by Kathryn Davis
195 pp. Graywolf Press. $24
“Like most writers, I have one particular thing I can’t stop thinking about, wondering about, and in my case it’s the animating spirit of a thing, what we also call the soul.”
Kathryn Davis, “Versailles,” reading group guide
The story begins on a suburban street with sycamore trees planted at regular intervals, down which a slim, attractive schoolteacher named Miss Vicks, who is about 50, takes her dachshund on a walk. You read, “She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound.”
And so you add “regal bearing” to the picture you see of Miss Vicks, and, loosely, an era — the late ’50s? the ’60s? early ’70s? — time and place forming as you read along, and then comes a phrase that makes the forming stutter. It’s after dinner, “when the blue-green lights of the scows, those slow-moving heralds of melancholy, would begin to appear in the night sky.”
Scow? Isn’t that a type of boat, a barge of some sort? Scows in the sky? But now the dog is sniffing around one of the trees the way dogs do, so you think to yourself, maybe “scow” is another word for blimp, like the Goodyear blimp that passed over your street in the early 1960s, and you feel the melancholy you experienced as a 10-year-old girl sitting on your front porch on a summer night, reading messages the blimp flashed along its side that had nothing and everything to do with you. And Miss Vicks feels her childhood too, feels “all the Miss Vickses that had ever been” layered inside her “like tree rings around heartwood.” The chapter is called “Body-without-Soul,” the book is called “Duplex,” and you’ve lived in a duplex so you think, “Oh, I know what this book is about.”
There are parents who drink highballs and play canasta as darkness wells up and the fireflies come out. There are kids named Eddie, Mary, Carol, Roy, who wear T-shirts and plaid shorts, trade cards and stickers they keep in cigar boxes, play ball in the street; and when a car comes speeding toward them with headlights blazing, the kids yell “Heads up!” and scatter. Now the year is fixed in your head. It’s 1966 for sure. The only difference is the kids on your street yelled “Car!”
And then you read this: “The car was expensive and silver-gray and driven by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul.” And you find out not only does Miss Vicks know him, they are romantically involved, and he can make things vanish or “vibrate at unprecedented frequencies,” including her privates, he can sow fear inside anything, and then you read that he can fit his entire hand inside her. Time stutters. What? His entire hand what?
You read the phrase four times, trying to catch up, the way you tried to catch up when you were a kid and Henry, the teenager from next door, told a bunch of you a story about his finger and a girl. Finger? Girl? What? Then a flood of understanding horrified you, shamed and excited you, trailed you back into the house to the kitchen where dinner was ready, where your chicken potpie was waiting to be pierced with your fork and you stared at it.
Oh. A scow is not a blimp. “Real woman” means something else entirely. And though he drives a car, and his name turns out to be Walter, the sorcerer is not a real man. He looks at the street but he doesn’t see the kids, he sees 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.”
The real and the unreal are laminated so tightly in “Duplex” you find yourself suddenly lost; you don’t know where or when this book takes place, you don’t know what this book is about at all. And that is how it takes you in.
When I finished “Duplex” I had the unshakable feeling that I’d only read half of the book, and the other half was still in there and if I wanted to finish it, I’d need to read it again. I wasn’t wrong. By then I’d fallen in love with Davis’s writing, what it did to me, that combination of horror and excitement that spilled out of the book, into my past, into the now, into everything around me. The novel is packed with ordinary things (tuna casserole, skinned knees, hot water heaters, red barrettes) and extraordinary things (robots the size of needles, “dactilo ports” in restrooms, those flying scows), and then there are things that fall somewhere in between: the word “aquanaut,” a purse-shaped thing called a “Mary bean” that can drift across the ocean to other continents, a convent named after a girl who was roasted on a brazier.
The melding of real and unreal spilled into my real time and place in an uncanny way: at the exact moment the crickets are rubbing their legs together in the book, “chchch, chchchch, chhhh,” the crickets outside my window started up. I step outside to have a cigarette, light it, turn the page — and the sorcerer is lighting a cigarette for someone. In the next room a friend sings a line from “Brigadoon,” the exact lyric I’ve been reading in the book with no idea what it was from. At times it felt as if the book were moving things around me like a planchette on a Ouija board. Few books have given me this sort of real-time thrill, the kind that trailed me out of the theater after seeing the movie about a girl in the pocket of that freakiest of changes, from kid to adolescent, who is suddenly able to light an entire gymnasium full of promgoers on fire with her mind while wearing a pink gown covered in pig’s blood. Davis is more subtle in her understanding of the kind of horror girls really need. It’s extremely rare, but there is plenty of it in “Duplex” and I’m grateful for every word.
“I wanted to write about them in such a way that the reader would end up thinking about the animating spirit, about whatever animates any container, whether a body or a building, that makes it so absolutely what it is and nothing else.” That’s Davis writing about a different beautiful book of hers, “Versailles.” It’s a novel about Marie Antoinette, another girl who makes a freaky historical transition, and Davis is able to animate her too, making her completely alive in a way you can’t expect, even if you know just how her story ends. That animating spirit, that soul, is alive in “Duplex,” a story that is almost impossible to summarize without damaging the experience. It wormholes through the real and unreal in a way that is always compelling even if it doesn’t make immediate sense to the top of the mind, the human experience always recognizable even in a world that feels like a much-needed nightmare version of “Brigadoon.”
“Two weary hunters lost their way. And this is what happened, the strange thing that happened . . .”
As you read along you realize one of the weary hunters is you, my dear, and the other weary hunter is also you. And strange things keep happening and do not stop. So, when you are lost in the uncanny woods of this astonishing, double-hinged book, just keep reading, and remember to look up. Kathryn Davis knows right where you are.