Monday, June 07, 2010

Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley

A Wall

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.)

Jeremy M. Davies