The possibilities raise existential and ontological issues that Rumrill addresses head-on in the course of his narrative. Davies has written a challenging but exceptional aria of a novel. This weird portrait of an unreliable and eloquent narrator could become a cult classic. — Publishers Weekly

Whether it dissolves a genre or invents a new one, Fancy will be the most weirdly riveting and beautifully composed book you read this year. In an unlikely literary sleight-of-hand, Jeremy M. Davies transforms an agoraphobe’s catsitting instructions into a virtuoso meditation on being, perception, and solitude. He has written an utterly original novel with the fever of a Bernhard monologue and the command of a Schoenberg score. Eric Lundgren

Jeremy M. Davies’s protagonist, Rumrill, takes his garrulous place among fiction’s grandest denizens of the interior: Bartleby, Gregor Samsa, and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Fancy is by turns frightening, delightful, but always quite strange.Curtis White

Rumrill, ostensibly interviewing Mr. & Mrs. Pickles for the job of housekeepers, draws us irresistibly, if with digressions, into an account of his caring for Mr. Brocklebank and his thirty cats. His manic, hypnotic voice captivates us with its rhythmic swing between “Rumrill said“ and “He added” — complicated by quotes from Brocklebank’s exhaustive philosophical system of “cat fancying.” But are there thirty cats? Any? Is there a Mr. Brocklebank? A Mr. & Mrs. Pickles? One Rumrill? Three? Nothing is certain, but everything hilarious.Rosmarie Waldrop

Jeremy M. Davies is an incomparable stylist… the machinery of reported speech accrues its inexorable narrative momentum, and a house full of cats becomes a minefield of ethical chaos. Fancy is a true tour de force, a symphonic mise en abyme of such reticulate splendor that a reader can only be awed by its richness, precision, obsession, and gorgeous perversity.—Mary Caponegro

[A] dark vision of the self fundamentally alone, tying together the planks of its life raft system by system, or as the case may be, cat by cat.Necessary Fiction

Jeremy Davies just might be reclaiming comedy’s place in the frequently dour, futile world of modernist literature . . . . Alternately slapstick and pokerfaced, and impeccably timed, Fancy is laugh-out-loud funny.—Scott Esposito

An ingenious and witty polyphonic invention.Times Literary Supplement

A Special Form of Crazy, a conversation with Jeremy M. Davies, author of Fancy
Interview by Scott Esposito


Jeremy M. Davies, Rose Alley. Counterpath Press, 2009.

When violence erupts on the streets of Paris in May 1968, a hapless international film crew finds itself stranded during the shooting of a preposterous low-budget blue movie about notorious 18th century erotic poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. A deadpan and digressive behind-the-scenes catalog of the actors, filmmakers, bystanders, and subjects involved in this movie, ROSE ALLEY is also a fantastical and venomous love letter to French film and literature, obsessive collectors, pornography, language, revolution, misanthropy, the joys of cross-cultural misunderstanding, and other peculiar objects of affection. As Harry Mathews writes, "you have no excuse not to read this book."

[E]ach chapter of Davies’s book appropriately ambushes the reader, not with brutality but with wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance that propels us from one sizzling and often hilarious surprise to the next. You have no excuse for not reading this book.Harry Mathews

[A]n impeccable stylist who creates a richness full of Nabokovean Pynchonistics, totally original, dressed in wacky erudition. Steve Katz

