“A very specific, peculiar sort of universe-in-a-bottle.”
Jeremy Davies just might be reclaiming comedy’s place in the frequently dour, futile world of modernist literature. His first novel, Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009), told the disintegrating story of an attempt to make a film about the satirical, bawdy eighteenth-century figure John Wilmot, all while Paris comes to pieces in 1968. Excessive but reliably deadpan, Rose Alley proved both hilarious and experimental. Now he gives us Fancy (Ellipsis Press), a long-winded monologue delivered by a crazy-old-cat-man, who, in between cranky rants about seemingly every irrelevant topic on Earth, sentimentally rhapsodizes the key moment in his long-lost youth: a few blissful months when a fellow librarian used to fellate him in the stacks. Alternately slapstick and pokerfaced, and impeccably timed, Fancy is laugh-out-loud funny, even while it forges new ground in the line of the unstable Thomas Bernhardian narrator. It’s also deeply metaphysical—or maybe not, in which case, the joke is on you, reader, and you’ve just listened to the mock-philosophical, unhinged ravings of a lonely old quack. It was my pleasure to interview Davies over email, and my one hope is that none of me ends up being fodder for his next unreliable narrator.
Scott Esposito Anyone who reads Fancy will quickly recognize that each paragraph in this book begins in one of three ways: “Rumrill said,” “He added,” or “Brocklebank writes.” Rumrill is our crotchety old Bernhardian monologist, and Brocklebank his mentor. “Rumrill said” and “He added” quickly establish a back-and-forth rhythm, with “He added” functioning as a sort of sharp, often quipy, counterpoint to the lengthy chunks of monologue that follow the words “Rumrill said.” And then “Brocklebank writes” intrudes from time to time with this elusive, philosophical voice that seems to be something of an infestation into Rumrill’s long-winded speechifying. How did this structural feature make its way into your text?
Jeremy M. Davies Those tags, and the more subterranean elements of the structure, are inextricable parts of the book—so they didn’t so much make their way in as make Fancy possible. But it was definitely a dare—could this be done, should it be done? What effect would it have? (One writer told me, after seeing an excerpt, “I admire your bravery”; I took this to mean, “You’re out of your goddamn mind.”) And then I do remember making the joke, early on, that all the dialogue that’s missing from Rose Alley, my first novel—which doesn’t contain much in the way of traditional novelistic “scene”—would be piled into the next. The further joke being that Rumrill’s monologues, despite being “said” or “added,” are virtually impossible to imagine anyone speaking aloud, certainly extempore.
Where Rose Alley was all-inclusive and globe-spanning, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, I conceived of Fancy as claustric and obsessive, lonely, repetitive, in Academy ratio, black and white: It takes place (if, as Rumrill would say, it does take place) in the vestibule of one little house, in one horrid little town. The repetition keeps it cramped; the structure is both numbing and abrasive—though pleasurably so, I’d hope. Not unlike Satie’s Vexations, for example, or, more appositely, Glass’s Music with Changing Parts. To make another musical comparison, a work very much on my mind was Robert Ashley’s 1972 voice-and-electronics composition In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. The text Ashley recites—written many years earlier by one John Barton Wolgamot, an ur-Brocklebank if ever there was—is “a poem of 128 stanzas, each stanza the same sentence with four variables, three of which are names or name groups or name constructions, the fourth the adverb of the active verb.” While Fancy admits of much greater flexibility, what does or does not sound like Rumrill, or Brocklebank—like Fancy—comes down to a sort of algorithm.
