The experience of reading Kathryn Davis has been compared more than once to dreaming, though her books aren’t “dreamy” per se. They’re possessed, rather, by the kind of dream logic in which things are familiar yet discombobulatingly off. Over the course of six novels, Davis has flitted from the lyrical to the surreal to magic realism to, in her latest, literary science fiction.
Duplex has a series of recognizable events though calling the totality of them a plot is like saying that a lava lamp has a narrative arc. “You can have all the information in the world,” muses the narrator knowingly, “and what good does it do you?”
On a suburban street, groups of girls trade cards on doorsteps while absentee parents drink highballs indoors. One of the girls is sweet, dull Mary, whose presumed destiny to marry her childhood sweetheart, a baseball star named Eddie, is upended when Eddie vanishes into another dimension after the high school prom.
Another girl, Janice, regales the group with tales of local legends: the Rain of Beads, the Descent of the Aquanauts, the Four Horsewomen—all of which involve girls getting tricked, trapped or transmogrified. Among Janice’s audience is a (sometimes) first-person narrator who informs us that the story we’re reading is her story, but also “the story of girls everywhere.”
Robots have taken up residence on the block, and though everyone knows this they politely pretend not to notice. Even the characters who aren’t ostensibly robots seem to be playing roles, however. At the prom, Mary leans her head on Eddie’s shoulder because “That was what the girlfriend was supposed to do.” Overhead, airships called scows are like gods, yet they also perform banal functions like dealing with the dog poop scooped up by humans below. Periodically, a silver-grey car appears on the street and everybody scatters. The car belongs to the sorcerer, Walter Woodard, the only descendent of a local family that earned a fortune trafficking drugs.
The sorcerer (aka Body-without-Soul) romances the local schoolteacher, Miss Vicks, for a time before eventually marrying Mary. There’s talk of a prophecy involving a child half human, half robot, but it’s unclear if Mary’s sour, preternaturally adult daughter Blue Eyes, who started life as a discarded toy bear, is it.
Duplex has a sinister, end-of-days-ish feel though at one point Mary notes the failure of all prophecies foretelling such. Time has multi-dimensional, textural and even emotional qualities: it stretches like taffy or feels “sad” (though it still “heals all”). Paradoxes abound: the robots have the ability to see everything that has happened and ever will happen, yet they need humans “to change things.” There’s a nod to Lewis Carroll in the grey hares that suddenly start appearing everywhere; when people disappear, however, it’s down wormholes, not rabbitholes.
At one point, the narrator says, “Everyone knew the meaning of a thing didn’t emerge until there’d been an ending and you could finally see how all the parts worked together” and it’s hard not to imagine Davis having a chuckle at our expense; if anything, we’re less certain what Duplex is “about” at the end than we were at the beginning.
The downside to building a novel on such amorphous, shifting ground is that narrative stalwarts like anticipation or suspense are necessarily cast aside. Consequently, continuing to read Duplex sometimes feels like a matter of will, not compulsion. Stick with it, however, and you get as your reward Davis’s slyly funny, frequently mesmerizing, sui generis writing. This is a novel about the journey, not the destination, so it helps to stay flexible and not ask when you’ll get there.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor