What a strange, dark, beautiful world Kathryn Davis has created in her novel Duplex. And the best part is how it sneaks up on you. Everything is all perfectly normal, but then there is, almost in passing, a sorcerer. And robots. And fairies. Horsewomen. Aquanats. But subtly, almost like you’re the strange one for seeing anything out of the ordinary. And you find yourself questioning whether you’ve seen anything at all.
There are also these grand historical events that occurred in no history this world has ever known, and yet the stories are so rich, delivered so believably, you find yourself wondering almost if they did happen.
The setting seems remote in time but then also current. Both at once. Davis’s world is familiar and yet also unfamiliar. Comforting and terrifying. There are elements of Alice through the looking glass at play here (complete with semi-animate hares, though grey, unlike Alice’s white rabbit, and decidedly more moody). It’s got some of the futuristic strangeness of some of George Saunders’s short stories along those lines, with also something of a Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) vibe in the mix.
Strong female characters, almost all female characters. The only men are straw men, except for the evil sorcerer and Eddie, the baseball player, who comes back from a career-ending injury, I’m still not sure, as a robot, some kind of physically perfect zombie, or as someone who sold his soul for a chance to play again.
It all sounds weird and disconnected. But it works, I’m telling you. It’s eerie, but it’s oh so good.
My favorite parts of the novel, though, were the parts that felt familiar. Davis captures some true human moments: the girl, Mary, who fills boxes with drawings of her boyfriend instead of doing arithmetic because “arithmetic bored her and besides, it was her plan to be an artist of some kind when she grew up.” (p. 10). Didn’t we all so plan? And who can’t also remember a time “when the future seemed so certain as if it had already happened and it was possible to summon even the smallest details of it as if they were distant memories”? (p. 123). And there were other truisms: “Whatever we can’t see has power over us.” (p. 154). That (this one offered, I think, somewhat tongue in cheek) “it was probably a good idea to like being looked at if you were a girl–it was probably key to survival.” p. 154. That girls don’t want to stay girls forever. “That’s the main thing about girls, am I right?…Girls are always in a big hurry to take the next step…the one about romance and marriage and babies.” This was offered in dialogue from one of the novel’s least-sympathetic characters, so I don’t think it was intended literally. But it certainly captures a certain type of person. Certain perceived attitudes.
The most familiar sentiment for me, though, was the idea that the end of summer made Eddie sad, and Mary mocked him for it. There is a familiar truth in this for me that words can’t quite express. (pp. 175-176).
I felt like there were other literary/artistic allusions in the piece that I did not pick up on. I’d be interested to read or hear some about those. But the novel felt very rich and alive and new. A unique perspective, gorgeously executed. As one reviewer put it “Kathryn Davis is one of those rare writers whose books I always want to read a second time immediately after I’ve finished them.” (from Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination). That is a rare feeling, but I felt it too (I felt the same about Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and already suspect I will feel that way about Stoner.).