Few, it seems, are the storytellers who can pack a life into every line. Those of Thomas Pynchon and Barry Hannah, who can sum up a whole character’s life and identity within the span of a paragraph, and then move on, and yet still leave the reader with a resonance that that life has meant something -- these are tactics rare and difficult, and yet some of the most rewarding and brain-rending modes for those who’d ask more of a story than simple arcs and turns. In this tradition -- call it, maybe, that of the big-brained, wildly associative creator -- Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley from Counterpath Press, is a new and supremely exciting node, one packed to the gills with not only several lifetimes, clearly rendered, but also with a profound sense of ultimate authorial control.
On its face, and in pristine form, Rose Alley is the story of a cryptic, violent film, set in 1968 Paris during a series of student riots. These territorial subjects, though, are less the novel’s bread than the histories of the bodies of their creators, which therein, they as well contain. Rose Alley, then, is propagated via the cast and crew of the titular film -- the director, actors, editors, etc., monikered again a la Pynchon and Hannah with singularly unusual titles such as Prosper Sforza and Ephraim Bueno -- and the ways these bodies, in their strange meshings, bear the film.
The result is less about one stung story, and more about the sprawl: the creation of an object and all that surrounds it, from the fleshy to the gone. As the linking lives and strange collisions of the crews' lives are delivered in chapters each titled for the character around which they spin, an aura about the film and its creation emerges, each building off of and from the next, as well as the time from which it births. An innovative vehicle for a novel surely, and one that in Davies’s wickedly smart hands is difficult to shake out of the head.
The result is geodesic -- a continuity built both off the terrain of the movement, in paragraphs so well-honed they could stand from any section on their own -- a fact based on the power of the prose as much as its continually shifting (filmic) subject matter, by turns sanguine, amorous, and hilarious, composing histories with moments of the strangest introspections:
She thought: here is my small intestine. If it were punctured by a bullet or knife, shit would leak into my bloodstream and choke me to death. My body is a carrier and producer of poisons. Eventually the processes that keep the poisons separate will break down, and the contents of my body will mix. It is only by their differentiation that I stay alive and individual. Old age will mix me and then I’ll have taken a step toward becoming muck like the humus I walk on in the garden or that black Raoul Foche lives and sleeps in with his wife and kid and cat in their perfumed shithole in Montparnasse. Scratches are the world and its dirt mixing with my system. Prosper fucks me, and the vibrations themselves and entropic and hasten my demise. Selwyn Wexler in his hotel room gets a hard-on thinking about me and the blood that goes into his cock could probably be put to better use. I touch my belly and I am touching a time bomb whose detonation will leave me without recourse.
The resulting stream of sentences parade on not only on Davies’s sharp tongue for syllables and poise, but for the care and humor with which they are delivered. Davies’s eye for detail, and for how those details, encombed, together build, make Rose Alley a pleasure not only for their form and content, but for their provocative craft. There is a greater presence here, one both meticulous and with an eye for the greater orchestration, and one also reflected in the novel’s one ever-present, meta-device: a nameless, carefully inducted narrator, himself the excavator who compiles Rose Alley’s archive of tunneling arcane. By the end we feel full, but having amassed great ground in clean but fervent stroking, somewhat in the mind of Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, or sometimes even certain modes of David Foster Wallace.
Here is a debut novel full not only of sex and violence, alternate histories, layerings of will, but also in sentences designed to entertain as much as dazzle, making Jeremy M. Davies a great new brain trust for the page. - Blake Butler

