A Special Form of Crazy, a conversation with Jeremy M. Davies, author of Fancy

by Eric Lundgren

At a 2011 reading in St. Louis, hosted by the university we both attended (though not concurrently), I heard Jeremy M. Davies read from his work in progress. The passage he read was about a character who painstakingly hung mirrors along the street where he walked to work so that he would never lose sight of the reflection of his house. The character’s name was Rumrill and I haven’t yet fully managed to get his voice out of my head. That might be why my head hasn’t been feeling quite right for the past three and a half years.

The voice — by turns corrosively witty, obsessive, anxious, and hallucinatory — is the driving force behind Davies’s newly published novel, Fancy. It follows 2009’s Rose Alley, which documented the making of a failed film about the Earl of Rochester during the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Whereas Rose Alley was a verbally promiscuous, prismatic sex comedy, Fancy turns its gaze inward. It begins with Rumrill delivering instructions to the supposed caretakers of his twenty cats in the foyer of his home. Then he begins to recount how he, too, was once a caretaker for a man named Brocklebank, who owned thirty cats. And no cats of any kind seem to be around … Rumrill’s monologue builds into a deeply strange ontological investigation, as well as a hypnotic and compulsively readable account of one man’s baroque attempts to process and cope with the world inside and outside his house. It is an invention of great wit, imagination, and feeling — what they used to call, a few centuries ago, “fancy.”

Fancy “could become a cult classic,” according to a starred Publishers Weekly review, and the Times Literary Supplement called it “a witty and ingenious polyphonic invention.” Joining Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009) and Fancy (Ellipsis, 2015), Jeremy M. Davies’s debut collection of short fiction, The Knack of Doing, will be published by David R. Godine/Black Sparrow later this year. He is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press. I was very glad to have the opportunity to interview him by e-mail.

Eric Lundgren: While the novel takes the form of cat-sitting instructions, Rumrill, the novel’s narrator and I guess we could say protagonist, turns this form to his own private and delightful ends. I kept thinking of J. L. Austin’s notion of “performative language,” the way certain kinds of language alter reality or create reality anew. Early on Rumrill refers to his instructions as “arias.” To what extent did you have the sense of performance while you were writing this? It’s a one-man show in many ways.

Jeremy M. Davies: It would be a difficult performance to pull off, live. Performative but not necessarily performable.

Do you know Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which is meant to be put on in a private rather than a public space? I’ve never seen it played — there’s an excellent audio version available, but that’s not the same thing as having someone standing in your own living room, “acting” as you try to avoid eye contact. But my notion of what it might be like to have that text delivered to you in this fashion, without your knowing what you’ve gotten yourself into — and without a way out, since you’re already at home — was in my peripheral vision as I was knocking Fancy into shape. A monologue beginning pretty harmlessly, comically, gradually getting sinister, cutting off lines of (rhetorical) escape, and recasting familiar things as threatening. So, perhaps “undermining” reality than creating it anew.

Which, at just about the other end of the engagé scale from Shawn, is kind of an old trope in “weird tales,” isn’t it? The words you shouldn‘t hear, the knowledge that you’re not meant to have, uncovered in a “house on the borderland,” leaving you mad … Though here this world-destroying kernel is concealed in a bunch of supposed cat-sitting instructions. To each his own?

EL: Which raises the issue of Fancy’s fantastical edge. You do a lot of what the SF crowd calls world-building, here.

JMD: You know, parenthetically, I have trouble with that term. I understand how it can serve as useful shorthand, but something about its recent ubiquity rubs me the wrong way. As though every work of fiction doesn’t already “build a world” with its own and necessarily fantastical/fictive rules, no matter whether they happen to be dressed up like everyday things rather than folkloric or science-fictional ones … Am I being oversensitive? (I’m really asking.)

EL: “Building,” I suppose, in the sense of establishing what is and isn’t possible in a fictional world line by line. As opposed to deferring to a kind of consensus reality. This is important in Fancy, the idea of language as a system for processing the world and the eroding effects of secondhand language and cliché.

