(Counterpath Press, 2009)
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.”