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? Continue reading

Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. One of the seventeen stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river. Continue reading

Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible. Continue reading

Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a beautiful novel for a number of reasons, although as I read it I often found myself wondering how much of its lustre would be lost on readers unfamiliar with Gilead. Unlike readers of Home, its immediate predecessor in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, readers of Lila will find much to appreciate even if they are not familiar with the other two titles. In part this is the case because Home replays many of the events already depicted by the narrator of Gilead, albeit from the perspective of a different character and therefore in a way that imbues them with new meanings, while Lila covers events that occur many years before the action of Gilead and that have been, until now, almost entirely unexplored. If a novel that requires its readers to possess knowledge of another novel thereby places a burden on their shoulders, Lila arguably leaves its readers at greater liberty than Home, and yet, while reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that liberty comes with its own sort of price. Continue reading

Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?” Continue reading

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it? Continue reading

A Revisionary Postscript: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

After a while, I decided he might be on to something. I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow. In between wallpapering, I wrote The Wallcreeper. Then I started on the floors. Then I took up playing the piano.

So begins the final paragraph of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, positioning the work as another of those novels that finds its protagonist and narrator “in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth” and finally “justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis.” Zink’s narrator has good reason to plunge into crisis: in an unforgettable opening line, she recalls riding shotgun in a car with her husband and “looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Despite the depth of her trauma, however, she is much more acerbic and irreverent, much less leaden and melancholy, than Julius, Adam, Faye, and their ilk. Continue reading