Kathryn Davis' Disorienting, Dreamlike World in 'Duplex'
A New Yorker review compared finishing a novel by Kathryn Davis to "waking from a dream." I'd add, for the sake of specificity, that the dream of her newest novel Duplex (Graywolf) is an eerie and lucid nightmare that borrows the soundtrack from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
The world of Duplex is part familiar and part dreamlike, but these parts are blended so thoroughly, they're inseparable. To begin this book with no expectations and then continue reading is to be grabbed by the skull and suddenly dunked underwater. The first few paragraphs suggest the novel will be realistic, even ordinary: In a suburb lives a teacher, Miss Vicks, who owns a dachshund. And here are the normal kids she teaches: Mary, who plays piano and is in love with Eddie, a baseball player. And here are the robots that live next door, and the erotic villain, known as "the sorcerer." Suddenly, the reader's holding her breath and snorkeling her way through this bewildering new world.
Davis gets her disorienting grip on the reader through details so seamlessly entwined with realism, they almost go unnoticed. "She was a real woman," the narrator says of Miss Vicks early on, which is certain because "she didn't have to move her head from side to side to take in sound." The robots not only look like the humans, the species coexist: They are friends and lovers.
The sorcerer, Walter, gets sexual pleasure from others' fear: On the night of Mary's prom, he terrorizes her in a bathroom stall, and, erect from her fear, plans to "ejaculate it later into a jar." The creepy metaphor, like so many other sci-fi symbols throughout the book, is weird but also not totally outlandish. Such a metaphor-loaded story makes for a better, more critical reader/human. In the style of Ursula Le Guin and Rudyard Kipling, Davis has given us a creepily similar/dissimilar dystopia, and when the reader is able to parse what's familiar and what's not, she can also identify the dystopian elements of her own existence. The narrator so evenhandedly describes elements of our familiar society and the strange one within Duplex that often, the reader can't decide which world is preferable.
Though only 208 pages, Davis' Duplex is not a quick read: Attempting to make sense of each disjointed chapter requires rereading paragraphs and sentences for clarity. And it isn't an easy read, either, because the chronology of events has melted away, and past and future are indistinct concepts in her intricately woven world.
Despite its deceptively thin spine, Duplex is ultimately an enchanting read, a Wonderlandesque adventure where the strange is normal and the normal made to look absurd. It's a trip so disorienting, the reader almost expects flashbacks once she's sobered up, closed the book, and come up for air.