Robots, Sorcerers, and Boats From the Sky in Kathryn Davis’ Peculiar Duplex

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 9:40 AM

Coming Unhinged

A peculiar novel about all the possibilities your life doesn’t include.

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The self as a social construct is somewhat familiar territory for Davis, who explored how place and character collide to shape a woman’s life in her novel Versailles, a fictionalized account of Marie Antoinette's life as narrated by her ghost. But in Duplex, Davis goes further by breaking boundaries of space and time. In spirit and style, Davis belongs to a rare tribe of writers who successfully fuse relationships with metaphysics, as Heidi Julavits does in The Vanishers, Jeanette Winterson in Gut Symmetries, or even Rivka Galchen in Atmospheric Disturbances. Like them, Davis interrogates questions about the nature of the universe, and how we function in it, by dressing up existential topics in playful parables and sharp humor. And as Rachel Kushner is in The Flamethrowers, Davis is primarily concerned with women who challenge boundaries. But in Duplex, the limits are metaphysical rather than social or political.

Kathryn Davis

Photo courtesy Emma Dodge Hanson

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the hinge is a “place where you could go forward and back with equal ease.” For Davis’ women, it not about whether they become artists, revolutionaries, or housewives, but rather how expertly they control the mechanism that moves them between their former, present, and future selves. They stretch and shape time, swinging back and forth between past and future, lest they allow time to shape them. But of course real women aren’t immune to time. That’s the one boundary they cannot break.

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Or can they? Characters in Duplex constantly hear clocks ticking and check their watches. Mary grows up, then old, but her past is constantly cropping up in her future. She is seduced by the sorcerer, Eddie becomes a professional baseball player, and she mothers a little girl, Blue-Eyes, who is really no child at all. Janice, the storyteller, gets older, too, and her condescending attitude to young, sassy girls like she once was, coupled with her time obsession, is revealing: “She blew smoke rings and consulted her wristwatch, busy giving the impression of being a busy person—a busy woman—with things to do, places to go, a whole life to live that had nothing to do with any of us.”

As these references to time build throughout the novel, it’s clear the mystical duplex isn’t as fantastical as it first seemed. After all, the sense of time flying, dragging, or receding is quite real, as anyone who has ever been lost in a memory well knows. It is no accident that Davis subverts the duplex, an iconic image of generic urban America, as a place of magic and possibility. The duplex is a stand-in for those moments and images that feel like portals to other lives, those blips that reveal life’s unexplored possibilities.

“The thing about a life is how hard it is to make it shift course once it’s gotten going,” Mary thinks, musing on what her life could have been, ostensibly with Eddie. Davis cares most of all not about what those alternate paths might have been, but with how it feels to encounter them. This cosmic novel may give readers the dizzying sense of coming unhinged, but it’s also a reminder that the momentum gained from shifting back and forth between possibilities—not the actual going through the door—is the movement that propels us forward.

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Duplex by Kathyn Davis. Graywolf Press.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Daily Beast, the New York Observer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter or learn more here

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