It’s a bit surprising to me how poorly Perec’s novels are read in this country. Everyone knows of A Void, at least by reputation, though few seem to have actually read it, or to have any idea of the reasons that Perec might have for using a lipogram in that book. There was a smattering of interest in the new edition of Life a User’s Manual, but one didn’t really sense that a lot of people were picking that up with the enthusiasm it deserves; it’s a book that people seem afraid of, which is unjust. One almost never hears anything about W, maybe because it was out of print in English for a while, though it’s an astonishingly powerful book. The book of Perec’s that one sees most often, around New York at least, is Species of Spaces, maybe because it was taken up by architects. But it’s hard to point to much recent American fiction (with the obvious exclusion of Harry Mathews) that bears the influence of Perec, which is odd: the short shelf of his work would seem to be a cookbook full of recipes for potential books.
This, however, is an extremely Perec-y novel, down to its index of locations, people, and works of art; I will admit that I am a sucker for a novel with an index. (Stanley Crawford has also played with that form, in Some Instructions, and of course there’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.) The novel is based around a failed film shot in Paris in 1969; the film, also to be titled Rose Alley, after the spot in London where John Dryden was attacked in 1679 by thugs who may have been hired by the libertine John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who was upset with Dryden’s verse.
A description of an earlier film by the director and screenwriter of Rose Alley (the film) seems like it could easily describe how Rose Alley (the book) works:
This was a collection of miniatures, thirteen still lifes in thirteen continuous shots, ninety seconds in duration each. An elaborate system of eleven predetermined categories, subcategories, and corresponding lists of objects matching each classification – either likely, unlikely, invented, or inconceivable – was coauthored by Krause and Wexler. (p. 8)
The book has thirteen chapters, all but one based around a character associated with the film; while each chapter takes off from a character, there is no dialogue, and no sense that any action is happening in real time, and stories tend to go backwards (and occasionally forwards) in time. Each chapter is structured around a character, but not in the voice of the character. The reader has the feeling that there’s some logic structuring these episodes, but what, exactly, that logic might be is never entirely clear. One thinks, of course, of Raymond Roussel, who came up with this method of structuring a book (I presume it’s not an accident that “Rose Alley” sounds like “Roussel-y”; other echoes of Roussel can be found through the text) and his followers: there are echoes of the organization of Life a User’s Manual and especially Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Mathews blurbed the book; he also appears obliquely inside the book, when the screenwriter has a poem rejected by Locus Solus, the journal he edited with Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler.
Chapter 12 is the work’s clinamen: titled “Poet Squab”, it tells the story of Dryden’s quarrel with Rochester through what seems to be collaged text. One function of the book’s index is here revealed: some sources can be gleaned from entries such as “Burnet, Gilbert, 151 (qtd.)“: text from Burnet’s Life of Rochester appears on that page, though Burnet’s name does not. The index also allows the reader to trace narratives through the book: Chapter 6 tells the story of Wilhelmina Princep, a name which hasn’t appeared in the book to that point. Turning to her entry in the index, however, the reader discovers that she’s made eight different appearances in the text under different names. This is a carefully constructed book, and one that demands re-reading.
An index begs the question of who’s constructing it: the shadowy narrator, one presumes, is the only one who might know all of Wilhelmina’s guises, and all of his textual borrowings. The first-person narrator appears in the first sentence of the book and disappears in the last; one might assume that he’s a film historian, tracing out what happened to Rose Alley. Curiously, in the first sentence, he declares that he’s never been to Paris. But we quickly forget the idea of the narrator as a real figure when we move into the minds of the characters themselves in his description of them; by the next paragraph, he’s deep inside of Evelyn Nevers’s head, describing how a saltcellar stands as an analogue for her lover Prosper Sforza in her mind. (One might find Duchamp in that saltcellar; maybe that’s a reach.) This narrator might be an overly presumptuous historian, trying to tie things together; there’s also the hint that the narrator might be the subject of the last chapter, the film’s director Selwyn Wexler. It’s Wexler, we’re told early on, who’s most interested in Dryden and Rochester; in the penultimate chapter, we’re finally given his project for the film:
Wexler’s idea was that the cast and crew would find out as much as they could about their characters and the background of the film. Read Rochester and Dryden. Writer their own dialogue. Even the ones who couldn’t speak English. Myrna would be unnecessary. Everyone would be unnecessary. There wouldn’t be any need for props or sets. Which they didn’t really have anyway. The only necessary thing would be an organizing intelligence. Wexler’s. And the camera. The characters would relate directly to this eye. They would make their own context. (p. 144)
The narrator, perhaps, might be the camera’s eye; the first sentence (and another sentence towards the end of the book, where the narrator says he’s only been to London once) might well be misdirection. In the final chapter, the narrator describes a succession of versions of Rose Alley, all unfinished; the twelfth is the film diaries of Wexler. The thirteenth, we are led to believe, is this book, which invites careful re-reading. - Dan Visel

I don’t know: continue with the manner’d scraps and evidences of my massy white solvency, its high billow and sway? (“Cloud in trousers” motif.) Roiling heaps of achingly white cumulonimbus clouds—“with the shape of an anvil extending to great heights”—what’s reap’d of the post-tornado weather morning (one spiral’d down just after 2 a.m. near Dundee)—that’s how it is. Drove hunch’d and knuckled through a car-cladding passel of hard rain a couple hours earlier between Kalamazoo and Jackson with the radio hemorrhaging the screwy old school bruitages électroniques (think Mother Mallard with Moog synth) every few minutes for another National Weather Service update (spieling off the names of places where one’d be advised—a tournevis is a screwdriver, a tournesol is a helioptropic yellow flower—to seek shelter in an “interior room”) before returning to the Percy Sledge song (“Dark End of the Street”) interrupt’d. Shelter sought in a brain-box.
Reading Jeremy M. Davies’s splendidly-wrought Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009). A book of sentences and hypotheses. Here’s a sentence (of a “shark, raised by winch out of the ocean”): “Its leering mouth, squished open like a toppled drunk’s, was biting the ground with sea-tarnished teeth, each incisor long and wide enough to copy Johnson’s Dictionary onto if you started at the tip and went in a spiral to the gum.” Here’s another (of one Abelard Pantry in a photograph—“the new century’s vogue for verisimilitude made . . . prettifying déclassé, so posterity is free to see him wincing in every shot”): “Under a magnifying glass we can make out Abelard’s baby-face, twisted to a point like stirred pudding.” Here’s a hypothetical spat (or spate), caught up out of the characteristics of one “ambidextrous” Raoul Foche—lighting-cameraman “with his spring-driven 8mm Bolex” in post-événements 1968 Paris, where he, along with the majority of others in the novel, is attempting to put together a film recounting the “Rose Alley ambuscade” wherein hirelings of the libertine rake and satirist John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, assault’d (“beat him with cudgels”) John Dryden on the suspicion of the latter’s having assisted John Sheffield, third Earl of Mulgrave in a passage in Sheffield’s Essay on Satire that reflect’d poorly on Rochester’s “want of wit”—oh dear—(“neither his hands nor his brain knew right from left, and as a kid he’d inverted the order of letters and sentences to such a degree that he was functionally illiterate into his teens, reading and writing an almost-accurate patois based on shape and pattern recognition—living only on the surface of words, their similarities as pictograms, eventually as sounds, rather than their corresponding, representational content”):
This peculiarity extended beyond literacy: having learned to organize his thoughts according to broad categories and correspondences—the shapes of ideas, filed according to his own idiosyncratic method of cataloging—Raoul would interrupt a story involving—say—a stray dog with a broken and dragging leg, seen drinking from a sewer in Oran at dawn, to begin six other stories concerning dogs or legs, fusty water, curbs, cites, the qualities of morning sunlight in North Africa, the tune he’d whistled as he walked, and so forth. If a listener interrupted to ask for the point or punchline of the initial yarn, Raoul lost his train of thought entirely, looking as confused and affronted as someone sidetracked by a rude non sequitur.
And I half want to say, that’s rather how the novel proceeds, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d thought that at several other moments (one of Davies’s epigraphs—by Robert Pinget—reads: “We’ll get there in the end, with a little method.”) For example, early we learn of a film—by Myrna Krause and Selwyn Wexler (“their first and only film to date”), collaborators, too, on the Rose Alley project, “the twenty-minute short Muzeum”:
This was a collection of miniatures, thirteen still lifes in thirteen continuous shots, ninety seconds in duration each. An elaborate system of eleven predetermined categories, subcategories, and corresponding lists of objects matching each classification—either likely, unlikely, invented, or inconceivable—was coauthored by Krause and Wexler and used to determine which subjects were to be filmed.
(Naturally, a turn to the list of Rose Alley’s chapters shows they number thirteen.) I’m tempt’d to argue—being a measly reader for the specifics of plot—that a novel’s simply a vehicle for delivering (terrific) sentences. Or may be. (See Shklovsky’s “plotless prose,” the Tristram Shandy, &c., &c.) I see, too, where, Robert Alter, in a chapter call’d “Style in America”—in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press, 2010)—calls for increased attention to, precisely, the evident and indeliquescent style of sentence-ry:
Novels are famously, or perhaps notoriously, translatable. That very translatability poses a challenge to anyone who thinks, as I do, that lexical nuances and patterns of sound and subtleties of syntax are crucial to the sense of reality articulated in novels. There is something scandalous . . . about the manifest translatability of the novel.
And he points to Flaubert—“a novelist fanatically devoted to stylistic refinements, aspiring to a prose, as he says in one of his letters, that will perform the high function in literary culture that was once the domain of poetry.” Susan Sontag works the prose / poetry split in an essay call’d “A Poet’s Prose” in Where the Stress Falls, quoting (amongst many) Mandelstam:
“Instruction is the nerve of prose,” Mandelstam wrote in an early essay, so that “what may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless.” While prose writers are obliged to address themselves to the concrete audience of their contemporaries, poetry as a whole has a more or less distant, unknown addressee, says Mandelstam: “Exchanging signals with the planet Mars . . . is a task worthy of a lyric poet.”
(And somewhere Davies remarks how somebody is “gay as three grapes”—a puzzling—and excellent in its perplex—utterance—and, it seems, one Jonathan Williams—connoisseur of the outlandish—once used for Jack Spicer.) - John Latta