Part of the fun of any novel worth its wood-pulp is, for me, the delight I take in suspending my assumptions as it teaches me how it means to be read…

JMD: I’d say that “consensus reality” doesn’t just apply to brand names and smartphones and city landmarks and all the other impedimenta we use to signal that a book takes place in what’s meant to be the real world: it also applies to genre. That is, we have a consensus as to what makes a fantasy novel, we have a consensus as to what makes a coming-of-age story. So “They had their usual seats at Wrigley Field” and “They had their usual seats by the warp-drive monitoring station” each provides an equal (if different) number of reference points. Whereas the real trick is in setting out the rules for how the world of the book works, as you say — which is as much a linguistic process as it is a juggling of generic expectations. Part of the fun of any novel worth its wood-pulp is, for me, the delight I take in suspending my assumptions as it teaches me how it means to be read — as it makes its various concessions to and perpetrates its various violations upon the history of the form.

But yes, Fancy’s world is one that takes very seriously the prospect of language eroding thought, and thought eroding reality. Mainly what it wants to teach you is suspicion.

EL: And Fancy’s is a very sparsely furnished world. Outside of Rumrill’s house, and his precursor Brocklebank’s house, we have a train station, a bridge, a library … am I forgetting anything?

JMD: The railway graveyard … ?

EL: I loved the railway graveyard. And there’s the high-rise tenement in which the prospective cat-sitters live, and which blocked Rumrill’s view of the town, and which seems to represent a sort of obscure doom that has fallen over the area. But I guess what I’m saying is that you tend to avoid the dense substantiating stuff we’d find in a more conventionally realistic fiction.

JMD: See, to me, that doesn’t sound sparse at all! A train station, a bridge, a library — that’s a hell of a lot more generous than some stories. This starkness is probably more attributable to the fact that Rumrill’s town lacks the usual signifiers placing it in a recognizable somewhere, so the information he does volunteer floats in the middle of a lot of supposition, rather than being suspended in a known quantity like “Paris” or “Sheboygan.” Its landmarks come to feel a bit talismanic.

Unless you’re Michel Butor, though, or someone with a similar project — that is, if you have a program of density, as in his wonderful Passing Time — you’re probably doing something wrong if your substantiating “stuff” feels dense, as such…

EL: Fancy’s landscape isn’t deliberately starved or denuded of facts, but every fact is harassed. There’s a pervasive sense of doubt in the novel, applying to even its most central propositions: the existence of Rumrill’s cats, and the Mr. and Mrs. Pickles he’s supposedly instructing, to begin with. Rumrill’s phenomenological doubts are a key theme — kind of a wobbly fulcrum for the whole book — and this extends to the narrative world. So it’s world-building and world-undermining at once.

JMD: What we do learn is always subject to second-guessing, yes. Rumrill isn’t even sure what the weather is like outside (or, anyway, he refuses to make a clear statement without gainsaying it in the next line). On the subject of science fiction, now that you’ve let that imp out of the bottle, I’ll mention that another work often on my mind when writing Fancy was a Michael Moorcock story, I think called “The Dream of Earl Aubec.” It’s a creation myth of sorts, and — bearing in mind I haven’t read it in more than twenty years and am inevitably going to be remembering it wrong — is about a prehistorical hero-type being talked by a goddess into venturing out beyond the known world. The man is hesitant because he knows there’s nothing out there — the world drops off and turns into chaos where the map ends. But the goddess prevails upon him, and when he sets his no-doubt jewel-encrusted boot over the border, he doesn’t fall off the edge: the map is instantly filled in, and not with new countries, but countries that were always there. So Rumrill’s town is perhaps the remnant of a country where the bloom’s come off of that act of creating what was already there; or where the foundation of this creation has been — here’s that word again — undermined. Things are turning back into mush. Save, that is, for a library, a bridge, etc.; save for what our very unheroic and jewelry-free hero is present, in person, to witness and thereby keep stable.

But then it’s an open question even to himself whether Rumrill is fighting a holding action against the mush or is actually its agent.

EL: It’s not a place that would appear on any map, but I do think of Rumrill’s home as being in a Midwestern town, although I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we both live here, a few hours apart, although I rarely see you.

JMD: That’s funny, I see you all the time.

I think of it as Midwestern too. It’s a scrambled, impossible, certainly post-”obscure doom” Midwest, but I won’t pretend that the resemblance is coincidental. I’ve lived here a decade now and I still feel as though it might as well be Mars. (Or, more to the point, as though I might as well be from Mars.)