SE “You’re out of your goddamn mind” might be an apt response to a lot of this book, not just the structure. This is, after all, a book about an old man who, as a young man, cared for an old shut-in’s thirty-some cats. Which may not have existed. And now he’s delivering an epic monologue to two young people (who may not exist) about caring for his twenty-some cats. Who may not exist. But if they do, we know that they’re allowed to share Rumrill’s bowel movements with him, among other things. Grotesque and strange as it is, this just skims the surface of what we find in Fancy. I guess my point is, put in a certain light, this book sounds certifiably insane. But seen more from the context out of which it comes, and which its likely readers are probably steeped in, all of this stuff begins to look much less bizarre. So I’d like to ask how much you were aware of the constellation of writers you were writing within, and if you felt a tension between distinguishing your book in that company, while perhaps being wary of brushing up against the boundaries of too crazy.
JMD I’m an enthusiast. I’m also an editor. I’m too conscious of what's been done and what people are trying to do, fictionwise. I see it all coming in: the “white-space novels” on the one hand, the indentless Hot Topic Bernhards on the other … and on the inevitable third hand, the outright cranks (an unkind word, but they are generally and by far the most interesting). So, yes, there is that constellation you speak of … but I flatter myself that the book is as much about its influence as partaking of it, and so edges up against self-parody.
I wasn’t worried about too crazy … or, if it did worry me, by the time I became concerned about the publishability of the book, it was altogether too late to change its trajectory. Fancy was what it was—it’s a very specific, peculiar sort of universe-in-a-bottle, for all that it and I aren’t wanting for kissing cousins in the great and bountiful Beckett/Bernhard Axis.
SE Whom do you find funnier—Bernhard or Beckett?
JMD Goodness, I don’t know. If we’re talking funnier in the sense of laughing aloud, then I guess it’s Beckett, for me. Molloy surprises me every time. Beckett is very much setting out to be funny, in his best work—and not abstrusely amusing, either, but Buster Keaton funny. Pratfall funny. I have a weakness for that sort of thing: double acts, misunderstandings, wordplay. Setups and punchlines. Beckett’s narrators are often (maybe even “always”?) aware of being entertainers. Entertaining only themselves, perhaps—and condemned to have no other diversion in their isolation than these attempts at self-gratification—but their tastes run more to music hall than Arnold Geulincx. I must admit that when Beckett loses interest in humor, I drift.
Which is not to say that Bernhard isn’t funny. He certainly meant to be. Have you read any of his plays? I directed Ritter, Dene, Voss at Goddard College way back in 1997ish (I think that this might have been the first staging of the play in English in the US, albeit a nonprofessional one … someone prove me wrong?) It got proper belly laughs from the audience; it’s full of shtick—even a sort of pie fight, come to think of it. And, you know, the novels can be structurally funny in a way Beckett’s aren’t … my first Bernhard was Gargoyles, and the conceit of its structure (starting the book as a more or less straightforward narrative, only to derail this partway when one of its characters is revealed to be, of all things, a Bernhard narrator, who then rants at you for the next hundred pages, swallowing up whatever story you thought you were getting) still makes me smile.
So, ask me again tomorrow and I’d probably change my answer: Bernhard is inherently hilarious, as the notion of being buttonholed by his menagerie of maniacs is by nature a comedic one, which Bernhard well knew, even when he was casting himself in that role—“Nestbeschmutzer extraordinaire”—while Beckett is mainly giving us set pieces, which, while funny, don’t have quite the same wallop, etcetera.
SE So as to Fancy’s humor: I laughed out loud quite a bit. Mostly because the comic skewing was right to my taste, and also because your timing is impeccable. How consciously were you setting out to write something that might make people laugh? Do you feel like that’s a worthy literary goal?
JMD Entirely consciously. Making someone laugh is a good and worthy accomplishment. Among the most worthy literary goals to which a writer can aspire, yes.
There were early drafts of the book in which Rumrill was a good deal less horrible, more po-faced, drier and more despairing and one-note … but a day came when, toiling away on the thing, I realized—well, that I’d begun toiling. I’d stopped having fun. It’s one thing to be serious, another to be mirthless. So I nipped that in the bud quick smart.