Cinematic history is littered with screenplays that never took off, films halted midstream because of exorbitant production costs, and projects derailed by Machiavellian producers and directors or megalomaniacal actors. Many of these ill-fated films were simply stored away to anonymously languish in a vault—some released years later to satisfy researchers, aficionados, and completists. Rose Alley, Jeremy M. Davies’s comic debut, is the story of a crazed and ultimately failed attempt to film a biopic based on the life of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, also a renowned satirist and bawdy bard. The titillating titular film (“It would be a documentary fiction. A dialectical fiction. With fucking. (Simulated.)”) is shot in Paris under “the specter of the calamitous riots,” that is, during the May 1968 general strike of 11 million workers. But while the confusion stirred by the disquiet suffuses the narrative, direct commentary on the strikes is not Davies’s project. Instead, much of his focus is on the labyrinthine twists of the film’s botched production as well as the outré frivolities of its colorful cast and crew.
  Seemingly mimicking the film’s breakdown and, at least metaphorically, the dissolution of French society, Rose Alley is divided into chapters centering on individual characters, often shifting back and forth in the story’s string of events, resembling a film whose scenes were shot out of sequence with the intention of later splicing them together to run chronologically, but which were finally left to run in a digressive, fragmentary form. At times, we’re offered meditations on the art of editing, and what could be a glimpse into Davies’s own predilections:
Male or female, it is difficult to detect a consistent style in the cumulative work of any editor, for, after all, the most he or she can possibly do is rearrange existing material and tell a story in the best possible way.
Thus, it is in the slow accretion of details where the big picture of his novel comes together.
Rose Alley is what Northrop Frye would call an “anatomy”: a work characterized by its fluid structure and nested stories; and, as Frye, referring to Tristram Shandy, wrote, its: “digressing narrative, the catalogues, the stylizing of character along ‘humor’ lines…the symposium discussions, and the constant ridicule of philosophers and pedantic critics.” Davies, however, reserves his ridicule for sundry historical personages: Debussy is a “troglodyte”; Sir Lawrence Olivier is a “fucker”; John Dryden is “a talent, certainly, but his poems are a graveyard for academics”; John Wilmot is “contemporary as a dirty limerick”; and Roman Polanski is rather outrageously described as performing an
obscene Polish belly dance before the newsreel cameras, gyrating right off the podium and into the air, a whirligig of satanic energy, before disappearing through the roof like a ghost, vibrating so quickly now that his atoms and those of the ceiling passed each other like soap bubbles in a bathing beauty phantasmagoria.
Davies’s confident, luxurious, indelible, and seemingly effortless style approaches the baroque qualities of John Barth and John Hawkes, brimming with an effusive comicality and wide panoramic sweep resembling Salman Rushdie at his early excessive best; and, with its knowing digressions, also falls somewhere between Alexander Theroux and William Gass. Seemingly responding to one of his characters’ distrust of maps, which inevitably show “states stiff and static as jigsaw pieces rather than as arcs and orbits and educated guesses,” Davies skillfully maps the internecine terrain of the film’s cast and crew, while largely dispensing with an easy narratological cartography­—that is, he replaces “stiff and static” plot devices with his characters’ ever-shifting emotional “arcs,” their duplicitous and conniving “orbits”; and, rather than giving cheap answers, he offers a novel where no one resolution is conclusively drawn, allowing readers to make their own “educated guesses” about what really happened.
