Interview with Jeremy M. Davies

I met Jeremy M. Davies in a hotel room. It was late—or early, depending. He came in with a whirl, holding a huge manuscript, wearing a lot of black, or charcoal, depending. As soon as Davies walked in, someone handed him some whiskey, then the whole group left.

The next time I saw Davies, he walked into a Mexican restaurant, late—not late in the evening, per se, but simply late. About an hour late. Whereas he did not walk in with a huge manuscript, he was wearing a lot of black, or charcoal, depending.

But enough about that. Jeremy Davies’s Rose Alley is dense with wit, charm, and dirty, dirty smut, disguised in lush, meandering metaphor. Although the story—if one can honestly call it a story—is set during the 1968 Paris student riots, the chapters jump to follow different characters all involved in a film. As I was reading this book, I emailed Jeremy & told him I forgot he was the author. To me, that’s one of the ultimate compliments. I mean: I read his book, knowing him, and I was so blown away I forgot he wrote it. But don’t take my word for it: Josh Cohen said this book was his favorite of 2009 from someone he knows; powerhouse demi-god Harry Mathews says, “You have no excuse for not reading this book;” the ever brilliant Steve Katz says, “He is an impeccable stylist who creates a richness full of Nabokovean Pynchonistics, totally original, dressed in wacky erudition.”

And so, without further ado, the interview:

LH: Knowing your grounding in the OuLiPo, I kept on looking for some kind of mathematical trick or formula to the ordering of your chapters.  Could you talk about the genesis of these chapters, which are indeed chapters, not free-standing short stories?

JD: Well, more an enthusiasm than a grounding, though I do find it impossible, generally, to write without some form of constraint at work . . . but I think that’s a pretty common “complaint,” even if the vast majority of writers don’t recognize their choices as being Oulipian in flavor.

This question is tricky, because Rose Alley is both ridiculously over-determined and then somewhat slovenly about seeing those determinations respected. As far as ordering, I’ll admit I took a page from Reigen, AKA La Ronde: hardly the sort of abstruse device you were thinking of, but Schnitzler came up with a neat trick, and one that’s appropriate to so prurient a book: we move chapter to chapter based on who screws whom. (Though I did take some liberties with this conceit: we also move from son to mother, and actor to character . . . but I think these are intimate enough relationships to warrant the jump—no?) Like La Ronde, the book ends when the last character finds himself having coupled (well, more or less) with the first.

But, if you want to get more technical. Each of the twelve 1968–1969 chapters were composed with predetermined vocabularies, taken from twelve different works (sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction): twelve lists of twelve words that had to be used, will I or nil I—though I was allowed to use them in whatever way I liked: all at once, in one long sentence, or spread out, etc. Naturally these had to be words of some distinction, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point. I still have some of my word lists, but I didn’t record where the words came from—unusually perspicacious on my part. Two sources I do remember, despite my best efforts, are a book-length interview with Francis Bacon and Down and Out in Paris and London. My best wishes to anyone who would like to match these to their respective Rose Alley chapters. And this isn’t to mention all the short, unattributed quotations from other works still. The surface of the thing is meant to seethe.

Chapter twelve is the exception to the above method, in that the borrowings aren’t just “seed words,” but almost overwhelm the composed text—my harebrained attempt to “do” Paul Metcalf. Historical fiction is interesting to me precisely because it highlights the impossibility of writing any kind of convincingly representational narrative . . . throw some more three-cornered hats in there, please. Metcalf’s method—in essence, to collage period texts with, very occasionally, a hiccup of his own—seems the rare “honest” route (honest, anyway, with/to his materials).

There’s more. Certain chapters were written with additional processes. All were written to a predetermined length (a fact that was obscured a little, though only to the book’s benefit, in later revisions). It is a year with thirteen moons. But to talk too much about these things—as I’ve probably done already—is to tempt an unsympathetic reader to think of the book as some kind of bloodless mechanism. Whereas, quite the opposite, the mechanism is positively, uh, tumescent.