The repetition we’ve talked about works beautifully as a set-up for a particular shtick. The reader comes to expect a rhythm, a shape to the prose, which can then be sabotaged. Or else—and this is, to my mind, the greater accomplishment—you can embed a time bomb in the middle of, in this case, a massive Rumrillian curlicue, only to have it go off when the reader’s already moved on to the next paragraph. I can’t think of a novel that matters (to me) which isn’t, in some way, funny—though that’s not to say they’re all comedic.
SE To go back to what you were saying about Philip Glass, et al., I like that you’ve touched on the numbing, abrasive, and likely claustrophobic feeling of minimalist music, in particular a number of Glass’s compositions. I feel like this isn’t a way this music is often thought of, but it can really mess with your head in just that way. One time I was driving on a tiny, winding road with my girlfriend with the Music in Twelve Parts playing, and by the time she begged me to stop the car because she was on the verge of vomiting it was a toss-up what had played the bigger role in getting her there. What do you think attracts you to these sorts of texts and compositions?
JMD The three Rs: repetition, repetition, repetition. There’s something dangerous about it, particularly in prose. Writing the same phrase over and over, a sign of lunacy. Or conceptualism. You’ve run out of things to say, but can’t stop saying it: how sad (either for you or for the medium itself, depending on who’s complaining). Well, maybe … but it’s everyone’s tragedy, not only a fiction writer’s. We all dry up. Usually at the worst moment. We’re rescued by cliché, if we’re lucky, and given a pass. Rumrill’s alienation from “natural” human discourse—nothing comes to him, everything must be done intentionally, ritualistically, even pathologically—is a remove I’ve always found dangerous and attractive. Fiction in the constellation you alluded to earlier necessarily explores that same fault line.
There was a time when I couldn’t abide the minimalists, dronists (is that a word?), repeaters, getting back to the musical part of your question. Sometime in the last decade or so, there must have been a drastic change in my metabolism. I think, if you’re very lucky, you can have a good, solid “road to Damascus” moment every few years about a particular work of art, or kind of art, that you’ve discarded out of hand to that point. Whether this is maturity or capitulation, I couldn’t say.
I did know that, after Rose Alley—which was about the movies, or at least pretended to be—I might do something about music. Though when I say “about,” I mean implicitly musical in form; I wasn’t interested in doing a straightforward “fictional composer” novel as Rose Alley is a “fictional movie” novel. For one thing, it seems to me that writing about film is essentially impossible—you can’t embody what matters (to me) about film in prose fiction. Most attempts I’ve read strike me as dead ends, which is why Rose Alley apes film history, film criticism, rather than going the Robert Coover route of crossing to the other side of the screen. But music is a different matter, isn’t it? Prose is already a sort of score. So did I become stuck on the aforementioned minimalist compositions at that time of my life because I was toying with writing something like Fancy, or was it because of my becoming stuck on them that Fancy began to germinate? A question for my analyst.
Have you ever tried to listen to all of Music in Twelve Parts, in order, in a single go? It really does your head in. I hate reviewer-speak drug analogies, but it induces an altered state, that’s for sure: it fucks you up. What novelist wouldn’t want to write a book that did something similar?
SE Actually, the San Francisco Symphony did a complete performance of the Music in Twelve Parts a few years back. I didn’t go, but I imagine that for anyone who walked out after sticking through the whole thing, the universe was a very different place, for at least a few hours. I’ve done hours of it at a time on the lonely stretches of the I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, so I can testify to its head-altering effects. And I do think that’s one of the powerful things about a book like Fancy, and, to once again cite its most obvious influence, Thomas Bernhard. You start thinking in that voice. Knowing how pernicious the question of influence can be, how did you feel about submitting your impressionable mind to Thomas Bernhard, and then writing this book?
JMD I wouldn’t drive in a car with Music playing. Friends don’t let friends listen to early Glass while driving.