“It is a basic assumption of scholarship that certain units of information vibrate in harmony,” the narrator notes toward the end of Rose Alley. And Davies’s descriptive passages prove that the same may happen in fiction. There are the “powdery Pierrots” who “wept calligraphically.” There’s the dead body: “Limbs like cracked broomsticks, hair like straw, the fingers dried and tight as belt-leather, and toes hard as ten thimbles; her skin all over like airmail paper: a macabre little manikin.” And, thinking of Ephraim Bueno, Eugenia Sleck (Davies has Pynchon’s panache for naming characters) “longed to see the ember of comprehension that fear would light in his cow-dull eyes as she throttled him.” Davies repeatedly demonstrates a knowing command of the acoustical properties of sentences:
Sforza’s stomach was flat and hairless but soft to touch, with the feel of fatness. His was an adolescent’s slenderness, retained to middle age, threatening to swell if not well tended. He ate a lot, but not often, and then only meat: proud of his figure, eager to show it, and already three-quarters beef and mutton—or so Evelyn calculated privately.
Though Rose Alley comes in a brilliant pink, for all of its ribaldry and salacious interludes, it might as well have come in blue (William Gass would certainly be proud). In it are countless bawdy asides like Ephraim Bueno’s painting of “pornographic dummies”; Gilbert Beltham’s “violating from behind a schoolgirl bound hand and foot with thorny creepers”; and Raoul Foche is a fount of them: “Fucking Millicent was something like climbing a marble pillar long as the world: much fortitude was required, and you left frivolity behind with your clothes.” While Rose Alley is certainly erotically charged, some of the characters have a kind of horror of the flesh. There’s Evelyn Nevers for whom pornography
made her think of vulval insect bites in tropical climes, the various cancers and polyps like tusks or withered and innovative new appendages seen to have emanated from the skin around the scrotum or labia, as though the body were seeking an alternate means to acquit itself of a burdensome responsibility.
And there’s Gilbert Beltham, whose “body was a machine for making disease,” and his almost grotesque reveries on his own impotence, his surprise at somehow being aroused in spite of all of his repugnance. There are long passages in the Beltham chapter worth quoting in full, and reveling in, as they showcase a digressive style informed as much by a winking erudition as it is by its ever roaming eye and ear for detail, and a sense of humor, oscillating from the utterly base to high comedy.
  The chapter on Myrna Krause is one of the funniest chapters in what is a very funny book. We learn, in a wonderfully absurd turn, that Krause’s parents, both chronic stutterers, “learned to communicate with one another by whistling the choruses of popular tunes,” and that their “infrequent efforts at intelligible speech were so gruesome and heartbreaking to behold—with tongues like purple geese molting spittle and phlegm—that simple questions from one or both had at times occasioned debilitating traumas in those who received them.”
Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley is a film buff’s, no, cosmopolitan’s, no, epicurean’s, no, literary aesthete’s guide to late ’60s Paris; and it’s a kind of loving homage to unfinished films, their reverberations of nostalgia, memory, and obsession; but it’s also a novel where dizzying erudition is set in counterpoint with comic set-pieces, where robust language, mediated by a penetrating understanding of character, takes over every page (there are even expansive extrapolations on etymologies). There’s a buoyancy to the style here and an easy abandonment of straightforward storytelling, resulting in a beautiful prose object, that is, a story told “in the best possible way.” - John Madera

