The first chapter of Kathryn Davis’s latest book, Duplex, is astonishing. Davis wrote the opening sentence as part of a modern day fairy tale, “Body-without-Soul,” which was included in the collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me—and it remains the opening sentence of the novel: “It was a suburban street, one block long, the houses made of brick and built to last like the third little pig’s.”
The character introduced at the get-go is Miss Vicks, an attractive 50-year-old schoolteacher who lives in a duplex at the end of the street with her little red dachshund. “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.” If your inclination is to read that sentence, and then read it again, you’ll find that your confusion is actually an instinct, and you’re onto something.
Davis pans out to the rest of the neighborhood—children playing in the street, girls trading cards with each other on porch stoops, fireflies “prickling like light on water.” At this point, it seems obvious that the book will be set in the 1950’s or early 60’s, on one of the new suburban streets that would come to define America in the second half of the century. There are two children in particular—Mary and Eddie—whom Davis zooms in on, and their fondness for each other is obvious. It seems fitting to expect that the story will unfold as a suburban one, with some human failure along the way, brought about by the tedium of parents putting their children to bed and drinking highballs on the last night of summer.
But then mid-way into the scene: “Headlights appeared; the boys scattered…. The car was expensive and silver-gray and driven by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul.”
Yes, sorcerer—and not just any sorcerer: Miss Vicks’ past lover. We’re told that he “could make things appear or he could make them vanish; he could make them turn into other things or he could make them vibrate at unprecedented frequencies, the explanation for his great success in bed.” After the sorcerer disappears from the street, Eddie disappears, too, and Mary can’t stop worrying about him.
While Davis defies genre in Duplex by crossing through several types—literary fiction, magical realism, fantasy, sci-fi, horror (to name a few)—many elements of the novel stay true to a fairy tale. The book largely revolves around the love story of Mary and Eddie, and the turning point in their relationship comes on that end-of-summer night in the first chapter, when Body-without-Soul speeds down the street, blinding everyone to with his headlights.
Though her approach is gradual, Davis makes clear right from the start: This is no ordinary world, and this will not be an ordinary story. “Scows” roam the sky—it’s not immediately evident what a scow is, but there they are, hovering—and robots live alongside humans. There’s even a family of robots in a duplex on Mary’s street. Time plays an outsized role—or perhaps time truly does play the biggest role, even outside this street where “the clocks [keep] ticking away the time, chipping off pieces of it.”
Davis also grapples with issues present in the world—the actual world we live in—and she particularly lingers on what it means to be female. At the end of the opening chapter, a first-person narrator (whose identity is never revealed) describes Mary and Cindy XA, her robot neighbor, swinging together on the first day of school, while Eddie is still missing. The narrator confides, “I think the robot was trying to warn her about what was going to happen. I think this because the story of what was going to happen is also my story, the story of girls everywhere.”
This declaration is open to plenty of interpretations. Is Duplex also telling the story of girls in our world, outside of this odd street, where time and space connect like a hinge on the door of a duplex?
And then there are schoolgirls in a parallel narrative, who pop up in chapters throughout the book, gathering together to gossip and attempting to explain the world to each other. “We were sitting on the porch stoop one night in late summer, trading cards. This was what you did if you were a girl—it was your calling.” One character in particular, a haughty girl named Janice, leads the pack by telling fantastical stories. She tells them about “The Rain of Beads”—a parable of how robots and humans came to intermingle—and declares that “time was different now. It used to be sadder.”
Speaking of Janice in an interview, Davis says, “Of course every girl alive…has grown up in the presence of some older bossy girl who likes nothing better than to dispense wisdom, to provide histories designed to scare or astonish, to hold all the younger girls in thrall. When I was writing Duplex it occurred to me that my own understanding of storytelling had been handed down by an ever-changing troop of such older girls.”
Part of the genius of Duplex is that Davis doesn’t push any alternate agenda. A wide range of interpretations feels welcome, and at the heart of the book is the lifelong story of Mary and Eddie, told with care and in beautiful sentences. A reader must work hard both to perceive a larger meaning from page-to-page and to understand what’s happening on the level of plot, character, and setting (e.g., is it 1950 or is it a robot future?). Questions inevitably pop up. Are the robots a commentary on our technology-dependent society? Are all women living the story of girls everywhere—and if so, what is that story? The answers to these questions aren’t in the pages of this brilliant novel, and we don’t read to find out; we read because Davis has created a world with language unlike any other, and also like our own.