LH: You once wrote (ok so it’s not really like you once wrote in an essay about craft, more like, you once wrote in an email to me) that all good smut is written by prudes. I challenge you to prove that statement.

JD: How can I prove it? Smut can’t be quantified. If I told you the 1985 Doctor Who Annual was the filthiest and most depraved piece of printed matter I’ve ever put my hands to—worse than Aretino’s Dialogues!— you’d just have to shrug and assume I had peculiar tastes, no? But, sure, here goes: It all comes back to our old friend the arbitrary constraint. (The following is a fairly familiar argument, I think, but come along anyhow, we’ll make a day of it.) One of the basic tenets of the Oulipo—founded in reaction, if not opposition, to Breton’s Surrealists—is that freedom, in writing (that is, “letting it flow,” and other such nauseating commonplaces), leads one to produce derivative offal. That is, when you free associate, it isn’t you talking, it’s the culture: we’re all plugged into the same calcified memes, cadences, and clichés; we’ve all got hearts, brothers and sisters, of bullshit. And yet—and yet!—we all still have to use the same words to communicate, all have to dip into the same language(s) to write “creatively,” all have to do our best to keep English (in this case) a worthwhile medium. The only way to circumvent the unclean spirit is to put pressure on our means of expression—and the best way isn’t to stop at naming your character “John McLane” rather than “Mr. M’Choakumchild” (though this is no less a constraint, and no less arbitrary, really, than not using the letter E), but to frustrate one’s compositional impulses at their root. Now everyone can type “Oulipo” into a search engine and choose their own example.

What this has to do with smut is that here, again, is a medium where one is restricted to a fairly finite number of effective tools. Sex as sex is not all that interesting, outside the context of our complex reactions to it in life, in art, in passing. Prudishness, then, is an arbitrary constraint on human interaction and expression. It makes smut more interesting and peculiar if it comes out of someone battling their own inability to be forthright about . . . whatever. Even if they succeed in writing something quite filthy, this filth is a different filth from the filth mongered by an author who feels they have nothing to hide. (Which reminds me: my favorite Oulipian constraint? The “Canada Dry”: Write something that reads as though it was written under a constraint, but was not.)

From an aesthetic standpoint, prudishness ennobles smut. Prudishness values smut. For what it’s worth, I’ve been friendly with some monstrously, even professionally promiscuous people, and speaking generally, they weren’t “let it all hang out” types, but demure, reserved, even bashful about their bodies and sex. And? I’m sure this was to a large degree why they were so irresistible. (Call me. It’s urgent.)

LH: Your similes in RA are the most lovely, skilled, rambling, meandering, yet somehow precise similes I’ve read. This is cheating because you’ve told me about your similes, but what role do you think they have in RA? Why this form of description?

JD: I’m sick. It’s a sickness. I need help. Really.

See, one of my plans for Rose Alley was for it to exhaust certain of my resources. On one level what this meant was fitting at least one novel’s worth of ideas into every chapter. That is: “Here are thirteen-plus novels I don’t have to write now!” And no one else can write them either! They’re done. There’s nothing left to them. No point going back. Nothing will grow there.

The same applies on the level of style. One has tendencies, as a writer—yes?—and something I find myself doing, more often, perhaps, than is warranted, is questioning why I have them and what they’re good for—especially when I find this or that tic becoming especially pronounced. Hey, you’re getting sick of narrative? Well, perhaps you need to write a book that’s all narrative. Hey, you’re getting self-conscious about how many similes you use? Well, perhaps you need to use so many that you turn green.

As I said, Rose Alley was always meant to seethe. It was meant to present a surface so packed with significance that it attained what I believe the kids are calling “super-flatness”—by way of excess, not another guided tour of laconicland—and yet still hold its own as narrative fiction. I think it was Sorrentino who said that similes let all the energy out of a sentence (well, I hope he said it better than that): fool that I am, I was fascinated by the idea that a book could be made to run on precisely this Des Esseintes-like entropy. Too, too precious, airless, nasty. Not for nothing does Rose Alley have all those decadent/symbolist allusions.