This is a difficult question, because—believe it or not—I wasn’t trying to write a Bernhardian book. (More important to Fancy’s germination would probably be stuff like Louis-René des Forêts’s Le Bavard and Ostinato, the later Gert Hofmann novels, Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lavish Absence …) What I was trying to do—one of the things I was trying to do—is achieve just this “head-altering” effect you mention. Which, uncoincidentally, is also what the characters in Fancy are trying to do to one another, by accident or design. They infect one another with a manner of speaking, which is as much to say that they dictate a manner of thinking, and thus a manner of being. This probably doesn’t need rehashing, but if you change someone’s words or grammar, if you shoehorn them into a structure of your making, you are altering their perception. I hope it’s not giving too much away (as if anyone will ever read this book for its plot) to say that Rumrill is expressly trying to get to you—you in particular, the reader—to force your thoughts into the same box in which he’s condemned himself to live … and I don’t mean his foyer, but his form. I’ve heard from friends that they’ve staggered about for a few days thinking Rumrillian thoughts after reading Fancy, and that, to me, is high praise. (I would have accepted “It made me want to throw up,” but I guess I’m just not there yet, as a stylist.) Perhaps the most pernicious thing about Fancy for me is its influence on how I express myself, and how (or if) I’ll manage to write another novel that isn’t utilizing these tools, since they won’t go away on their own: they’re part of the architecture. Even now, I can see Rumrill in what I’m saying to you, in business correspondence, you name it. You want to talk about the anxiety of influence, that’s a pretty big anxiety.
Sure, I knew that I was working in a particular mode, or beneath this constellation, as we’ve been saying, but that was just as much a side effect of wanting to write this sort of book—repetitive and obsessive are words we’ve used, but let’s also add digressive, malign, and silly into the bargain—as it was an unintended effect of my own infection by Bernhardiana as a teenager. (I suppose if there had been no Bernhard to invent the Bernhardian narrator, it would have been necessary for us to invent Bernhard? Take one boy, born out of wedlock, add one sockdologizing grandfather with frustrated literary ambitions, stir in air raids and tuberculosis to taste.)
SE “Intentionally, ritualistically, pathologically.” I like the progression in those three words, moving us from relative normalcy to illness. This is the way these things tend to build up in people, is it not? And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that obsessive-compulsive disorder seems to run quite heavily in the constellation of authors to whom these words might be applied. Dangerous and attractive, exactly. I’ve often wondered just what it is about these things—why they attract readers. Why they attract a certain kind of reader.
JMD Dangerous because attractive. You’re asking me to psychoanalyze a vast number of people, including myself, because we’re talking now about personal tendencies more than aesthetics, aren’t we? And that’s dangerous (and attractive).
Maybe we could say that there are folks in the world who are more than ordinarily skeptical not only about whether novels can or should be written, but about whether there is any sense even to far simpler units of expression or communication. I’m speaking about fear more than philosophy, now. If you happen to be so afflicted—and I think everyone is, from time to time—and depending on your aptitude for pulling off a good impression of someone who can say “pass the salt” or “I’m sorry for your loss” despite this vertigo, you may or may not be a fairly functional person even still, and, if so, congrats: you win the language game. But the Roithamers or Brocklebanks of the world are the limit cases, the vanguard, the away team; they enact this essential suspicion, the germ of it that we all carry: saying or thinking a word or phrase too many times; running through a particular routine when the reasons for it have gone; replaying an unpleasant memory when we ought to know better. Prose is uniquely suited to address this—the stuttering of thought, the narrowing circles of the sentences in our brains as we wind down into silence. It’s basic to living, this gap, whatever you want to call it, so to ignore it as a writer would be as foolish as ignoring any other sort of subject matter or ordering principle available to art, if you find it needful for your work; and then, as a reader, isn’t it rather entertaining to watch someone skate over ice this thin, and with (I hope) panache?
