Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeremy M. Davies writes about Fancy from Ellipsis Press.
For a book nominally about cats, Fancy is rotten with music. Not that you’d necessarily notice.
Fancy has two speakers: Mr. Rumrill, an aging, agoraphobic solitary who owns twenty nameless cats; and Mr. Brocklebank, a deceased Austrian refugee and widower who had, in his day, as many as thirty cats, and for whom Rumrill, as a young man, worked as house- and cat-sitter. Mr. Rumrill is possessed of a wandering mind; his words are addressed to two young, prospective sitters for his own nest of cats, and he does his best to bewilder and undermine them and gradually indoctrinate them (as well as the reader) into the universe he’s constructed for himself in his isolation. Mr. Brocklebank, for his part, is represented only by quotations from his vast, lost, fragmentary treatise on the noble art of cat fancying.
Now, there’s a sense — it will surely be uncontroversial for me to say — that one is always researching a work of fiction. This holds true even for the three or four readers of this column who have never written and are not (or not yet) planning to write a novel themselves. One sifts through the detritus of daily life and shores up this or that datum, term, phrase, for use later on as a means of defending oneself, making oneself convincing. Character is something of a fiction. Opinion is something of a fiction. Taste is something of a fiction. Certainly Rumrill would say so. For my first novel, Rose Alley, which is not unlike a period piece, I did in fact do plenty of “real” research, research as it’s generally understood: I took books out of the library; I endeavored to get my facts straight. I wanted to make sure that events meant to have happened in the historical 1969 didn’t happen, instead, in my made-up 1968, or indeed my made-up 1679. By the time I began the work in earnest, however, I was including anything I might encounter in a given day. I found that everything become historically appropriate as soon as it was slotted into place. Words from books I was reading, wardrobe decisions on the parts of people I resented, trivia from anywhere at all. It was that sort of book; it could bear the burden of all-inclusiveness, total kleptomania. But the lesson to me was that if one is always reading, watching, listening, consuming — as I am — you accumulate (or, if you like, make off with, no questions asked) modes, ideas, and approaches passively. You need not go in search of anything much. All that’s needed is the right filter.
Fancy was conceived as a different beast, an inversion of Rose Alley. Not all-inclusive, but all-denying. The literary equivalent of pulling the shades, unplugging the phone, triple locking all the doors, and sitting in a dark corner: fingers in your ears, knees pulled up to your chest, cats on your knees. (And only then realizing you’re out of pet food.) I had been attentive for some time to ways of deploying English that resonated Rumrillishly; Mr. Rumrill, that is — his rhetoric — came naturally and fully formed. Mr. Brocklebank, however, called for a different, a more dynamic approach. What was required was the quietly mad, tantalizingly coherent tone of the fringe theorist, the conspirator, the writer of basement manifestos, of outré letters to the editors of small-town papers. A specialist language, not wholly abstruse, but hermetic; a different, a more alien flavor of crazy, with rhythms unlike those I might be able to provide without the imposition of some force extrinsic to my natural vocabulary.
The perverse notion I settled on was to harvest the writing of composers of music, and almost exclusively twentieth-century composers at that. This wasn’t a chance decision: Fancy was already very much indebted to the principles of minimalist and serialist and aleatory music. I turned my attention to people of whose work I am fond, who have never done me ill, and who consequently deserve better than to be pillaged. But the deliciousness of, say, taking an apothegm by John Cage and changing its subject matter from music to cats was beyond resisting.
The texts are “processed,” not taken word for word. Brocklebank, like Rumrill, speaks in a certain way, obeying certain rules, and his fragments needed to be massaged into shape. Too, only a specific sort of statement would do. The autobiographical, the theoretical, the ambiguous, but never the overtly technical, never plain examples in plain speech. The soft underbelly, if you like, vulnerable to my little prodding stick, but not the shell.
Webern, for example, didn’t make the cut. Why? He was too nice, too definite. The one slim book of his letters that I could find translated into English consists in the main of notes to friends saying how much he enjoyed this or that dinner or excursion. When he talks music he’s down to earth, precise. There’s no wandering, nothing dilatory; rather like his music.
Schoenberg, on the other hand, was so eloquent and often vituperative in his writings that there was a wealth of text to plunder — though vituperative enough that I couldn’t rely on him too heavily without his making Brocklebank into something of a frothing aggressor.
Still, once I knew what I was looking for, I was pleased to discover just how many texts by or about composers already seem to be participating, without their authors’ knowledge, in a gigantic and particulate philosophical novel. How their voices blend together, how they are striving toward the expression of something about the world and their experience that language is barely adequate to contain. Of course, there are mundane reasons for this: For one, to borrow Samuel R. Delany’s line about science fiction, the novel is a way of reading, not of writing — so I was seeing what I wanted to see, as indeed I often do in books that are putatively nonfiction; for another, that something of which I speak really does exist for composers, by and large: it’s music; it can be measured and notated. Even if some of its qualities resist description, it isn’t the sort of ineffable whosis that writers like to blather about. But ignorant of music as I am (aside from what a devotee and enthusiast picks up through the years — discographies, names, lineages, anecdotes), I could never penetrate into said whosis on my own power. Here on the outside, though, what I saw in this body of writing was a remarkable congruency with my goals. The right timbre of incongruity to pass through my filter.
The names of all the composers I’ve gang-pressed into Fancy are in the back of the book. Some are well known, some remain unhappily obscure. Virtually no one’s ever asked me why they’re there. Perhaps the assumption is that Fancy was “inspired” in some less materialist manner by their work? But no, it’s only to cite my sources, albeit in a general way. And then, perhaps, it’s talismanic. A little voodoo never hurts, either.