EL: It may also be the horizontal quality of much of the architecture, or the sense of ruination (the sewers aren’t functioning well and rats are showing up in bank lobbies, and the library mainly stocks survival manuals).

JMD: Aha! See? It is conventionally realistic fiction. This stuff is practically documentary!

EL: I also have the sense that recluses, I mean hard-core recluses, prefer the Midwest.

JMD: I could hypothesize, irresponsibly, that this is because there are less people crowded together here than on the coasts and borders? And yet enough people everywhere for it to feel inhabited, even teeming, despite an accompanying sense of emptiness due to the absence of topography. It incites loneliness but offers no solitude, and is almost anti-picturesque over long stretches: it’s a place where things are both rigorously human sized (with nothing much taller than a person, and for miles in every direction) and yet often inappropriate for human habitation (because fouled and then abandoned by industry, for example; or simply because it’s not much more than a filled-in swamp). You’re made to feel like the center of the universe while also feeling enormously exposed and vulnerable. Which induces a special form of crazy. Especially if you’re a transplant from places with greater population density, more amenities, more community, more tallness. I can imagine a Brocklebank landing here from Vienna and looking out over the corn-and-soy fields, yelling: wake up and make some sense, damn it!

EL: There’s a beautiful description in here of how cats might read rearranged furniture as a science-fictional geography. Part of Brocklebank’s treatise on cat-fancying, which Rumrill quotes from time to time in his monologue, ends up in a pulpy science-fiction journal along the lines of Weird Tales. I’ve been told you’re a big Doctor Who fan and I wonder how you see this line of influence playing out here and perhaps in future works.

JMD: Whoa, whoa, whoa — you’ve been told? Who have you been talking to?

All the time my family thought they were sending me to yeshiva to get God, I was actually studying Doctor Who.

All right, it’s a fair cop. Doctor Who was a foundational text for me, growing up — I’m talking about the ’80s now. All the time my family thought they were sending me to yeshiva to get God, I was actually studying Doctor Who. I imagine there are probably still copies of holy books at my grade school that have little blue ball-point TARDISes scratched into the flyleaves. But look, I consumed nothing but science fiction till after eighth grade. Any novel without some fantastical element in it bored me stupid. Then I read Joyce and Bernhard and Borges and realized that there were sneakier, more challenging, and funnier ways to avoid tedium than having explicit recourse to fantasy. Or, to put it another way, that style could be more fun than spaceships. (Not that you can’t also have both.)

So, yes, Fancy has a pulpy/Lovecraftian air to it, at times, along with the qualities of alienness and phenomenological slipperiness we’ve already spoken about. And Rose Alley has a super villain and lots of other jiggery-pokery that you’d have to call “unrealistic.” But those are more jokes than subjects.

As to future work, who can say. There’s a novel to be written about the odd relationship kids brought up in religious atmospheres can develop with what I’ll call “competing mythologies.” After all, it can’t be news to anyone that Western religion is where we get the notion of there being canon and noncanon (that is, apocrypha/fan fiction) — such a vexed issue with convoluted, long-running properties like Who or the Abrahamic religions: these impossible things happened, but absolutely not those …

EL: There’s a sense in which Brocklebank’s system of cat-fancying does come to feel religious. In any case, it’s a total system for understanding the world. Rumrill seems to be living out the consequences of this system, this faith as it were, although he’s a less than perfect exegete.

JMD: Judaism as a pedagogical and scholarly discipline is extraordinarily concerned with exegesis, with mapping every scintilla of the universe with rules derived from rules derived from texts derived from conversations derived from rumors derived from annotations derived from interpretations derived from texts derived from marginal comments. There’s a Talmudic echo in Brocklebank’s cat-fancying system and Rumrill’s study/sabotage of it. But, then, the revelation that the only place B. could get excerpts of his tractatus published during his lifetime was in a Weird Tales analogue is a good indication that his ideas were pretty cracked even before Rumrill got his hands on them.

There’s a Barry N. Malzberg story in which aliens torture a science-fiction hobbyist to get their grubby little protuberances upon an issue of a pulp magazine he has in his collection, all because one of its long-dead contributors published there a secret of unimaginable importance in the guise of a short story. I’m not sure I read that until after I finished Fancy, but it goes to show … something. Not least that there are preoccupations (like science fiction) that have a way of evolving into bizarre and potentially unsavory theologies (not to mention bizarre and potentially unsavory theologies that have a way of evolving into science fiction).

