Each of Jeremy M. Davies's first two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2014), emphatically reject the notion that, in fiction, form serves content, proceeding instead as each of them do by establishing a form to which narrative content must accommodate itself. Rose Alley especially subordinates its "story" to the operation of its formal devices. According to Davies in an interview, the book's 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."
Fancy is less directly Oulipian in its appeal to constraints, but it is still strictly formalized, nevertheless, it's narrative premise unorthodox but rigorously carried out. Its first-person narrator, a retired librarian named Rumrill, rehearses aloud the instructions for taking care of his cats that he wishes to give to a young couple, whom Rumrill designates as the Pickles, a soliloquy that soon enough expands into the story of Rumrill's life, including his relationship with the elderly and enigmatic Brocklebank, for whom he once performed the same duty he is now entrusting to the Pickles. The novel systematically alternates paragraphs beginning "Rumrill said:" with a much briefer paragraph, an aside of sorts, beginning "He added:." In addition, an occasional entry introduced with "Brockleman writes:" provides a quote from the late Brockleman's surviving manuscripts, which lay out a philosophy of cat-fancying that also acts as a series of Wittgensteinian reflections on our experience of reality itself.
In a sense, what both novels are "about" is determined by how effectively the eventual details of the story allow the formal devices to be realized and is otherwise almost inconsequential beyond plausibly elaborating on the initial premise--in Rose Alley the recreation of the circumstances surrounding a fictional movie shot in Paris in 1968, in Fancy the successful completion of Rumrill's monologue as the means of getting his story told. Rose Alley's formal structure encompasses more than the initial imposition of constraint, as its 12 chapters (a 13th is added from the perspective of the present) are presented not in a way that would give us an account, chronological or otherwise, of the making of the film--about the English Restoration poets John Wilmot and John Dryden, and the violent 1679 attack on the latter allegedly instigated by the former--but as a series of narratives about the people involved in making the film (or involved with people involved in making the film). The novel as a whole thus moves sideways, the chapters associated by who is involved with whom. We never get a panoptic view of the film in either its nascent or completed state, and the reader unfamiliar with the Rose Alley attack on Dryden (or with Wilmot) has to wait until the penultimate chapter to get an extended explanation.
The novel's mischievous formal gestures might be more enlivening if the characters and their stories were themselves more compelling, however. It would seem that we are to take as compensation for the lack of focus on the film and its actual production the eccentric and at times sexually adventurous behavior of the characters, a fairly motley collection of failed actors, a sensationalist producer, the faux avant-garde director and his writer wife, the film's editor and designer, as well as others more tangentially connected to the film. But these characters and their circumstances are only mildly interesting at best, and at times the lengthy expository detours away from a clear connection to other characters or to the film make for rather laborious reading.
If Rose Alley suffers from a lack of immediacy and a surfeit of exposition over drama, certainly Fancy risks succumbing to a similar fate, given its reliance on a single character and his continuous monologue. But in this more recent novel its one character (aside from those who have a presence only in the speaker's discourse) seizes our attention, initially through voice and style but ultimately as well through his obsessions and idiosyncrasies. His narration is nothing if not immediate, and while there are no other characters present to literally interact with Rumrill, he nevertheless manages to invest his nondescript town and his seemingly commonplace existence as a librarian with a kind of archetypal quality, himself an Everyman grappling with fundamental questions of existence, disguised as a fascination with cats.
Rumrill's language is consistently rather stilted, but this very quality is weirdly engaging, as we hear him attempting to explain himself as precisely as possible:
Rumrill said: Apropos, may I say that through my open door as you stepped in I saw little clouds frisk across the morning or evening sky? Which clouds looked by no means significant enough to be responsible, down here below the tropopause, at the height of the three stone stairs that access Rumrill's house--squat in the fashion of most detached residences in our town--for having left you both so wet and weary from your walk?
He added: Little round lucid clouds.
Not least of the reasons why Fancy is a compelling read is the undercurrent of humor running throughout, derived first of all from the implicit absurdity of Rumrill's situation, the mundane task with which he is ostensibly occupied at odds with the theatrical manner and ornate style he adopts to carry it out, his expansively developed, carefully articulated address essentially delivered into the void. Ultimately one could say that Fancy is a novel about language (that, in a sense, it is a novel in which there is only language), but it is language deployed in such a way that it becomes inextricable from character.
And yet Rumrill does not finally come off as a hopelessly absurd figure, or at least not entirely so. It is perhaps tempting to say that in his apparent loneliness he is a somewhat pitiable figure, illustrated most poignantly perhaps in his repeated references to "the woman with whom I had gone into the stacks," a fellow librarian whom Rumrill claims he often met in the stacks for a sexual assignation but who has long since left town. Eventually it becomes clear that these encounters were probably the closest thing to intimacy with another person Rumrill has experienced, and that he acutely realizes it even as he speaks of their relationship in the most impersonal terms. His relationship with Brocklebank could be described as close--he in fact cares for Brocklebank in the latter's dotage--but Brocklebank barely recognizes him most of the time, and what Rumrill really knows of Brocklebank comes from the writing reproduced throughout the text, the "system" Rumrill has adopted as his own.
Rumrill's real dilemma, however, is existential. So profound is his appreciation of the tenuousness of reality, in fact, that he is loath to leave his house in the first place for fear that when he is gone it and his life in it will blink out of existence. One of the most outrageous episodes in the novel recounts Rumrill's elaborate construction of a corridor of mirrors, placed in such a way along his route when he must be away from home that he can continue to see his house and thus remain assured it abides and will be there when he returns. Brocklebank's cat-fancying system appeals to Rumrill because of the way it seems to promise order and coherence, sense from the seemingly random: "The variation of the features of a basic unit [of the system] producing all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic, and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression and every needed differentiation on the other."
In its focus on a character who would like to impose certainty and consistency on a recalcitrant reality, Fancy is reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. While the narrator of Remainder continually rehearses episodes in his life in an effort to recreate them, however, Rumrill's rehearsal of his directions for the Pickles seems as likely to be the thing itself, the actual extent of his willingness to contemplate leaving the house and its cats (who may also, of course be a figment of Rumrill's discourse) in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Pickles. Rumrill speaks often of his dreams, and ultimately we have as much reason to believe that his purported recitation is one of those dreams as that he is actually performing it. Rumrill is not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an unavoidably contingent one, and part of the novel's lingering resonance comes from acknowledging this.
Fancy is more successful than Rose Alley in sustaining interest through its formal design, from which Davies has fashioned engrossing "content." If Rose Alley left me intrigued but too often impatient with its more arid stretches, Fancy leads me to now enthusiastically anticipate the author's next formally audacious work.