The Knack of Doing  by  Jeremy M. Davies  (Godine, March 2016)  Reviewed by  Hal Hlavinka

The Knack of Doing
by Jeremy M. Davies
(Godine, March 2016)

Reviewed by Hal Hlavinka

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 in Fancy 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 is the event coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, and Golden Handcuffs Review.