I’m speculating, mind you. And I’m not making a judgment call, for or against “the constellation,” nor do I mean to imply that it’s only our more unstable citizens who are attracted to its purer products! (Actually, you sort of did! I’m totally washing my hands of that one.) The House of Fiction happens to have a great big sinkhole in the front yard; you can as easily direct people around to the side entrance as charge admission to stare down into it. You don’t get the “I’m slightly less of a coddled bourgeois than these other seven hundred MFA graduates” award either way. Art doesn’t forgive, and it doesn't get you forgiven.
SE Okay, now that we’ve started down this road, I feel like we have to go all the way back to the source (in a sense): Wittgenstein. Do you have a favorite work of his, or favorite essay, or maybe even just a single beloved dictum?
JMD I'm happy to natter about Wittgenstein, but is he the source? I’ve been rereading Notes from Underground, recently. Whatever it is we’re talking about—and what would we call it? a genre? a style? an approach? a fashion? a preoccupation? literary autophagia? the Sinkhole Mode?—would have to be dated back at least that far. But it might be fair to say that Dostoevsky thought he was diagnosing a sickness specific to modernity, whereas Wittgenstein (to grossly misrepresent him, I imagine, for the purposes of our “literary” conversation) identified the precepts of this so-called pathology as being properties of language.
But I’m not even an amateur where it comes to Wittgenstein. My love is imperfect. Like so many people, I read him as I would read a poet or novelist or aphorist, which I suspect wouldn’t have pleased him. But I can certainly join the conga line and say that I consider him the preeminent stylist of the twentieth century. What a relief this will be to him.
To answer your question, On Certainty was most on my mind writing Fancy, but there’s also the Zettel, and Culture and Value is tremendous fun. The Philosophical Investigations I’ve barely begun to scale.
There are too many beloved dicta to choose from. Most relevant to the way our conversation is leaning is perhaps this: “Nobody can truthfully say of himself that he is filth. Because if I do say it, though it can be true in a sense, this is not a truth by which I myself can be penetrated: otherwise I should either have to go mad or change myself.”
SE To get back to the Sinkhole, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the unstable citizens who like to gaze into it. In my opinion, it’s more like that well-worn phrase—art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. And I do think art—that ruthlessness you spoke of—can, and should, do both things, with “disturbed” in our increasingly normalized society assuming an uncomfortably large and ever-expanding definition, something like “anyone who isn’t totally pleased with the idea of watching sitcoms and eating at Olive Garden while ignoring the fact that government-sponsored flying death machines hunt random people on the other side of the globe.” I guess this all gets back to the question of introspection, being aware of your life’s circumstances and questioning them: a lot of the writers who exhibit in or around the Sinkhole in Front of the House of Fiction seem to have made this into a life’s project, looking very closely at their own thoughts and lives and circumstances. Which all makes me notice that Fancy doesn’t seem to come out of any recognizable reality, or at least not one that I’m aware of. The town Rumrill lives in has very little to date it or put it in a certain geographic location; his main struggle—herding cats—is an entirely fanciful task; etcetera, etcetera. Were you trying here to write something that could look very deeply into certain lived realities while broadly skirting any actual recognizably real circumstances?
JMD There may be no way to answer that question without being a bit coy. Language as it relates to and creates psychology, questions of perception—what they call “object permanence,” in particular (or, better, feline permanence)—these subjects aren’t specific to a given era or location, and might even be obscured by the inclusion of too much “substantiating detail.” But then I don't know that I agree that the book doesn’t have a recognizable reality … for myself, anyhow, it’s a very present one. As much as herding cats, Rumrill’s concerns include such heroic undertakings as “leaving the house and buying milk without having a breakdown,” and I’d be lying if I said that I hadn't experienced some of his difficulties with the everyday, if in less fanciful form.