Whether or not they’re “good form,” similes fascinate me because to concentrate on them is to concentrate on the essential tenuousness of fiction as a means of describing the world. As Sorrentino did, definitely, say: “The artist is a slave to the fact (it takes a great while to realize this) that [words] represent nothing, and you pay homage to them on their terms.” And then, Lichtenberg said (wow, here comes the namedropping), “There are no such things as synonyms: the inventors of the words we regard as synonyms certainly expressed in them not one thing but presumably species.” Which is to say, in language, nothing is like anything. A word in the mind is distinct and discrete; it is not a little image; once you say X is like Y, you’ve fallen into a trap—a literary trap. Sure, one is expected to use this device here and there, for spice, for color, to give a nice “visual” fillip to a sentence–it’s a natural, or anyway habitual, part of imaginative prose–but the more similes you use, the more you squander your credit as far as a reader’s investment in your story, right? To which I reply: Take my credit. (Please.) Nothing is like anything—so everything, in writing, can be like anything. One of the guiding principles of Rose Alley was all-inclusiveness.

But, to be honest, I do hope you could read Rose Alley without any of the above occurring to you. Yuiry Tarnawsky, for instance, in the “Why is Water So Beautiful” chapter of Three Blondes and Death, went quite a bit further than I along these same lines. Rose Alley is indeed narrative fiction—overnarrated, in fact—and it does want to get its hooks into you. Just not in the usual places, and not by the usual means.

Finally, in penance, I’m trying now to write a novel that doesn’t contain a single goddamn simile. Though they seem to sneak in during the night. While I sleep. Like cockroaches. Like elves. Like ashes. Like italics.

LH: What do you eat for breakfast? Or do you eat breakfast? You ought to eat breakfast. I’ve been told it’s the most important meal of the day.

JD: I don’t eat breakfast. Except in company. I am a social breakfaster. There seems little point, alone. Alone, I drink a cup of tea. Cream and sugar. That is—sufficient.

LH: You’re an editor at Dalkey Archive. Has editing changed your writing? How? Quantify it. Like give me numbers. No, but really, what kind of an impact do you think editing has played in your writing?

JD: I wrote the bulk of Rose Alley before being hired at Dalkey Archive, and finished it in the two-year hiatus between my initial assistantship and then returning as an editor. So Rose Alley doesn’t really come out of that experience, except in the (to me, obvious) ways it tips its hat to (or, ransacks) certain Dalkey authors—a couple of whom have cameos, of sorts, for the eagle-eyed to catch. Though I hope my experience as an editor makes me an easier author for other editors to work with.

Certainly the job changes the way one thinks about writing, about reading, about books in general. Often it’s very dispiriting. So little of what one sees, acquisitions-wise, really engages one’s enthusiasm. Goes without saying, perhaps. And then, editing MSs. that have been accepted for publication does exhaust the very faculty that one uses to write. I don’t mean by this that “editors are artists too” or any such nonsense. I am a firm believer that editors should be invisible: no credit, no thanks, no evidence. But—worst-case scenario—when one finds oneself tinkering with a sentence in a translation for the six-hundredth time because no matter what you do to it, it still sounds like Chaucer being paraphrased by an aphasic, you are unlikely to want to head on home, open a bottle of wine, and work on your delightful chef d’œuvre about mistaken identity during the Crimean War. All writing begins to look the same: All sentences flawed; no sense transmitted, aesthetic or otherwise. One begins to feel, on a practical level, how language, like the centipede’s legs, or Glenn Gould’s fingers, ceases to function when subjected to too great a scrutiny. Whatever I go on to write will come out of this feeling, in some way, I don’t doubt.

Of course, you have to keep in mind I’m the sort of person who tends to elevate his own inadequacies into semiotic-metaphysical crises. I like to think that this is charming.

LH:  I’ve had the distinctive pleasure of eating with you on several occasions (& I certainly consider it a pleasure!), & like me, you don’t like to get your hands dirty. Unlike you, however, I can muster the ability to pick up certain foods with my fingers, as long as I wash them almost immediately afterwards. Now, this is probably a stretch by any means, but I’d like to make a connection between our eating habits & our prose. But I can’t quite do it. So I’ll toss it back to you, Mr. Davies. Connect it for me.

