As the series’ editor, he developed an especially close bond to Dubus’ remarkable work. “Twenty years ago,” he writes, “I got lucky and stumbled upon Dubus’s masterful short stories. To have the opportunity to work so closely with his writing, and help introduce it to more readers, has been one of the most truly humbling gifts of my life.”
Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.
Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.
Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.
What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.
Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure.
Not boast, but our intern, Allie, also wrote on A Million Windows, and we daresay it is every bit worth reading as Mr. McNamara’s review in the NYT.
“The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million.” – Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady
Gerald Murnane, one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, delves into the subject of fiction writing in his latest work, A Million Windows. His thoughts are organized into 34 unnamed and unnumbered chapters populated by memory fragments and “image-persons,” including dark-haired women and girls, sunlight reflecting on a windowpane like “spots of golden oil,” and a house with “two, or perhaps three, storeys” in the midst of some grassland. This house, which is intermittently described in great detail but never viewed as a whole, provides the primary touchstone for the other images and narrative fragments in the novel, which form concentric circles around the house and one another by promise of connection with the larger structure. The resulting patterns that they form are dazzling and overwhelming in their complexity, expanding through both time and space.
If we envision the temporal dimension of the novel as a horizontal timeline, as we often casually do when we refer to the past as being behind us and the future as being ahead of us, Murnane reminds us that there is an additional vertical component to consider in the form of levels of narration. He simultaneously locates certain narratives in the minds of the “image-persons,” the minds of the authors writing about such persons, and his own mind as he traverses the ever-present and the distant past. These shifts in focus produce a deliberately destabilizing effect for the reader, but do not muddle Murnane’s conception of the true nature and purpose of fiction, precisely because his meaning swells in the space of “faint lines” between his images. He finds meaning and connectedness to be synonymous:
What others might have called meaning he called connectedness, and he trusted that he would one day see (revelation being for him always a visual matter) among the multitudes of details that he thought of as his life or as his experience faint lines seeming to link what he had never previously thought of as being linked and the emergence of a rudimentary pattern, which word had always been one of his favorites.
The element of elusiveness or obscurity is essential. Murnane accords a deep respect to fictional personages because they capture the moods and patterns that shadow us throughout our lives, and thus cannot be predictably contained. He compels authors to realize that this lack of control can be advantageous, empowering them to “learn from [their] own subject matter…in somewhat the same way that [their] readers are presumed to learn from [their] writing.” It is no coincidence that so many works of fiction are semi-autobiographical. Murnane imagines that fictional personages exist even when writers are not reporting the details of their lives, and we can never expect what sense, memory, or experience will alert us to their existence. Considering the relationship between meaning and connectedness, it is unsurprising that “the details of what we call our lives go sometimes to form patterns of meaning not unlike those to be found in our preferred sort of fiction.”
Murnane despises evasiveness when it comes to writers “using expressions such as beautifully written or moving or powerful in order to hide their ignorance of the craft of fiction,” though A Million Windows is all of these things. It testifies that the “real world,” or the “visible world” as Murnane calls it, is overrated. Many authors and narrators exhaust themselves attempting to describe the visible world with complete accuracy, while A Million Windows is comfortable with the uncertainty of visualizing abstractions in great detail. The feelings that this process evokes and the persistent hints of underlying connectedness are various, vibrant, and sincere. In his review of the novel in Music & Literature, Will Heyward writes that Murnane “dissects his writing and his memory in the way a Christian doctor might have a human corpse centuries ago: earnestly, hopelessly, in search of the soul.” The absence of a specific map or diagram may be unsettling to consider at first, but it ultimately opens both the visible and the invisible worlds to the possibility of something infinite and grand.
Intern Alyssa picked on of our more unusual backlist titles to review. Enjoy!
The author urgently recommends that before you act on the advice in this book, you have a thorough medical examination and get your doctor’s approval of the program. This probably is not necessary for normal, healthy adults, but who knows from normal? I don’t want to get sued.
Richard Watson’s diet book, subtitled “how to lose weight & change the world”, is anything but a conventional how-to. Part philosophical exploration of health and life, part practical explanation of diet and exercise regime, Watson navigates topics likes food, running, sex, and “how to live” with singular wit and self-criticism. Rather than presenting a straightforward diet and exercise plan, Watson initiates a conversation with the reader about culture, habit, and self, all with a strong through line of humor. With his poignant insights and keen philosophical reflections Watson challenges the reader not only to lose weight but to adopt a certain lifestyle, one that involves caring about food, about oneself, and about making a difference in one’s life and one’s world.
First and foremost a philosopher, some of Watson’s finest advice comes in the penultimate chapter, How to Live, and its companion and the final chapter, How to Die. In these sections Watson imparts wisdom that goes beyond improving health, tackling the broad idea that “The only way to get a grip on your life is by taking hold. To take hold you must make a commitment to do this one thing: You must change your life.” This, he asserts, is what he hopes to offer readers who can successfully follow his program for weight loss (and by extension life change). In the final part of the book Watson gracefully discusses the end of life, from navigating it in relation to a family member to the argument for changing your life as an act of preparation. He offers the following profound statement to the latter, echoing back to his purpose in writing the book as a guide for others: “It really does not matter much to the rest of us what you do. But if you don’t do something you will be proud of later on, it will matter to you.”
Our wonderful intern of last semester, Danielle Schwertner, took some time out of her busy schedule to review one of our new book releases: The Knack of Doing, by Jeremy Davies, which is a collection of short stories. You can read his interview with The Paris Review here, and you can read an excerpt from The Knack of Doing in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, here. And now, her review:
Short stories are tough to conquer. Authors have the daunting tasks of capturing their readers’ attentions quickly while simultaneously instigating emotions . . . all in the span of twenty pages or less. Short stories are tough to conquer.
Jeremy Davies is a conqueror.
The Knack of Doing is thirteen stories that made me laugh, contemplate everything I’ve ever thought, and remember why I fell in love with short fiction so many years ago. Davies’s ability to create and deconstruct characters through riddles and sentences that only begin with “since” is nothing short of inspiring—perfect examples of a truly talented writer.
The entirety of The Knack of Doing is a testament to Davies’s story-telling. No matter how carefully his stories are read, one might never really (without question, hesitation, or further evaluation) be sure of what Davies is doing. And that’s what makes his writing wonderful. What fun is a story if you’re given all the answers? What fun is a story if you’re not allowed to wo(a)nder? Davies sends his readers on an adventure . . . a strange, sometimes grotesque, always intriguing adventure. An adventure into a world where spiders, sheets of glass, and sentences become characters just as important as the humans who live amongst them.
Every one of Davies’s stories is admirable and thrilling to read, but there are two that, in my case at least, evoke multiple hushed gasps, widened eyes, and creased eyebrows. “Henrietta the Spider” and “Sad White People” give an intimate view into the dirtier and more complicated aspects of human lives—aspects we see in the mirror everyday and maybe even feel in our hearts. Though we may recognize these aspects, reading them in words that are not our own, but which echo so clearly what we can’t say, is what brings them to life and to our attention. Through Davies’s words we are better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves at last.
Most of us do not deal so warmly with spiders, date people with the same name as our own, execute or track people for a living, or inspect so acutely the advice of Kurt Vonnegut as do those The Knack of Doing introduces. And yet, amid Davies’s stories about these fascinatingly obscure subjects, we might just find ourselves better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves a bit better.
Throughout thirteen stories, Davies invites us, his dutiful readers, into a world of weird that, at once, seems both peculiarly unfamiliar and delightfully cozy. He invites us into a world of reality coated lightly in fiction. He invites us, in a sense, home.