THE KNACK OF DOING: Stories
JEREMY M. DAVIES
Black Sparrow Books/David R. Godine, Publisher
$18.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Publisher Says: The Knack of Doing is the debut collection of short fiction by Jeremy M. Davies, the author of the acclaimed indie novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015). Playful, fantastical, gruesome, and tender by turns, these stories run the gamut from parody to tragedy and back. Overflowing with "wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance" (Harry Mathews), perverse, playful, and highly comic stories that take dead aim at fictional and literary convention. These stories run the gamut from parody to tragedy and back, and reimagine the art of storytelling for the twenty-first century.
My Review: In Days of Yore, my youthful audience, the knowing bookstore-browser of a certain taste and class would react to the presence of the Black Sparrow Press colophon with 1) immediate and unmannerly snatching, clutching, and unwilling surrendering even to the cashier; or 2) a delicate shivering, nothing so gross as a shudder, because the authors the press published were...louche, not parlor-chat material (eg, Wyndham Lewis, John Fante). I was in category 1.
Now Black Sparrow is an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher. Godine books were also to be greedily snatched because (unlike Black Sparrow books) they were gorgeously designed and produced, and the Godine colophon was a rock-solid guarantee of an excellent book and an excellent novel or story (you DO remember the difference between books and novels/stories, right?). When I asked the Godine folks for a copy of this book and they obliged, off I went down the rabbit-hole into the weird world of modern publishing and its shifts, changes, disappearances and reappearances, and general not-like-it-was-ness.
Twelve stories anda novella in about 200 pages of text? Whew. Economy of expression, anyone? I’ll probably never match that in making my comments, story by story, and can pretty much promise my attempts at summation will be significantly more prolix.
Forkhead Box brings to somewhat dingy life one Schaumann, the official executioner at Sing Sing. In his spare time, he breeds mice. They don’t all live, obviously, since he’s breeding them for various qualities. And clearly such a hobby, carried on in his basement, is obvious to his family.
Why keep secrets in any case? It would not have occurred to Schaumann that a deceit was woth the making. (It would not have occurred to Schaumann that a painting or poem was worth the making.)I was a smidge puzzled about this title. I Googled the phrase and came away with a much enhanced appreciation of the story. I won’t spoiler it for you, as I’m strongly in favor of discovery being left to the individual.
Sad White People (are there any other kind?) introduces Chris and Chris, a young couple (M/F) who are just about to end up as statistics. Or maybe in News of the Weird. I’d bet both.
The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved) um, well now, umm…
5. Large and purple pastries filled with grape, threatening to drip down over a tobacco-stained counter on which loose gray hairs stir in the air conditioning. What am I?Sixteen non-sequiturs starring May, a young...sex worker, though not exactly a prostitute, as you’ll see. Her world is bizarre. It is also completely bewitching. I love May the way I love Marilyn Monroe, simply drinking in all that she pours forth.
(Answer: May can imagine the texture of the driver’s ears in her mouth. Cartilage is sexier than skin or bone. She is assembling a bok of aphorisms. May sees her mouth in the rearview: wide, with perfect square herbivore’s teeth. She spots lipstick on an incisor, even in the darkness of the cab, and takes out her hankie to erase it.)
The Dandy’s Garrote shows, in one Proustian sentence, how hard it is to know, socialize, love, care for, writers. Heh.
Ten Letters chronicles the fearful imaginings of a father as his wife takes his twin sons, Willie and Nillie, to England via Cunard liner. So we’re already clear it’s set in the past, which is reinforced by the (imagined?) presence on the cruise of a phrenologist called Mahaffy. Phrenology, the pseudoscience responsible for more immoral mischief in the world than you’d ever imagine! That supporting beam of eugenics, apologist for racism! Well, anyway, dad has written ten letters to his sons, one for each day of the cruise, and he’s very worried about the influences they’ll fall under with Mahaffy paying court to their mother as a way to phrenologize the boys. His fears become more and more outlandish even as he admits (in his letter) that he would have nothing to say to any of his family were they all face to face. A tale of missed connections, misconnections, and misery caused and endured and perpetuated in the name of conventional expectations.
