on Duplex, a novel by Kathryn Davis (Graywolf)

The narrator of Kathryn Davis’ seventh novel, Duplex, carries another narrator in her memory named Janice. It is Janice who tells the story of the Rain of Beads in which girls attending a dance at the Woodard mansion get transported by robots to a scow floating above where they are raped, reduced to fragments, and discharged to fall to earth as colored beads. But in Duplex, this is not folklore; this is history. The robots (needle-shaped, except when morphed as humans), the sorcerer who lives in the mansion, the girls who turn into horses or aquanauts, and other beings live alongside the humans who are prey to their whims and desires.

As for the girl who triggered the events leading to the Rain of Beads catastrophe, Janice says, "Like most girls, she was a sap."

DavisCover_0.jpgYet Duplex is neither plot-driven nor giddy with science fiction thematics. What matters is the event of language. One follows Davis’ narrator just as the girls on the street with duplexes follow Janice – into stories that deflate or crush platitudes while frustrating the typical fiction reader’s demand for redemptive closure. Here, 1950’s Disney meets David Lynch. The girls’ parents drink martinis, play canasta, and rarely appear. The girls play in the street, swap trading cards, and are exposed to overwhelming powers, much as kids in the 50’s were kindly terrorized by “duck and cover” exercises to survive atom bombs.

The narrator, a girl who lived on the street of duplexes, remains psychologically somewhere in her adolescence: “The story of what was going to happen is also my story, the story of girls everywhere.” But tracing her development as a human is not her concern or capability. The materials of the story, though completely imagined, are not as important as the gaze itself. Duplex is a narrative about and embodying deprivation – yet the reader lingers in the thrall of (is snatched up by) the gaze.

Davis2.jpgThe narrator’s vision is clear, her speech is crisp, and her understanding is a kind of child-like acquiescence tinted by the horror of the half-known world. The voice is strangely intimate and conceals nothing. But her reaction to the content of specific events is negligible; it is the manner of her approach that counts. Her story gives way here and there to remarkable asides: “Seconds were always passing this way, thimbleful by thimbleful, as were the lives of living beings. This was why you kept getting smaller as you got older; it has nothing to do with bone loss.” Or: “Time was either not passing at all or it was passing in one huge lump like a lifetime.”

I remember reading that when Hitler invaded France, he forced the French to turn their clocks to Berlin time, such that time itself was taken away from them. My grandfather told me about the dark mornings. I’ve always wondered if this is what pushed the existentialists over the edge. I mention this because while Duplex comprises an entire generation’s story and proceeds generally toward old age, it inserts its own disquieting time zone where human chronologies have lost their governance. Duplex causes queasiness via the illusion of warping the time/space continuum. The membrane between units in the duplex is porous.

Duplex is neither a winking postmodern pastiche of appropriated genres or styles nor a nostalgic glance back at a defined American-suburban past. The moment of reading feels to me like an dismal thickening of the present, made dense by drawing in and interweaving various temporalities into itself. The effect is extremely discomfiting: our own epoch, our own sense of current time dragged to this narrative, becomes distant. I think of how Borges described time as "abysmal."

DavisHouse.jpegAside from Janice and the girls, Duplex follows three humans. First, Miss Vicks, a schoolteacher who had once been the Sorcerer’s lover, who makes a disturbing exit into a bizarre adventure or dementia in a chilling chapter titled “The Bardo.” When at the end Miss Vicks sees “the infernal thing,” the three of us (Miss Vicks, narrator, and I) regard it with the same staring dread. Second and third, there are Mary and Eddie, childhood sweethearts whose lives diverge (like Iris Lemon and Roy Hobbs in The Natural -- Malamud loosely based Hobbs on the Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus). Davis' Eddie is also a pro outfielder whose soul enters a dead zone after a mid-field collision. Souls are extracted from them by sinister forces.

The chapters of Duplex were published in magazines though they don’t read like traditional short stories. Their convincing power is emitted by the sureness of language and the clean leaps between thoughts. Below, in a paragraph from “Yellow Bear,” Mary is pregnant with Eddie’s child:

“It wasn’t as if Mary wanted a baby. It wasn’t even as if she wanted to get married. Everyone kept telling her she had her whole life ahead of her – whatever that meant. No, it was more like a part of her life got sliced into and lifted out like a serving of sheet cake. As it transpired, the nuns were silent and surprisingly lacking in judgment. Sea breezes blew through all the windows of the convent day and night, moving Mary’s thoughts around to make unreadable patterns like the grains of sand on the floor of her room.”

The two special notes here are “whatever that meant” and “like a serving of sheet cake.” The first is one of Davis’ tonal signals – the humans, completely dominated, are bemused at best and often crumpled. The serving of sheet cake is a startling trope, culturally weighted and desperate. As in poetry, Davis is intent on disruptions of meaning that seem to point to new meanings. Her speaker, though disempowered in some respects, seems liberated from hackneyed phrases that obscure actuality. She has witnessed the weird. But where there once were cultural norms, now there is only story.

Davis.jpgWhen everything depends on maintaining tone and a certain voice, and when traditional fictional gestures are put aside in favor of the sheer thrust of freed telling, there is the risk of a blaring virtuosity. But Davis is such a shrewdly adept writer, so attuned to her rhythms and variations, that her genius always serves the reader’s experience. Yet Duplex is a world existing on its own terms, insistent on having its way (robotically?) while tweaking the nose of genre. How Davis spins so much pleasure out of such severity is its mystery and art.

[Published September 3, 2013. 195 pages, $24.00 hardcover]

Kathryn Davis, surely one of

Kathryn Davis, surely one of our unacknowledged masters. Go find her novel VERSAILLES, a more satisfying entertainment in every way than Sofia Coppola's movie "Marie Antoinette." This new novel tops what she did in THE THIN PLACE because she is more successful in drawing liminal states and the hinge between different worlds & spaces. There is a little bit of satire in DUPLEX but it doesn't point to a world we can improve. I love its bleakness. I love its girlishness. Nice review.