Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies
This is one of those small quirky novels that suffer unjustly when reduced to a linear plot summary. But even with a book that’s up to so much besides storytelling, prospective readers do like to know the storyline, so here goes: a somewhat mad director decides to produce a film based on the life of John Wilmot, the ribald poet who was the second Earl of Rochester. Unfortunately for the film crew, but fortunately for the reader, they’ve chosen to do this in Paris, amidst the events of 1968. The book is essentially a compendium of character sketches, and introduces us, one by one, to everyone associated with the ill-fated project- each one of whom is more eccentric than the last.
Davies’ prose is funny, sexy, and relentlessly brainy, but not at all pretentiously so. He has a gift for spot-on, hit-and-run representation:
"Abelard’s baby-face, twisted to a point like stirred pudding. . .”
"…the smell of take-out slinking from the garbage bin."
"Wexler’s posture was Paleolithic: he looked like he’d been curled in a hot wind.”
The writing is simultaneously light and dense, if that’s possible; each paragraph feels as if it weighs more than the sum of its sentences. The narrative has a sort of clinical, distant, formal flavor. By contrast, this makes the deliciously imagined ingredients all the more comic.
The cast members and hangers-on, with their preposterous names and elaborate backgrounds, are uniformly hilarious. And Davies doesn’t stop with the key characters themselves- family members, friends, and spectators are conjured in exquisite detail. Here’s a typical description, of the parents of Myrna Krause, screenwriter:
Her mother Rose was a typist at an insurance company and her father Michael a retired factory worker (car parts). Neither were readers; both were second-generation German-American Methodists; both had been born with stutters that so disfigured their speech that they had as schoolchildren in the same parish learned to communicate with one another by whistling the choruses of popular tunes whose titles contained phrases practical to everyday life; e.g., “What’s New,” “Betcha Nickel,” “Open the Door, Richard,” “I Want the Waiter (With the Water),” “What’s the Matter with Me?,” “Keep Cool, Fool,” “Undecided,” “Oh, Lady be Good,” and, eventually, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.”
Life was quiet until an anthropologist named Pantry and a piano-playing sociologist with a strong left hand moved in for thirteen months…They wrote a book that no one in town would read, cataloguing the vocabulary of over one thousand five hundred ideo-melodic phrases used in the Krause household.
“Cataloging” is a key word, because in many ways this is a book about classification. The film set, for instance, is not so much designed as cobbled together. The hapless set designer has no budget, and must resort to “collecting and foraging” props and costumes.
"Worse,’ he muses, ‘it was a period film— another layer of abstraction. He couldn’t get just any potato peeler: it had to be a Restoration potato peeler.’”
The book is filled with layers of abstraction, and weird taxonomies of every sort. A meal that takes seventy-two hours to prepare must be eaten in strict order- “food stratified like Aztec architecture.” A character sleeps with his sex partners sequentially, “in size order.”
In the brilliant, tour-de-force final chapter, the film notes of the director are uncovered. It turns out there are thirteen extant cuts of Rose Alley- some filmed, some manuscripts and notes, one just a catalog entry from UC Berkeley Film School.
"Things establish their own categories in time. They resonate, not in a gross natural array, but gratifying to a more discerning sense of order. I wave my hand over my collection, in my mind, and know what belongs with which. It is a basic assumption of scholarship that certain units of information vibrate in harmony.”
If you are overly obsessed with whether a fiction is “true,” this book will either please or annoy you. If you are put off by interruptions, digressions, literary blind alleys, and ambiguous meanings Rose Alley may ask an uncomfortably high level of reader surrender. But in a very clever way, Davies has made the connection between the improbable ways that stories arise out of both written and cinematic jumble sales, and you’re unlikely to read a more stimulating meditation on truth, literature and movies this year.
"What a strange, you’d have to say avant-garde sort of thing even the dullest film was, being in form- as we all know- a series of incoherent fragments, sorted through and soldered together with dreamy nonlogic, so that no gaze remains aimless, no gesture redundant: exactly the opposite of life.”
Reviewed by John Eklund