The Excise-Man makes a lot of mileage out of the distaste of the colonial-era drinkers for paying the Crown its excise tax. (That never stopped, did it, since moonshiners are still (!) with us today.) The mob that pursues the excise-man makes a lot of stops, always just missing the slippery guy. At one inn, Cooper the innkeeper reveals to the assembled men that he is responsible for the rotation and motion of the planet Mars. He shows the men the apparatus. They’re all duly impressed, as is the reader, with the baroque conceit of planets controllable by machines human beings operate. But the excise-man! They want his hide! No sooner do the mob’s men leave Cooper’s inn, they meet up with various folks from their town...but old, so much older than is possible...Rip van Winkle and the Headless Horseman and Faust would all recognize this tale. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, because it surely is.
Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta doesn’t involve Kurt Vonnegut or the Danube Delta or bordellos...directly, anyway...but is instead a thorough and thoroughly amusing dissection of writing, advice about writing, and the writer’s eternal dilemmas: Is this genius or junk, should I keep going or quit, am I kidding myself?
It seems I don’t need or want to go anywhere anymore. And I don’t see how words want, or what words want. I know, however, that I do want to read a story that makes me want to go blind. I want to root for a story that wants me to want something that I could not possibly want.It’s this kind of guff that writing advice produces. It’s the most complicated learning process of them all, learning how to make people want to read your words. I think it’s only possible to learn by doing, and that’s advice I got from...well...I got. And give. And Kurt Vonnegut? His eight rules for fiction writing success are very respectfully sent up. It’s a fun story to read, a pleasure to have read.
Do you believe this? Are you rooting for me?
The Sinces begins every paragraph with the sentence fragment, “Since you went away,...”, this being the lament of an abandoned husband. I found it more interesting as an exercise than a told tale:
Since you went away, I dream often of the end of the world; but by this I mean an end only to the comforts I still have in life, and the replacement of my familiar abstract distresses with the more acute ones represented by exposure to the elements, fighting for subsistence, resocialization into a community to which I can offer even less than I do the nominally civil, protective one I’m a member of now; that is, I often have nightmares.It’s not a long story, thank goodness, and I for one say “good on ya, ya savvy sheila” to the lady for walking away from this navel-gazer. Still, it’s got an interesting point. I can’t remember what it is, but I remember thinking, that’s interesting; I should write that down; but, sadly, no pens were in reach and my computer was charging so not within reach; and by then, I’d forgotten it anyway.
On the Furtiveness of Kurtz brings the jealous loathing of an abandoned husband for Madame’s new amour propre to its apotheosis:
But didn’t it occur to you, reading this book, Kurtz would ask, that such a verb is hardly in the spirit of plain-dealing? Didn’t it occur to you that to say of a man that he scuttles rather than walks isn’t, wasn’t, fair to him?Or, as Conrad said the same thing: He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!”
I don’t make the rules, Kurtz! The words I have to describe suspect or unattractive characteristics are themselves suspect or unattractive. When I speak of the scuttling, furtive Kurtz, it will seem to you that I am saying that he is the sort of man who, characteristically, scuttles and furts. Who could blame us if we didn’t want to meet such a man?
Illness as Metaphor bravely, if bewilderingly, co-opts the title of Susan Sontag’s famous long essay on exactly what it sounds like it’s about. A young woman’s mother, apparently with unintended (?) malice, announces to the nosy world that her daughter is ill.
They call now, incessantly, my mother’s friends, and ask what my disease is usually called. I can’t help them. I can say the name to myself, yes: silently. I can caress its syllables with the intangible tongue I’m still able to wag in my dreams of health. When it comes, however, to forcing the word, wet, into the air, and then through the thirty-six pinpricks in my telephone receiver, I am incapable.I’ll be frank: I don’t care a single, solitary, tiny bit about this woman on page one of her blahblahblah. One thing she says resonates with me in a positive way: “You don’t appease illness by containing it. You appease it by spreading it.” So many illnesses are describable this way, social ills, mental illness, physical ailments, all appeased by their spread, their purpose to do entropy’s heavy lifting. Overall, though, not my favorite in the collection.
