Isn’t it funny the way time passes? The way it rolls out slow like honey from a bear until suddenly you’re a grownup and everyone around you is dying and you don’t recognize your face in the mirror? But when you think about “yourself” if you think the pronoun “I” it’s still the young you, isn’t it? The one who first got their shit together, started out into the world. “I” apart from my parents, my brothers, my classmates, my teachers. “I.” And then time unfurls around you and ticks by so fast you can’t see it, and the thing you think of as “I” is now a past version of you, unrecognizable to the people you know now.
Kathryn Davis’ Duplex is a thorny book the revolves and revolves around time, what it does to people, and the ways we remain unchanged. It’s probably one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read.
We begin with Miss Vicks, a schoolteacher whose biggest emotional attachment is to her red dachshund. But we soon learn that her neighborhood has some surprises. Her neighbors include a family of robots. Her ex-boyfriend is a sorcerer known as “Body-without-Soul.” Each night the boys play ball in the street, while the girls play elaborate card-trading games on their stoops, until their parents, who have generally been downing cocktails since 5:00, call them in. Over the course of only a few pages we hop backwards through her memories of her time with the sorcerer, and then suddenly we shift perspective over to one of Miss Vicks’ students, who goes from an elementary school girl to a young woman in search of a prom dress in only a few sentences. Davis constantly plays tricks like this, shifting perspective in mid-sentence, and guiding us through a decade in a characters life over half a paragraph.
We seem to be in a near-future, or possibly an alternate world, where the placid suburb we’ve just met lives in an uneasy harmony with robots, with at least two different catastrophic events in its past. It also contains JCPenney, My Little Pony, and the musical Brigadoon, so, who knows where we are, or when, really? (Either you’re going to go with it or you’re not.) There was also a world-consuming flood at some point, and not only do people know they have souls, they know they can sell them—but as usual the price probably isn’t worth it in the long run.
This book worries at time like a small red dachshund worrying at a bone on a kitchen floor. I think it might be one of the best evocations of the experience of time that I’ve ever read—the way, as an older person, you can look back and see so many selves folded inside your mind, the way you can live inside a memory and lose the sense of time passing at all, the way you get so used to it passing in tiny packets “the clocks ticking away the time, chipping off pieces of it.”
It also handles its surrealism in a such a beautifully matter-of-fact way that it makes even the most dedicated “slipstream” story seem ostentatious. A few sentences into the opening chapter we learn about the robots I mentioned above, also that Miss Vicks is “a real woman”, whatever that means, that the sorcerer driving through town is known as Body-without-Soul, and that he’s Miss Vicks’ ex, and, oh yeah, there are scows floating across the sky above the neighborhood, possibly with more robots in them, and they seem to pick up some of the human things (like dog crap for instance) to transform them into something else, but for the most part the scows and their intentions remain a mystery.
The catastrophic events might also be the sort of fables that are created and passed down on front stoops and campfires, girl-to-girl, like hook-handed hitchhikers and Bloody Mary in the mirror. Because right next to Time as a theme is the idea of an ur-story of women that is so powerful even robots bend themselves to it. The girls sit on stoops trading cards and telling stories. Each card has a different value, understood by all the girls, but baffling to outsiders. These are mere slips of paper, but, for a while, they’re an entire social world, form of currency, and platform for storytelling. An older girl, Janice, tells the tales of The Rain of Beads, The Aquanauts, and The Horsewomen. In each tale, girls are central. They go out on adventures that do not go the way they expect. And in each they trade their humanity for something they hope will be greater. Contrasted with these fables are the lives of Mary, Miss Vicks, and Mary’s daughter, Blue-Eyes. Miss Vicks chooses life as a single mother. She teaches generations of children, but she knows it’s nothing like motherhood because each new class leaves for summer break without a backward glance. Mary agrees to a surprising marriage, and commits herself to the same empty hours of wifehood, sewing, 5:00pm highballs, and summers by the shore that were the skeleton her own mother’s life. Her daughter chooses a life of business and partnership with another woman—there is no sense that this (future???) society has any opinion on such a partnership, but what does come through is the pity Blue-Eyes feels for her old-fashioned mother. Women’s choices never lead to the lives they think they want, and all they can do is sit, on porches now instead of stoops, and cast their eyes back to a time in childhood when their future opened before them with possibility.
And the men in this surreal suburb? They leave for work that is never defined (even the sorcerer seems to have a 9-5), return home to cocktails and canasta, join the families at the shore by 7:00pm on Friday, to return to town on Sunday evening and spend the week working and missing them. Is there a way out of the constant melancholy, the sense of nostalgia for a time that never was? Is there a better life than this, if this 1950s simulacra is what humanity embraced again even after the robots came, and humanity was drowned in a second flood? If even the robots mimic the human behavior, walking dogs, going to school, watching sitcoms at night?
This book creates a mood that I can only come close to by saying: remember when you were a kid and you’d be outside just as day turned into evening and the moon and sun were out at the same time and you could see your family in the house, through the window, and you felt suddenly like you were watching a television show, or a diorama, of life, and you felt suddenly like there was an impassable gulf between you and that house? That reality was either on the side with you or the side with them, and you weren’t sure which possibility terrified you more? And then you’d go in and everything seemed too small somehow, and it would take you maybe until you’d slept the whole night to feel fully lodged in reality?
Was that just me?
I recommend Duplex, and I very much want to read more of Davis’ work (she’s written a life of Marie Antionette called Versailles, and Hell, an examination of mortality that includes a doll houses’ citizens as characters, that both sound fascinating) but I don’t know if I’ll return to Miss Vicks’ street. I’m afraid of too much reality jumping out at me from the shadows.
Kathryn Davis’ Duplex is available from Graywolf Press.