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.

Duplex by Kathryn Davis, Illustration by Dalton Rose.

Illustration by Dalton Rose

Doors are everywhere in fiction. Open doors are portals; if passed through, they become thresholds. Closed doors are lost opportunities (until the heroine finds the key). Sliding doors? Missed connections. Revolving doors? Second chances. Doors may be symbolically played out, but has anyone, before Kathryn Davis in Duplex, ever written a novel about the significance of a hinge?

The peculiar, enchanting Duplex begins on a deceptively normal suburban street, home of Miss Vicks, a teacher, and two of her elementary school students, Mary and Eddie. Mary and Miss Vicks live in the same duplex (different entrances, same multifamily home) but Davis is less concerned with these relationships than with dismantling our familiar conceptions of space and time. Duplex resonates on a unique frequency and forces readers to adjust to its wavelength. It’s a book to tune into rather than break down.

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Given Davis’ interest in the realms of the metaphysical and spiritual, it’s no surprise when the quaint suburb turns out to be the eerie kind, a la The Twilight Zone. The duplex is not just a home but an interdimensional hinge between space and time, torqueing and twisting those who enter. Readers meet Miss Vicks as she walks her dachshund past a house belonging to a family of robots. Then a scow descends from the heavens to pick up her pup’s poop while a sorcerer, who happens to be her lover, drives up and sees the street “crawling with souls like the earth with worms.”

The entire neighborhood is affected by the cosmic sway of the duplex, and young Mary learns about the strange properties of her home early on in the novel, mostly for the reader’s benefit: “The most important thing to remember is that a duplex’s properties are stretchable but they aren’t infinite. One minute the opening will be right there in front of you, and the next minute you won’t even know where it went.” Like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia, the duplex functions as both a physical place and a point of access to a different world—one in which past and future collide.  

If this sounds puzzling, that’s because it is. A traditional plot or character sketch won’t do this topsy-turvy story justice, and Duplex will be frustrating to readers who demand clarity and continuity. But taken on its own terms—as a book that defies genre and storytelling expectations—this off-kilter world in which humans, robots, and Bodies-without-Souls all co-exist hums beautifully to its own rhythm. It’s a series of dreamlike, often erotic, images and interconnected plot lines that don’t so much build to climax as swell to create an intoxicating atmosphere.

But that doesn’t mean the novel lacks internal coherence. Beneath the gauzy imagery, Duplex is “the story of girls everywhere,” and it’s quite literally a tale of what girls are made of (the robots can remove parts). Many girls slip in and out the novel, and some act in typically girlish ways: They trade cards and tell stories; later, Mary has sex in a bathroom stall with Eddie and wears a pink taffeta dress to prom. But beneath surges an undercurrent of girls we don’t quite know how to place. A little girl opens her mouth to scream; an egg flies in and, later, a chick hatches in her stomach. Powerful girls called Horsewomen don’t die or cast shadows, and their families keep their photos hidden in drawers.

Both literally and figuratively, Davis’ girls and women lose pieces of themselves, and it often occurs when they approach life’s thresholds. At one point, Mary becomes pregnant with Eddie’s baby and gets an abortion, which feels like “a part of her life got sliced into and lifted out like a serving of sheet cake.” In “the rain of beads,” a parable told to Mary and her friends by Janice, a teenage know-it-all who enjoys schooling innocent younger girls, a group of young women are dancing and flirting with robots. On their second date, the teens are carried into the sky by the robots, sure that romance awaits them. Instead, they end up used and heartbroken, and Davis describes their hurt in otherworldly, visceral terms: “It wasn’t like being torn to pieces, because pieces are big. It was like having the smallest parts of your body like the corpuscles and peptides and nuclei and follicles rip loose from one another, every single one of them.” After their horrible dates, the girls come raining down from the sky in the form of colorful beads, and people leave out buckets to try and catch their parts to make them whole again.

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.

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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