And I don’t think Rumrill’s town could be just anywhere. Admittedly, it doesn’t seem to be the here and now—code, these days, for “no computers or cell phones are mentioned”—but then there’s also a sense that something isn’t right in this town, that a Ballardian or Volodinian something might have occurred—fire, flood, philosophy?—that could explain the absence of these signifiers, as well as the hothouse mentality shared by the town’s inhabitants. I don’t know the answer—I don’t really want to know. That much coyness (or indeterminacy) is built into the book. But: it would greatly surprise me to hear that a reader didn’t think that our town wasn’t “a part of America therein”—or, rather, the United States in particular—if not an entirely familiar America. Rumrill’s sort of egocentrism and ignorance strike me as American, if only because my own egocentrism and ignorance can’t help but be so.
Which brings us to your Olive Gardeners. Is anyone totally pleased with that sort of life? Some of those Gardeners are unwinding after long days talking about Bernhard and Wittgenstein, I guarantee it. If I’m going out of my way to identify the Sinkhole Mode as one among many approaches to narrative rather than the best or only, it’s because I find—or want to learn to find—all approaches potentially valid, even the ones that I despise: that is my challenge to myself as a dues-paying formalist. My own tastes do tend toward work that, as Stephen Mitchelmore has put it, “confront the remove of writing within the work itself,” or, as I’ve put it, retain a skepticism about the value of fiction even while indulging in its trappings (which applies just as well to Henry James and Ivy Compton-Burnett as it does to Knausgaard, in my opinion) … but then I’m such a compulsive doubter that I can’t help but doubt even my enjoyment of and commitment to the Sinkhole.
Of course I’m no less culpable than your Gardeners for those flying death machines, no matter what I write. Indeed, because I write, I’m more so. (It’s a lucky break, I suppose, that no one gives a damn what I write.) I can’t believe that a relentless, Bernhardian or even Knausgaardian “exodus inward” gives one any more of a grasp on legitimacy or acceptability than any other sort of writing—or even not writing. That it gives one an escape hatch from the likely dishonesty or dilettantism of the literary because one isn't indulging in or rehearsing the tropes of commercial fiction, for example. But, then, I have the extremely good fortune of being in a position to declare that it’s precisely this contradiction—the space between “all is vanity …” and “wouldn’t it be fun if …”—that makes fiction worthwhile, because it’s only in that space that we—or I—can think. I’m a dull, slow-moving sort of human being, but in prose I can begin to catch the outline of the “real world,” even when that world’s pomps don’t enter into the book unveiled. This is either bedrock evidence of fiction’s relevance beyond fashion—that it’s a mode of thought, of play, essential to the human process and irreducible to the market—or else evidence of a gross and absurd decadence. Or, for preference, both!
Fancy is very much my taking all of this impotence for a run ’round the neighborhood to see how well it handles. (It handles great.)
SE I certainly wouldn’t argue that reading books like Fancy makes us any less culpable than anyone of anything—except, perhaps, of not supporting literary culture. But I do think that space you talk about—the space between “all is vanity …” and “wouldn’t it be fun if …”—is a worthwhile place to go, for anybody. It’s a space any writer has to confront—in other words, to ignore your doubts and free your imagination, if only for a couple of hours. Which can be a very hard thing, and it strikes me that the challenge of entering this space—and the things you find once you get there—might be a very seductive aspect of the fact of being a writer. Were you writing regularly in the years between Rose Alley and Fancy?
JMD The cheekier question would be, “Was I writing while writing Rose Alley and Fancy?” Which makes me realize that I never feel as though I’m really writing, even when I’ve got a page in front of me that I've apparently covered with text. I’m not sure whether that's just your everyday lack of self-esteem or another existential ailment. Which is to say that the impetus to write, or the compulsion—not to mention my guilt over writing time being wasted—doesn’t much let up even when I’m working. So I can say that I always miss it, because I’m never doing it to my satisfaction, and am always in sight of my storied limitations as thinker and agent in the world. I suppose I have to leave myself in the hands of my readers (if any). If I can see that my work is enjoyed, appreciated, understood, I can look at this third-hand reflection of the person I was while writing that particular something and tell myself, “Well, that guy, he knew what was what. Pity I’ve since murdered him and hidden his body in eight different places.”