ve been thinking about minor characters lately, about how major they really are—the texture, realism, and depth they add. In an essay called “Extras, Chorus, Supernumeraries, and Walk-Ons: Bringing Minor Characters to Life,” W.D. Wetherell describes some of their significance like this:
Minor characters not only add color to a story but can reflect something about the central action in a story, serving as a counterpoint to what is going on in the foreground. Sometimes minor characters can also be reflections of parts or characteristics of major characters—fragments of the self whom the major characters meet long the way. (Creating Fiction 58)
I had this sentiment in mind over the weekend while reading Rose Alley, by Jeremy M. Davies, since the book doesn’t have major characters. Instead, each of the thirteen most prominent characters gets his or her own chapter. Regarding this book, I am particularly interested in the idea Wetherell brings up about minor characters serving as “counterpoint to what is going on in the foreground.”
In Rose Alley, many of the characters are gathered to create a blue movie about Dryden when production is paused due to the 1968 student riots in Paris. The fact that there isn’t a “story” in the novel–no narrative progression towards an arc and resolution–seems fitting when the subject of the book is a break in progress. The result is that each major character becomes a minor character, and each serves as counterpoint to what is really happening, which is nothing. This sets the premise for the 169 small pages of dense, rich, chocolate-and-raspberry-tort-delicious, prose.
One thing I love about Davies’ writing is that he has great faith in the reader. There is one very important paragraph on page three, where many of the characters who get their own chapters are briefly introduced. For instance, there you find out that Raoul Foche is the “lighting camerman.” You hear a bit about him in the opening pages in which the film project is introduced. Then he disappears until page 79 (which I can easily verify since this novel has an index!). At first, when Foche reappeared, I wondered who in the hell Eph was drinking grappa with, but with a little fancy finger-work, I was able to put it together.
I enjoyed the excuse to revisit passages throughout my reading, which I did when I wanted to see if this “Flemish Jew” who is caught “trying to filch a Daumier bust” is the star of the next chapter. Yes, it is—he is stealing things because he is the film designer without a design budget. Great pleasure is gained while reading and discovering cameo appearances by characters in the chapters of other characters, of seeing the various ways in which characters are intertwined.
The sentences themselves offer another reason to re-read passages from Rose Alley, some because they are demanding, all because they are full of flavor. Here is one that shows some of Davies’ humor, imagination, and musings on language:
But Foche was ambidextrous; neither his hands nor his brain knew right from left, and as a kid he’d inverted the order of letters and sentences to such a degree that he was functionally illiterate into his teens, reading and writing an almost-accurate patois based on shape and pattern recognition—living only on the surface of words, their similarities as pictograms, eventually as sounds, rather than their corresponding , representational content (82).
I love thinking of words corresponding to each other by the shape of the letters or the aural characteristics. And the idea of an ambidextrous brain.
I suppose I’ve written so much about Foche that it may seem like he is the main character. He isn’t. But I suppose I like him. I also particularly like the chapter on Eugenia Sleck, the film editor, where Davies points out interesting similarities between editors and mothers and the oddities of reading film, each reel “a rope of photographs” (92). Eugenia’s mother is also fascinating—she was married to a Nazi and conceived Eugenia with a “member of the Resistance (called terrorists then) who’d been tasked with her abduction by a cell desperate for leverage in negotiations with the Gestapo” (97).
I want to go on and on, to show you more passages that are hilarious, clever, and gorgeous, and to explore what fragments of a larger whole the characters might add up to. I suppose they may all express parts of the “I” who is telling the story, or of the film, Rose Alley, if you want to consider it the main character. Or, more likely, the fragments illustrate the fragmentation of perspective and the various ways in which we learn/choose to read life. I hope you’ll see for yourself by finding this brilliant, mind-bending book through its publisher, Counterpath Press. Or through Amazon, if you’re into them. - Shira Richman

An interview with Jeremy M. Davies here  
An interview with Jeremy M. Davies by the Central St. Louis Public Library’s Scribbler here
An interview with Jeremy M. Davies by Scott Esposito at Bomb Magazine here

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