Rose Alley

By Jeremy M. Davies

Counterpath Press
June 2009, Paperback
192 pages


Reviewed by Gabriel Blackwell


There is a method at play in Jeremy M. Davies’s novel, Rose Alley: By the close of the second chapter, “Prosper Sforza,” it will already have dawned on the perspicacious that both the first and the second chapters are about the same length. Turn back to the table of contents and there you see, yes, there are thirteen chapters, all approximately thirteen pages, making the book a perfect square at 169 pages (those 23 extra in the book’s description come courtesy an index, colophon, and the usual endpapers and publication info). Perhaps, like Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the incidents detailed within are the products of mathematically precise processes, too. But short of the revelation of Davies’s own “How I Wrote One of My Books,” those processes will pale before the book they have produced, a set of thirteen Cornell boxes of ribald and hilarious anecdotes setting out to tell the story of a film, “Rose Alley,” but never more delightful—or dirty—than when they are digressing from it.

The most interesting thing about these exquisitely fashioned boxes of narrative is that, though their length, depth, and breadth are uniform and thus their horizons predictable, the stories they contain are anything but. Imagine a moving day, a finite truck, only so many (matching) boxes: some treasures will have to be trimmed or truncated because they are too ungainly to fit, while others will have to be packed in excelsior to ensure a safe voyage (though understand, it is glorious, buoyant excelsior—newspapers from a foreign land, perhaps, or sheets of satisfying burstables). For the recipient, sorting the fragile from the padding is an act of faith. We open the box and trust that somewhere in there is a piece of Davies’s story.

Each of these boxes is labeled with the name of one of Davies’s characters. Once opened, we see that their padding—set-ups missing their punchlines and false tangents that don’t actually intersect our story—has, with one or two exceptions later in the book, overwhelmed the story it was meant to protect, like packing peanuts to porcelain. What to do with details such as these:

Zeydie Sforza had been in show business; Prosper could say it was in his blood. The old man had made a fortune traveling the cities of Europe, enjoying his greatest successes playing the grotesque stage Jews who were at that time as familiar to theatergoers as Harlequin or Pierrot. He’d spoken through enormous wax noses, wore molting purple ermine, and carried bags of clamorous iron coins… Demand was so great that he hired a real Jew to sort the invitations he was receiving. Soon Sforza was so acclaimed that he was suspected of cheating: of being an honest-to-God Hebe himself, putting one over on the goyim. He retired immediately and settled in London, where he met Prosper’s grandmother…[who] married him despite his age and race and thus began the family tradition of assuming that he had been Jewish all along—the wag. By the logic of the period, this made her and her children equally suspect—even to themselves—and they accepted this stigma with the incurious good humor that, along with a certain tendency towards prognathism, was their real paternal inheritance.

Sure, we now know more about Prosper. We have learned what he is not. Or have we? And if so, so what? Rose Alley is about a film, isn’t it? Prosper doesn’t even appear in “Rose Alley”—he is the moneyman, its producer. Davies is so extraordinarily accomplished at stringing these shiny narrative objects together that we hold our temper when we have regained our focus, make no complaints that he has distracted us because it has been to show us such baubles.  

The geometrical precision of this one chapter, chosen more or less at random, will be readily noted even in extract, starting and ending at the same place—blood and family inheritance. But as with all stories here, it is not a case of symmetry governing the unfurling of facts, rather, it is one of boundary arbitrarily defining their outer limits. In thirteen pages, we will have learned all we are likely to about this character, and whether it is all that can be learned or only a sample may not be immediately evident, as Davies has an uncanny knack for coming full circle without seeming to go anywhere at all. What little we know about the titular film pales in comparison to what we know about Zeydie Sforza, who is long dead by the time the film is shot and has no role in the book whatsoever except to give color to a man who isn’t in the film either.

Writing about the film’s editor, the cacophonously-named Eugenia Sleck, Davies says, “Male or female, it is difficult to detect a consistent style in the cumulative work of any editor, for, after all, the most he or she can possibly do is rearrange existing material and tell a story in the best possible way.” With Rose Alley, Davies has set himself an analogous task: to tell a story in the best possible way with existing forms rather than existing material. The point, perhaps, is that there is no point to life—no rising action, no climax—only shape. Once the shape has been determined, the best anyone can do is to fill it with the most interesting things he or she can find.