Duplex: A Novel

  • By Kathryn Davis
  • Graywolf Press
  • 208 pp.

Strange yet familiar, this story evokes feelings similar to those precipitated by a bizarre dream.

Duplex: A Novel

Reading Kathryn Davis’ Duplex is an exercise in letting go: of reality, of objective understanding, of our modern, obsessive need for facts. The world of this novel is both brilliantly strange and gnawingly familiar, though it resembles a dream more than it does our reality. Davis has created a place wherein the boundaries between two people are as flexible as a hinge and as thin as the walls of a duplex, a place where human beings live alongside robots and sorcerers.

These species form a complicated social strata — a fluid matrix of envy and desire and transient, precarious ownership. Each group wants the very thing they cannot have. The humans envy the robots’ economy and agelessness. Though they can take human form, the robots are tiny, silver needles that make a clipping noise as they fly and settle in ceiling fixtures to “roost and recharge.” While the robots are prescient — able to see everything that has already happened and everything that will — they’re surprisingly impotent: The robots need humans “to change things, the same way we needed them to think for us.”

The spectacular powers of the sorcerers, meanwhile, know no bounds. Sorcerer Walter, also known as Body-Without-Soul, “could make things appear or he could make them vanish.” But because he is soulless, he cannot experience love.

Even human girlhood is hotly-contested ground. Teenage girls figure prominently in the creation stories of this world: brutal, mythical tales in which they are broken and ultimately transformed, their bodies made into beads and centaurs and immortal, vengeful creatures of the ocean. If Duplex is in part about possession — both of the self and the small shell of earth in which it is housed — girls are most often gypped, displaced and suspected.

Take Mary, for instance, one of the novel’s two central humans, whose agency is often revoked and whose dreams — of motherhood and of love with her childhood sweetheart, Eddie — are continually thwarted. Eddie and Mary’s romance is an ordinary love story that takes place under extraordinary circumstances. In the battle for power, for soulfulness, one of them will lose the very thing that makes them human.

Power, soulfulness, desire: weighty themes, and in the hands of a lesser writer Duplex could feel overbearing. But Davis explores each character with democracy, compassion and subtlety. “When the sorcerer looked at the street,” she writes, “he saw it crawling with souls like the earth with worms. It was no secret that even the lowliest of the unruly, uncontainable beings living there could partake of love’s mystery, and his envious rage knew no bounds.” When a family of robots moves to Mary and Eddie’s neighborhood, some of the residents petition to oust them. But a glimpse into the minds of the robots reveals the transition is no easier for them:

“Food in particular disgusted them, as did the fact that humans ate it, a sight they had to learn to endure. It was with something approaching horror that they would observe our great mouths creaking open to reveal strands of moistly gleaming saliva and twin rows of white teeth bearing down on a piece of some dead creature’s flesh that would burst apart as they watched, releasing streams of juice.” 

As the novel continues, the boundaries between these characters become increasingly fragile, even permeable. Davis plays brilliantly on the claustrophobia of American suburbia, and the duplex houses in Mary and Eddie’s neighborhood serve as an ideal site to explore the proximity that both separates and interweaves their occupants. Duplex is obsessed with halving and doubling, with hinges and doors, with places where you can go “forward and back with equal ease.” Some characters split into doubles; others seem to live multiple lives.

It is a book that pursues ideas more than it does narrative clarity, and readers who are “hot for facts,” as one character puts it, may crave more coherence. I count myself, to some extent, in this group. The novel gives us plenty of titillating whats, but few whys or hows. Though the dynamics between species are described early, I hoped to see them evolve more than they did. The enmity between the sorcerers and the robots is largely unexplored, and the consequences of soulfulness — and soullessness — are alluded to only impressionistically. With their all-American privilege and 1950s ambitions — Eddie becomes a baseball player, while Mary’s main purview is the home — the human protagonists seem somewhat wooden.

And while Davis’ language is exquisitely sensory, for example, when the sorcerer touches a schoolteacher “she felt the life inside her leap up from everywhere, shocking, like a hatch of mayflies,” her meaning can feel tantalizingly out of reach.

But concrete meaning clearly isn’t what Duplex is after. This novel’s world continually subverts our expectations; like a dream, it creates and recreates itself before our eyes. “The heavens, the earth, the underworld — human beings have always needed divisions like that to know where they are and where they’re going,” Davis writes.

Does the novel take place in the past or the future? Is it our world, or something like it? The answer seems to be both and neither: Duplex exists in the spaces between, and readers who don’t mind gray areas will very likely enjoy their stay.

Chloe Benjamin’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, is forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster in September 2014. She tweets @chloekbenjamin and can also be found at www.chloekrugbenjamin.com.

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