But, to let Saint T. B. have the last word, as is only right, here’s a particularly relevant apothegm I’ve just come across (at Douglas Robertson’s wonderful website The Philosophical Worldview Artist): “The greatest mistake a person can make is to believe he doesn’t exist when he isn’t writing.”
SE My God, if we didn’t classify you as a writer of the Sinkhole in Front of the House of Fiction before that answer, you’ve just been granted entry. And speaking of the Sinkhole, we have a common admiration of one of the great Sinkhole writers, indeed a man who also traffics in the term “House of Fiction” (which we all owe to Henry James)—namely the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. What perhaps many people reading this interview don’t know is that in addition to being a novelist you have edited and otherwise worked with many of the most amazing books to come out of Dalkey Archive Press in recent years, Murnane’s among them.
I’ve gotten rather used to telling the story of how you introduced me to him. I don’t know if you recall, but it was AWP 2012, the Dalkey Archive Press table, which was just crammed with books everywhere, and I asked you to put the best thing on it in my hands. With nary a second thought you handed me Barley Patch. A few days later I started reading it, and well … Anyway, this House of Fiction that we keep going on about is at least partly attributable to Murnane: in his latest book, A Million Windows, he repeatedly describes the House of Fiction (and James’s quote naming the said house is the book’s epigraph); it indeed has many windows, through which stare the very best authors to become inspired. And A Million Windows in itself is only the latest expression (or maybe culmination) of a series of metaphors and images that Murnane has been snowballing for a while now. It’s amazing how each of his books seems to absorb and recapitulate the preceding ones. So, I guess, two questions: putting on your editorial hat, what was it about Murnane that spoke to you as Jeremy Davies the editor? And then secondly, has your work with Murnane been an influence on the writing that eventually became Fancy? I, for one, detect at least a whiff of Murnane in there.
JMD There’s more than a whiff. Brocklebank’s filing cabinets are an outright theft not from Murnane’s fiction but from Murnane’s life; and they aren’t the only bit of furniture I burgled from him, though they are perhaps the most prominent.
SE Those filing cabinets are legend. I knew it!
JMD Fancy was already well underway when I “discovered” Murnane. The surface-level similarities between Fancy and the Murnanean corpus are probably obvious, though I’m far purpler, natch. His influence was as much negative as positive, by that stage, since I had no interest in writing a Gerald Murnane novel. Still, I guess I needed to find Murnane while writing Fancy, and in the process I made it my business to shove him in as many other people’s faces as possible. So I can’t really wear my editorial hat without my writer’s cap, in this instance.
Maybe the best thing I could do, to explain both my editorial and authorial love of Murnane, would be to quote from my initial reader’s reports, which now strike me as a bit naïve, but nonetheless not wholly wide of the mark. They also, as will probably be transparent to you, sound as though I am in places describing what I myself had already set out to do in Fancy:
Inland (my first Murnane novel):
The voice is something new to me—really as though [Murnane] was trying to build something solid and durable with a slightly unfamiliar […] language whose indeterminacy and fragility had driven him to adopt extreme measures. That is, it almost reads like a translation: not in the sense of being full of solecisms […] but in its coming at English, and at narrative, from an angle that strikes me as essentially foreign, perhaps (quietly) a little unhinged. […] This book might be closest thing to a fractal novel I’ve ever read. Virtually every sentence, section, chapter is a model of the whole, in some way, and vice versa. The sentences are as though constructed out of blocks: simple words used simply, but highly peculiar in aggregate. It is a book entirely about a man sitting and writing and either remembering or imagining things. It never pretends to be otherwise. Everything about it is utterly constructed, compulsive, without ornament. […] Memories are memories, characters are characters: everything that can’t be confirmed is subjunctive.
