August 2013

Josh Cook


Duplex by Kathryn Davis

Imagine a narrative voice with the attention to detail, reverence for landscape, intelligence, and spirituality of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wordsworth, or John Ruskin. Imagine that voice considers suburban America, the streets, the houses, the yards, the cars, the kids. And the voice is not talking about nostalgia for an idealized time that never was (though nostalgia for a time that never was is mentioned) or the American decline (though an intelligent American can't tell stories without a few words skittering across the American decline) but about the confusion of modern reality, the slurry of metaphor and symbolism caught in the dragnet, factory farm, and beer ad of hypercapitalism, corporate politics, quantum physics, and Internet society, the chaotic sludge contemporary life has become. And there is a sorcerer. And robots.

Kathryn Davis's Duplex tells the story of Mary and Eddie from childhood to death. It is about growing up, the foreignness of life's new stages, and the experiences and identities one collects in the process. Learning about sex and not learning about sex. Deciding who you will be, avoiding that decision, and fucking up that decision. The suddenness of old age. The matter-of-factness of death. On my first reading, Duplex felt less like a story and more like a forest of images and metaphors, something to be wandered through rather than followed to a conclusion, but on my second reading I saw loose ends tied up, questions answered, arcs completed, and it was clear that Duplex exists in a powerful middle ground between poetry and story, containing the satisfaction of figuring out mysterious events and the joy of sentences beautiful beyond their context ("Cindy's voice still sounded human but it also sounded as if it had gotten trapped in a box made of metal on a planet in another galaxy and was beating against the sides of the box trying to get out").

The story of Mary and Eddie is interspersed with chapters featuring Janice, the somewhat aloof, somewhat older, somewhat bored leader of a group of otherwise unnamed girls, who tells the great myths (or historic events) of the world. The Rain of Beads. The Four Horsewomen, The Descent of the Aquanauts. At times, Duplex feels like satire; Eddie and Mary are archetypal, the setting could be from Edward Scissorhands, and anything showing mistakes made with technology has to be making a statement. But Duplex isn't satire. Through Janice's stories, Davis argues that myths are not direct allegories for lived experience, but presentations of realities whose people, places, things, and physics follow different rules than we do. The point is not to make correlations between the image of teenage girls accidentally disintegrated by robots who mistook metaphors in romantic poetry for physical acts of love and some aspect of technology and romance in today's culture (though you could), but to discover the properties of our technology and romance through exploring the properties of Duplex's technology and romance. It is a lot to ask of the reader, but great storytellers earn the right to make demands. As Davis writes about Janice, "She made you want to know where she was taking you, even if you didn't want to go." If the storyteller is good enough, she can ask readers everything and take readers anywhere.

The experience I think Davis expresses most powerfully is just how sudden the gradual changes of life feel. At times, Davis uses the fluid physics of the world to approach the idea obliquely: "They were no longer in the tunnel but in a clearing, an immense meadow that appeared to have been recently mowed... when she thought about it, Mary realized she couldn't ever remember coming out of the tunnel." Other times, all the weirdness of the world leads to something you might say in a long talk to your best friend: "The next thing she knew, they were married." Despite clocks and calendars, the big events in our lives always feel like they come out of nowhere. Even when we expect them, even when we know they must happen, even when, like old age, we constantly watch them approach. Near the end of the novel, we see Eddie in a retirement home. He doesn't know what he's doing there. He doesn't feel like he belongs. Then, he is a very old man who can't feed himself. "He felt cold; it suddenly came to him that not all that long ago he had been a young man and that like his fellow human beings he'd always relied on meaninglessly small units for the measurement of time." There is a moment in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator goes to a party after having been away from society for a long time and is surprised to see everyone wearing masks. Then he realizes they aren't wearing masks; his friends had just gotten old. Duplex is the only other work I've read that captures the fact that you can live fifty, sixty, seventy years, alive and observing through each and every year, and only realize you aged in a sudden moment when life forces its inexorable truth into you.

And that is the power of Duplex. The weirdness and wormholes all lead to lines like "The information the robots based their plan on was poetry, which they are incapable of understanding," "If she left him, it would be as good as admitting that practically her whole life had been a mistake," and "Often when you thought back you found yourself in an actual moment like it was a place." Unstable physics, the robots and scows, the unusual power of sorcerers and magic lead to beautiful moments of daily wisdom.

Fifteen pages into Duplex, I was embarrassed that I'd never read Kathryn Davis before. How could someone write such sentences and not be a common name in indie bookstores? How could such an imagination not be a standard by which other imaginations are assessed? How could her name not come up in yearly conversations about major body-of-work prizes? I mentioned to someone that I had a galley of the new Kathryn Davis novel and he didn't ask what I thought of it or what it was about. His eyes lit up and he said, "When is it coming out?" Davis, like many daring and beautiful writers, has her cadre of supporters doing their best to draw attention to the joy they find in her work. After Duplex, she has at least one more.

Duplex by Kathryn Davis
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976538
208 pages