Henrietta the Spider couldn’t be better named. The plump heroine, married to a skinny man and living with the man’s skinnier sister right next to their bedroom wall, snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Henrietta finds escape in killing their dog via spider-bites, which she’s also had but survived handily. As Henrietta loses herself in a haze of melancholy, her husband and sister-in-law dance attendance on her, try to ginger her up; in her turn, she hunts for the spiders that bit the dog to death and puts them in the beds of these kind souls. Nothing untoward happens. Damn. But as Henrietta lounges in a hot bath, her spider bite (long forgotten) starts acting up….
The Knack of Doing feels like the lack of doing. The husband/father/nephew we’re reading about has many people around him doing, acting on the world and being acted upon in return. Our nebbishy man has a moment of clarity as he defines his place in the world:
Is it that it skips a generation? He means this knack of doing. His uncle and now his son are or were, what, in the thick of life, the marrow or whatever, they decide and their decisions have consequences, they are agents, they act, they effect. Or: the species, the culture, it acts through them--they are in concert with what is basic in the animal, while he, in his neck of the woods, at his desk, in the dark...he is the chaff, he is what’s discarded, cut out, boiled away; already he’s overripe.I don’t know if he’s overripe, but he’s sure as hell rotten with self-pity. The title story of the collection, this couldn’t better sum up what you’re going to get when you get here: men mired down, men weighed heavily upon, women who abandon them, and the consuming, subsumed rage that destroys and disfigures our modern world.
Delete the Marquis is a postmodern novella, a riff of the late Wayne Dyer-esque “think it into being” school of self-help, and an hommage (intentional or not) to Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” mixed with The Count of Monte Cristo.
Don Miguel, a broke and broken hack writer, with a broken...let’s say he’d be a Cialis customer and leave it at that...pays a visit to the Mesmerist healer, Marquis de Puységur, whose Animal Magnetism cure for all that ails him is paid for by hack-writing crummy period romances under the names supplied by le Marquis. This visit Don Miguel is accompanied by that most annoying of traveling companions, someone that one used to know but can’t quite place, and one is very sure that it’s preferable not to. Victor, it turns out, is the young boy who tended Don Miguel’s father in his dying days. This is shocking, since threadbare Don Miguel sees before him not the deformed, stupid peasant lad he remembers, but a bright and wealthy (if overdressed) and articulate man also on his way to avail himself of the Marquis’s services thus also of Don Miguel’s:
I lost no time in making clear to the man that there were, indeed, no Victors on my client list (to my sure and certain knowledge), and in that case--though I could not guess what he hoped to achieve with his persiflage--I hadn’t been able to write a word for anyone in at least three years’ time, this sorry admission demonstrating that we had not even begun to pry open the gate through which we might escape Victor’s labyrinth of dissimulation; as such, there could be no doubt, I said, that he was nothing but a singularly maladroit confidence man, whose plans to rob me or otherwise do me ill patently required the attentions of a ghostwriter of genius to revise into a workable draft.On goes the parrying and thrusting, Don Miguel trying to evade the bullets Victor shoots into his character and his role in all the ills and developments of the world as we know it. Handy for Puységur, isn’t it, to have the author on his string, dependent on him and yet he depending on the hack.
Finally, as the men roll up to the Marquis’s gorgeous chateau, Victor shoots the fatal bolt into illusion’s meaty, beating heart:
It would be one thing for you to give us everything that you have given willingly, but it’s quite another for the Marquis to use you as a lamp does its oil, or, perhaps more appositely, a pen its ink.Is there parity between the Marquis and the hack? Because each is solely dependent on the other for his place in the world, or is the hack’s involvement, being unwitting (he never remembers his visits to the Marquis thanks to his Animal Magnetism treatments), his absolution from guilt?
It’s a lovely, baroque conceit and made in the language of the period it takes place (as Victor notes), and in its arc it also strikes the self-help community’s tendency to invent or repurpose every cultural trend’s leavings, like any good scavenger would.
As a whole, this collection was a pleasure to read. It promised me it was (or Rikki Ducornet did in her blurb and Davies was once her editor at Dalkey Archive so I can trust her) “...really dark, like a black chocolate bar deviled with morning glory seeds and strychnine.” And it delivered on that promise, delivered on the promise to make me laugh (“wit and a stupefying narrative abundance” per Harry Matthews), Davies is an author who delivers. If you want what he’s delivering, it’s a festive and pleasurable read. I wanted. I got. Isn’t that the best way to finish a review?