And Barley Patch (my third):
G. M. has a “project,” and focuses on it to the point of obsession, but the delight of his work is how endlessly enjoyable his variations on this theme are, how he really has a million tricks up his sleeve, despite depriving himself of all the usual tools of fiction … we get just as involved in the stories he tells about characters he might have written about as we would in a “plain and simple” story of X doing Y to Z … (as opposed to X writing a book about how he might possibly have written a book about X1 imagining himself to be doing Y1 to Z1, but then perhaps actually Q instead, why not […]) This is a great writer, a writer who has been entirely and unfairly […] neglected, and exactly the sort […] who belongs on our list. He will never be popular, but he has rapidly become one of my favorite living English-language fiction writers.
I’d be willing to upgrade that last sentiment, nowadays: He is one of the greatest living English-language fiction writers, period. Teju Cole nailed it: “[A] genius on the level of Beckett.”
SE And he’s still got his fastball, in his mid-70s. Did you get to edit him at all?
JMD No, Inland had come out many years before, though never in the US, and Barley Patch had been edited and was already in galleys from Giramondo, Ivor Indyk’s press (a sort of Australian Dalkey, in many ways). Dalkey only acquired rights, in the first place from Gerald’s agent, and in the latter directly from Giramondo. Dalkey did do its own typesetting on its edition of Barley Patch, but short of fixing a typo or two at GM’s request, I don’t think there was any fiddling. Besides, I would be terrified of making suggestions to him. I don’t know that he needs editing. And I think he would think that he’s earned the right not to be meddled with; and I think I’d think he’d be right.
SE One of the things I love about Murnane is how you have a sense of what his books are about, even though they are never “about” what they are ostensibly about—in A Lifetime on Clouds, an adolescent’s vow to refrain from masturbation out of a sense of Catholic shame is really a metaphor for … God knows what, but it’s hilarious and beautiful, and I could talk about that book all night long. This is a thing I feel in Fancy too. So to conclude: what is Fancy about?
JMD Hot damn, that’s below the belt. We’ve been talking about what it’s about, haven’t we?
SE But, in a word.
SE You’re kidding.
JMD I am and I’m not. Look, the interesting thing about the idea of Toxoplasma poisoning is not that contact with parasites in cat excrement might be driving people crazy, or whatever the current theory/fear might be … the interesting thing about it are the implications regarding human sentience. I mean, it’s a toothless truism that everything from a beer to casual sex to sleeping in too late on Saturday to taking an aspirin will affect your body chemistry and lead you to behave, perhaps, in one way rather than another, presented with a given stimulus. But if we really double down on this … if we say, “Well, you can get these essentially harmless parasites from your cats, and your body will fight them, but they probably remain dormant in your brain in some form until you die, and we have some legitimate basis for believing that they might still affect your behavior,” your next question shouldn’t be, “Oh dear, how do I get rid of them?” so much as “Well, are any of my thoughts my own? Is any of my behavior mine? Was there ever an original ‘mine’ to which I could accurately attribute my preferences? Even if those worms are in my head now, what was in there before that made me want a cat to begin with?” It’s like I said earlier … Fancy is a comedy of infection … its characters are competing for space in the reader’s brain. Part of my dare to myself was to take these principles seriously, to see what sort of world and structure they implied.
So, sure, you could say that Fancy is about a couple of comical old kooks stuck in a dismal town finding creative ways of making themselves (and some luckless bystanders) crazy … and you wouldn’t be wrong. But you could also say that it’s the story of the composition of the manifesto of a bizarre and protean (protozoan?) order of being in which we’re all just patterns mistaking ourselves for people.
Jeremy M. Davies is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press. His first novel, Rose Alley, was published in 2009; his second, Fancy, will be published by Ellipsis Press in late February 2015.
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books, 2013). His criticism appears frequently in The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and his recent essays are in The White Review, The Point, Drunken Boat, and Music & Literature.