Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Rose Alley, by Jeremy M. Davies
Reviewed by Joseph Dewey
Counterpath Press, 2009. 178 pp. Paper: $15.95.
Jeremy M. Davies, a veteran of narrative excavations, knows there is something provocatively heroic—and audaciously ironic—in the idea of design. The premise here is delightfully appealing: during the height of the 1968 Paris student riots, an avant-garde film crew makes an experimental movie about a 1679 London back-alley attack on John Dryden—arranged, historians conjecture, by a rival poet, the darkly lecherous Earl of Rochester. With riveting clarity, characters emerge chapter by chapter—the screenwriter, the set designer, the actors, the producer—threaded by the voice-over of the British director-as-archivist assembling an account of this long-ago cinematic endeavor. The premise allows Davies to interrogate with confident coolness the fascinating dynamic between art and chaos, messy fact rescued into form ironically by artists with wild libertine tastes and a relish of anarchy. Davies ingeniously reminds us that art is forever contested, any edifice-text, film or narrative or poem, constructed against and amid riots, personal or cultural. Davies deftly juxtaposes the volcanic hormones of the film's creators, the growing menace of the violence in the streets, and the Restoration squabble between Dryden and Rochester, each a pitched contest between anarchy and art. Each chapter is given over to the controlling awareness of another member of the film team; thus, what emerges is context, dense and yielding, not the fascist buzzkill of narrative. That such cumulative evidence cannot yield tidiness gives creativity its delight. Davies’ narrative is engaging, subtle, at times mordantly funny—the closing chapter recounts the sheer number of versions of the film that survived, how those fragments become a coaxing, suasive (w)hole. With a pitch-perfect prose line, at once sinuous, witty, and stylish, that coins the most striking metaphors with the understated offhandedness that recalls vintage DeLillo, Rose Alley gathers us within its enthralling premise and leaves us content within its illusion of completeness.