EL: Brocklebank’s commandments are definitely bizarre. And there’s just a great deadpan sense of humor in the way they’re presented. Rereading the book, I’m both impressed by the control of the voice and retroactively concerned for your sanity. I can’t really imagine what long-term immersion in this project would be like. Rose Alley was an elaborately structured novel with several Oulipian constraints in place. I’m curious what your own writing systems were here and how they helped you to control the material in Fancy.

JMD: There’s the Rumrillish sentence and then the Brocklebankian sentence. Those structures were the container for all the book’s material, one size fits all, and were adhered to with occasionally discomfiting rigidity; it was a sort of autosuggestion: the trance state that minimal music can induce. (What was it Bob Ashley said? “Short ideas repeated massage the brain”?) So while I’d hesitate to call Fancy Oulipian, the syntactical rules for these sentences, their shape and rhythm, were indeed determined in advance, and these determined in turn the shape of the book and also much of its content (this notion of being infected by other peoples’ manners of speech, and having your mind remade as a consequence, is itself a consequence of my imposing upon myself these manners of speech). Having said all that, though, it probably goes without saying that I’m not so interested in rules and constraints for their own sake; at the end of the day, I want to have produced something good, to have added something of value to the tradition. (Which is my way of saying I cheat like a bastard as needed.)

EL: I was thinking particularly of the passages from different composers and musicians that are appropriated for Brocklebank’s opus — this was pointed out in an astute review by Paul Griffiths in the TLS. Those liftings definitely bring different air, verbal draughts, into the book.

JMD: Rumrill, greedy amoeba that he is, absorbed almost all of Brocklebank’s role, leaving the old man with only the words of others. The idea behind cento’ing my betters was, as you say, to put something into the book that originated outside its airless pocket-universe. (But the sheer, perverse fun of repurposing serious music writing to be about something as seemingly insignificant as managing your house pets can’t be left out of the equation.)

Part of the challenge and the pleasure of Fancy was seeing how all sorts of different statements could become Rumrillish or Brocklebankian if subjected to the same pressures. I even experimented with hiding bits of other novels in Fancy, “translated” and denuded into plodding, methodical Rumrill-speak; for example, the first line of Gravity’s Rainbow. (None of these survived into the finished book, thank goodness, though it was pretty funny at the time …) Try it at home!

EL: One rule of Fiction Writing 101 that you break quite pleasurably in Fancy is the prohibition on dream sequences. There’s one in which Rumrill dreams he’s dressed as the Queen of England, and another where he dreams an opera in detail. There’s also that M.C. Escher mirror-corridor sequence on the train.

JMD: What prohibition? Oh dear; I don’t think I got that memo. Do they call it Moresby’s Law, or something? (“‘No!’ cried Kit with force. ‘Dreams are so dull! Please!’”)

EL: Yeah, it was the very first class. They handed out AWP badges. You came in late, and naked … you don’t remember?

JMD: I’ve never had that dream . . . I did actually have the train dream, though, more or less as described in Fancy. Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting that. And I have dreamed entire nonexistent movies or plays (or: on waking I had the impression of having done so), and I did have a nightmare when very young about there being an afterlife that was essentially identical to this life, just grayer. Terrifying.

If you’re alone too often, it’s can be difficult to tell the difference between a memory and a dream.

If you’re alone too often, it’s can be difficult to tell the difference between a memory and a dream. Not that you have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy or any such dime store nonsense, but in a very ordinary and unavoidable sense, in the absence of stimuli, external proofs, it can be easy to mistake a conversation you might really have had for one you’ve only dreamed about having. Texturally, that kind of confusion typifies Rumrill’s world (or Rumrill himself). He isn’t sure, frequently, whether an event happened before or after another. That non-logic is native to dreaming. Dreams were also, in terms of their practical use, one of a few ways the book has to escape the foyer and point Rumrill at subjects that wouldn’t otherwise come up.

