Rumrill’s Rhythms

Jeremy M. Davies’ second novel, Fancy, is the sort of thing you’d be likely to get if Thomas Bernhard had submitted himself to the stylistic and structural constraints of the OuLiPo. Like most of Bernhard’s novels, it takes the form of a long, meandering monologue, essentially an unhinged rant. The ranter is an old man named Rumrill, and he is ostensibly delivering his monologue to a young man and woman who have agreed, perhaps only provisionally, to house-sit his two dozen cats. The visitors remain silent and unnamed throughout the novel, although after Rumrill suggests that they smell like pickled cucumbers he begins to openly disparage them as “Mr. and Mrs. Pickles” and even as members of the species “Homo cucumis.” As he lays out his instructions for the Pickles to take care of his pets – instructions that become so meticulously detailed, and so outlandishly elaborate, that they tumble from the physical realm into the purely metaphysical – Rumrill intertwines the day-to-day business of pet care with an account of the time that he, as a young man, agreed to house-sit the three dozen felines belonging to an elderly cat-fancier named Brocklebank. As he rambles on and on, the reality of the situation becomes progressively murkier. Did Brocklebank really own three dozen cats or just a plurality sufficient to make it seem as if he owned that many? Was there in fact a man named Brocklebank at all, or is he some sort of hypothetical construct that Rumrill creates for purposes unknown? Is there even a Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, or is Rumrill perhaps only ranting into a void? And what’s the deal with his obsessive recall of a long ago instance of serendipitous fellatio?

But Davies isn’t content to just let Rumrill’s words unspool, line after line after line. The novel is broken down into paragraphs that mostly begin with one of two sentences, alternating between them. Each paragraph beginning with “Rumrill said:” is followed by a paragraph beginning with “He added:” and then a new paragraph beginning, again, with “Rumrill said:.” Moreover, the words “Rumrill said:” are almost always followed by a string of extremely long, syntactically complex, and sometimes unintelligible sentences, each one delivered in a sententious tone and peppered with abstruse, recondite, and never less than polysyllabic terminology. Many of them also include untranslated phrases in French, German, and Latin, as well as Rumrill’s bizarre references to himself in the third person and frequently caustic remarks and jokes whose meaning and humour are for Rumrill alone to appreciate. And, too, the words “He added:” are almost always followed by a short, sarcastic outburst, or a pithy, acerbic aside, that undercuts the gravity of the outpourings that precede it. Finally, these alternating paragraphs are then broken up, on occasion, by interjections that begin with “Brocklebank writes:” and that offer insights into the troubled workings of the mind of Rumrill’s old acquaintance – although it’s never entirely clear whether these are articulated aloud and therefore distorted by Rumrill, who claims to have read Brocklebank’s body of writing.

The result is a literary experience best described as frenetic. It’s infuriating yet hilarious, it’s impenetrable yet vivid, it’s academically inert yet deliciously ribald, it’s philosophically profound yet it revolves around Rumrill’s retrospective relishing of one unforgettable blowjob. For the most part, it’s incredible, and it’s incredible because of the delicate fusion of its substance with its style and structure. The setup of the story is absurd, of course, but what really makes the novel tick is the way in which its alternating paragraphs, and therefore the alternating registers of its diction and syntax, see-saw back and forth towards and away from the absurdity of the story. Rumrill’s unfiltered disclosures take the absurdity of the setup and run with it, after which his brief self-reflexive commentaries – his retrospective annotations to his run-on revelations – bring everything back down to earth, just for a moment, before he launches himself into the stratosphere again. The musical rhythm, the ebb and flow, temper the ridiculousness of the things Rumrill reveals, and the joy of Fancy lies in simultaneously wondering how far he’ll try to push the envelope this time and anticipating the release of tension brought about by the next remark with which he’ll puncture his pretentiousness. I’ve never read anything quite as silly as the story Davies tells, but more importantly I’ve never read any story told in quite the way he tells it.