Prose in modern times suffers greatly from the Hemingway Syndrome. Out are long-winded poetic riffs, in are word economics and short, terse prose — athletic, as was often the word attached to Hemingway’s writing. Few contemporary authors are given free reign to express themselves verbally — Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem immediately spring to mind. Editors, publishers, and literary agents, it seems, prefer mind-numbing mediocrity — Dan Brown and Ron McLarty — to thoughtful, poetic prose.
Now enter Josh Davis and Pretendgeniuspress, an independent publishing company along the lines of City Lights and Sylvia Beach’s legendary Shakespeare & Company, who gambled by publishing The Muse and The Mechanism in a time when thoughtful, even artful, literature has become increasingly marginalized. In The Muse and The Mechanism, Davis proves an exceptional prose stylist by alternating Hemingway-esque simplicity with Joycean beauty; although his prose manages to rise to great heights, the dichotomy of his simplicity/poetics never lowers itself to artificiality or contrivances, and he somehow, miraculously, avoids slipping into that dreaded state of pretentiousness.
The story follows Charlie Fell, a 20-something dreamer/slacker, through the burrows and hovels of fictional Alton, a surreal town that could be a metropolitan empire or a rural nowhereville. Fell is a slightly jaded yet optimistic reincarnation of Stephen Dedalus. And, like Dedalus, he wonders endlessly, trying to find meaning to his life.
Critics enjoy comparing Davis to Jack Kerouac — even Davis admitted that What Rough Peace, his first novel, began as a series of ‘Kerouac-cloned run on sentences’ — but such comparisons are unfair to Davis, whose desire to find art in the beauty that the world has to offer far outweighs Kerouac’s need to discover the world. If the authors share anything, it is their desire to chronicle their respective lost and misguided generations.
Fell, along with several friends, all cut from slacker cloth, drink and pop pills and absorb the essences of drugs as a means of escaping the mind-numbing, stilted silence of their meandering lives. Ours, exclaims Fell, is a “mannequin generation”; yet for all of his denouncements of a generation in which its primary participants obsess over computers and television, he appears, in the beginning, to be an active participant of his lost generation.
“Haze. Haze. Haze. Lead me through all my days. I wake up in a liquid state. Some days I feel like I could swim better than I could walk.”
In lieu of a table of contents, the book is prefaced with a track listing, apt considering that it reads more like the literary equivalent of a concept album than a traditional novel. It is constructed as a series of vignettes that alternates themes and emotions while subtly propelling the story forward. But the story — there is virtually no plot to speak of — or even the characters, though rich and deeply engaging, is not the true backbone of this novel; the telling of this story is what makes it work so well.
The Muse and the Mechanism excels at extolling the meandering nature of this generation; we are all rolling forward, often constantly wandering into the unknown, armed only with the hindsight of past failures and embarrassments. Our will to overcome our seemingly inherent lack of motivation vaguely lifts us and propels us forward, and it is that dichotomy — the desire to do nothing and everything — that Josh Davis, unlike his contemporaries, who seem to fall short, masterfully displays.