Brocklebank dreams too. He speaks initially of his system having come to him in a dream, to “an incredibly detailed degree.” This sentence originates in some liner notes by the composer Mauricio Kagel, but I was probably thinking too of Jacques Roubaud’s epic autobiographical novel The Great Fire of London, which was inspired (if that’s the word) by a dream the author had during a period of loneliness and despondency. Or, to be more accurate, what Roubaud dreamed about was a project he was never able to complete; The Great Fire of London isn’t the edifice he hoped to build but a record of his defeat. Brocklebank would sympathize.

As to the mirrors … this is one of those subjects it’s virtually impossible to address without sounding like an ass. Mirrors, marionnettes, mannequins, and masks are hotspots for twaddle. Really, the “mirror corridor” section of Fancy began as 100% schtick: it grew from my taking a preposterous postulate seriously (like so much of the book). But you’re right it rhymes with the train dream, and with much else in Rumrill’s world, which (not to put too fine a point on it) is in toto a brand of Midwestern, phenomenological nightmare — unalloyed solipsism being another preposterous postulate Fancy chooses to take in deadly earnest. Rumrill can only see Rumrills, endlessly, and endlessly isolated.

It comes down, I think, to my own real terror and fascination with sameness, repetition. With the autophagy one is driven into when too long alone, or too much aware. With the strictly nursery-school but nonetheless rather upsetting notion that there’s no real way to get out of your head without losing it.

EL: As a public librarian myself, I naturally enjoyed your portrayal of Rumrill’s erotic activities in the stacks with his former supervisor, back before he became a cat-fancier and amanuensis to Brocklebank. He in fact meets Brocklebank through his work at the library, suggesting (plausibly I think) that public library work may be an entry point into deep eddies of idiosyncrasy and corrosive solitude. But Rumrill looks back on his time in the stacks with a genuine, if befuddled, tenderness, it seems.

JMD: I suppose Rumrill’s tenderness is inherited from me. I would have liked to be a librarian. I did work for a time at my college library; I loved losing myself in the semi-abandoned Dewey Decimal stacks (everything past a certain date was cataloged Library of Congress style, but no one ever bothered to convert the older books). I’d disappear a lot when I was meant to be shelf-reading or putting back returned titles. I probably did bring a couple of friends down there with me. It was one of the most private places on campus, despite being open to the public. You’d run into students on even the most forsaken spot of waste ground in the dead of February, but, strange to say, the depths of the library went unmolested. (And books, of course, make excellent sound baffles.)

It’s easy for city-dwellers to take libraries for granted — I mean for their services, not for their potential as trysting places. (Or, anyway, both.) Out on the plains, they’re absolutely necessary. It’s a sort of miracle that, even in the most destitute and far-flung Midwestern towns I’ve passed through, being choked to death by car culture and misdirected capital, there’s usually still a little public library holding on for dear life. I feel certain the rest of their funding will be cut in a year or two, and then — well, on comes the “obscure doom.”

EL: Yeah, we’re still holding out. That may be why I find Rumrill sympathetic despite his repellant qualities. He’s a holdout. And not to sentimentalize your work, I hope, but I find Fancy quite moving as a document of the immense imaginative work Rumrill has undergone to cope with loneliness and to make life in what he repeatedly calls “the big world out there” tolerable for himself.

People keep apologizing to me for finding the book funny or sad.

JMD: Then I’ve done something right. People keep apologizing to me for finding the book funny or sad. I assure you all sentiment and comedy were very much intended! Rumrill and Brocklebank are both tragic figures, to my mind. That their tragedy is of no consequence, in itself, only makes them more so; as does the comedy of their (perhaps successful!) attempts to force the rest of reality into their mold.

EL: Finally, I have to ask about your own cats. How many of them are there, if any? What are their names? Have their food and water bowls been filled recently? In general, how are they doing?

JMD: I didn’t have any while writing Fancy — there goes the roman à clef! But my wife brought one with her when she moved in, so I do have one now — his name is Osip. He’s fine, fed, watered; healthy. Extremely free with complaints, by no means a silent cog in any abstruse ontological machinery (that I know of). He’s in a permanent snit because we also came to adopt a three-legged Indian street dog named Zuleika, who would really rather that the cat get no attention whatever. She’s now eaten three copies of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, so I know she’s got taste. I’ll give the menagerie your regards.

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