Mr. Davies is a friend of mine, and a former roommate, and I once worked for Dalkey Archive Press (where the man is currently an editor). And all of this no doubt contributes to my thinking so highly of his fiction debut (re: Lily’s recent friendship thread: would I have read Rose Alley this year if Jeremy hadn’t given me a copy?). But knowing someone cuts both ways, and I like to think that I approached Rose Alley all the more critically (not to mention jealously!) as a result.
This book is quite the achievement; it is an anthology of achievements. Take for starters the fact that it is that rare thing, a work of long-form fiction that isn’t a novel—akin, say, to Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes, or (to pick a more historical example), The Decameron. As in those books, the traditional architecture of the novel—an ongoing plot driven by evolving character relationships—is de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance (or foregrounded as mere connective tissue). What’s presented instead is a series of vignettes, thirteen chapters that relate episodes from the lives of figures central to the making of a European art film (read: soft-core entertainment), Rose Alley, a fanciful re-imagining of the 1679 assault on John Dryden in the titular passageway. (The orificial allusions are most assuredly intended.) Thus, one chapter narrates events from the life of the lead actress (Evelyn Nevers), while another catches us up with the film’s producer (Prosper Sforza), then the screenwriter (Myrna Krause), and so on.
Except not exactly. Matters quickly go astray, as digressions (and lives) tend to. The fourth chapter is devoted to an anthropologist (Abelard Pantry) who studied Myrna Krause as a child; the fifth reports on his boarding school chum and lover (Gilbert Beltham). But Beltham, it turns out, is one of the film’s bankrollers—this is a fiction, after all, and an artifice. And so we’re guided back toward the movie at the book’s center, only to be spun out once again: the sixth chapter concerns itself with Gilbert Beltham’s mother (Wilhelmina Princep)…who happens to have been married (albeit briefly) to one of the filmmakers…. C’est très incestuous. Later, another chapter (“Poet Squab”) takes Dryden as its subject and relates essential exposition regarding the actual mugging (although, perversely, this is the penultimate chapter).
The episodes are, as you’ve already guessed, non-sequential, and often non-contemporary. (Indeed, their logic for the most part lies in tracing out who precisely has slept with whom.) But you shouldn’t therefore infer that Rose Alley is confusing (except when it wants to be—some character relationships are deliberately obscured). And there is a central plot, however minor, that relates how the film’s shoot, troubled from its inception, was permanently interrupted by the May 1968 Paris riots. (The shooting wasn’t held in London because the producer “claimed to be a tax exile.”)
When plot has been pushed so far into the background—even surgically excised—then what is left to hold the reader’s interest? Many things; consider Rose Alley’s language. Each new sentence adventures:
She gave him an ugly, overstated cackle of satisfaction, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of his stories, trying to keep him to the point—the sound solitary as a church-bell’s at the half-hour: “Hee.”
…reveling as it does so in an eccentric sensuality:
Myrna let him scratch her scalp. Nothing short of violence would have stopped him. Myrna was tiny and untidy—she didn’t shave or wash. Her college French was like Japanese, all adverbs and no pronouns. How could Sforza stand to touch her, even in jest? Evelyn supposed in her diary that he must need to feel every woman he met was accessible. Prosper got his toothbrush out of his mouth where he’d been chewing on it and stood it up like a pen in a pocket of his blazer before shaking everybody’s hands.
…that remains, remarkably, touchingly warm (Davies clearly adores his characters, otherwise he wouldn’t lavish so much attention on them):
Her father Rex made a mint in silent Hollywood, getting his start as a farmhand in a Griffith two-reeler before moving quickly up to directing in the days when this was still a matter of being able to shout across a warehouse space, look good in jodhpurs, and bait your leading ladies into quivering histrionics. He had a particular talent—if talent is the word—for turning out safari pictures, where Hottentots happy for the work held hijacked white hunter’s wives tied with vines in the shadow of tumescent volcanoes.
Rose Alley is tremendously artful and dirty fun—a blast, even (and it contains the best index since The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium). Somebody somewhere has said of the delightful thing that “you have no excuse not to read this book,” and while I’m sure that you could think of reasons for putting it off (you are rather clever, aren’t you?), you would be wrong to.
Next: A list of the other new books that I enjoyed in 2009.