I have been told I am what is called “sensory defensive.” Wikipedia quotes a rather beautiful sentence to define this condition: “[A] tendency to react negatively or with alarm to sensory input . . . generally considered harmless or non-irritating.” This means, for instance, that touching crushed velvet with my fingertips makes me physically ill. That’s not an aesthetic judgment. It takes a great deal of concentration not to retch. Same with the sound of someone biting into an apple. I can’t explain this. I’m used to it, by now, and can keep from running out of the room. The main culprit, as you’ve noticed, is feeling that my hands (primarily my hands) are greasy or otherwise bearing (noticeable) foreign objects. I can and do get my hands dirty, but it really depends on how, and when, and why. And how soon I estimate I might be able to wash them. Street corner? Absolutely not. Your living room? Maybe.

A hostile interpretation would be, “You are prissy in life, thus prissy in prose!” But you’ll see, in fact, that Rose Alley is rather tactile, if not viscous. So the connection, if there is one, could as well be one of opposition. One can dirty oneself with words without getting oneself physically dirty. So damn dirty.

But look, not to extrapolate my own neuroses into a general principle, there’s little point in constructing language-objects worthy of contemplation if one can’t stand, or pretend to stand, a little outside a “neuro-typical” appreciation of the world and the word. I have I think a healthy disgust for psychoanalytically inclined lit-crit, but (we seem to keep circling the same subjects, no?) to regard the “harmless or non-irritating”as inexplicably hostile means taking the world rather more seriously, seeing it as rather more sinister–and therefore significant–than you would if you were comfortable with its touching you. Paranoia is the only religion left that’s still inspiring masterpieces. There’s no greater crime, in writing fiction, than leaning upon a presumed consensus reality with your readers. As an editor, this makes me drop a manuscript inside a minute. “Oh, another novel. Great.”

LH: What’s your favorite game? Board or otherwise.

JD: I like play, but dislike competition. Unless I know I can win. And then one game is as good as another.

Still, I’ll always have a soft spot for certain video games from my youth. You know: GET COG. Taken. OPEN PANEL. You see into the guts of the imposing machine. There seems to be a part missing. PUT COG IN MEAT PROCESSING MACHINE. The cog fits perfectly! CLOSE PANEL. Closed. TURN ON MEAT PROCESSING MACHINE. The machine begins to smoke and rattle and give off a terrible smell. TURN OFF MEAT PROCESSING MACHINE. The machine goes quiet. OPEN PANEL. Opened. GET COG. Taken. USE OIL ON PANEL. You squirt a healthy amount of the oil you stole from your accountant’s cupboard into the guts of the imposing machine. It it dripping out of the panel now. GET HANDKERCHIEF. Taken. WIPE PANEL WITH HANDKERCHIEF. You now have an oily handkerchief. PUT COG IN MEAT PROCESSING MACHINE. The cog fits perfectly! CLOSE PANEL. Closed. TURN ON MEAT PROCESSING MACHINE. It hums contentedly. GET MARMOSET. Etc.

LH: You’re more than the average movie watcher. If you could insert yourself into one movie, what would it be? (Keep in mind you can either insert yourself as a character or as yourself. Your choice.)

JD: God help me, my very first thought was The Mother and the Whore. But … probably not a good idea. Perhaps Celine and Julie go Boating. Though, unless I went as a woman, goodness knows my only function would be to be defeated and humiliated. Not that I’m not used to that. The thing is, great movies wouldn’t necessarily make good habitats. Would be fascinating to visit Zorns Lemma as the letter Q, but you probably wouldn’t want to stick around. Perhaps Love Me Tonight? Not that I’d care to do any singing. Or a Chris Marker film: to be an eye, an archivist and commentator, but invisible. And then, I could see a Powell and Pressburger movie as being a good place to retire. Maybe I’d better get back to you on this …