ReadersGuide asked me if I’d read Duplex by Kathryn Davis, because a synopsis of the plot makes it sound like it would be just my thing. Publisher’s Weekly says:
At first glance, Miss Vicks’s grade-school class seems normal enough: there’s delicate Mary, hyperactive Eddie, would-be writer Janice, and rich-kid Walter. But Walter is also a sorcerer, dealing in souls, who seduces Mary away from Eddie. And their suburban street, caught in the mysterious “Space Drift,” seems to eschew the laws of physics. The new neighbors are robots; Miss Vicks walks her dog through a dreamscape; Mary’s child, “Blue-Eyes,” may be a monster; and the beach where Janice plays is home to ‘Aquanauts,’ strange sea creatures with eyes as “large and lustrous as plums.”
So I had to try it, even though I hadn’t liked the characters in one of Davis’ earlier novels, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Unfortunately, Duplex gave me some of the same feeling—there are no characters to like, no perspective from which to view the action. It took me a while to figure out what I think about the experience of reading the book, and in the process I did something I rarely do before writing my own review—I read a few reviews to see what other readers thought.
Some reviewers, like Lynda Barry in the NYTimes, seem to have read only the beginning and then skimmed the rest for details. A few take an admiring tone because they don’t ordinarily read science fiction so they think throwing all these strange things together must be deep and symbolic. The review in Slate is the only one I saw that does a good job of imposing symbolism on the novel in order to enable a coherent reading. Finally, I decided that the only thing to do is to tell you about the parts I like while noting that I don’t think the metaphor on which the plot depends—the duplex as “hinge” between worlds—works as effectively as it could if the stories were more explicitly connected.
The thing I liked most is the way the characters bounce around other stories, particularly The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Brigadoon, young girls reading books about horses, The Wizard of Oz, post-apocalyptic young adult fiction, 1950’s suburban novels, boarding school books, and fairy tales. The road through the duplex development is the road to a novel about a sorcerer, or a novel where the dog dies, or one where a spinster schoolteacher is swept into a passing convertible and off to a life of love.
The robots are quite interesting. From their point of view, a human looks
“like a fluid shapeless sac of parts held together by skin and the skin pulsing with blood and pink with smudges here and there of hair and blowing panels of fabric….This was the way robots viewed living flesh ever since they’d been granted the gift of color-sightedness and prophecy to compensate for the fact that they would never know love. In the robot universe there were six windows through which the sun rose, six windows through which the sun set, and the stars moved around opening and shutting the windows like servants.”
One of them, Cindy XA, mimics human life throughout the lifetime of a human character, Mary, even down to taking care of a baby and appearing older. But the robots’ curiosity about humans can be dangerous, the humans believe, telling a cautionary tale about what happens to young girls who consort with robots.
The sorcerer plays with human lives. When he decides that he wants to marry a teenaged girl named Mary in place of his older lover, Miss Vicks, he has Mary’s teenage lover, Eddie, replaced with a changeling. Miss Vicks is put out to pasture: “grass was at the heart of the smell, mediated by the smell of perspiration and saddle leather, combining to unlock a completely different set of memories from the ones unlocked by a lawn mower. Miss Vicks had been a passable equestrienne in her youth.” The only result is that the young girls on the street replace their games of trading cards “with a fad for writing novels about horses.”
Time is fluid in this novel. On the surface, it often seems to be the 1950’s: “she wore coins in her loafers, which meant she was going steady.” Often this is immediately undercut: “If she wore them in her eyes it would mean she was dead.” Under the surface, there is the story of the aquanauts, who
“started out the same as you and me, just like everyone else….The bad news is you’re all descended from her. That’s why you have trouble sleeping—and don’t go trying to tell me you don’t because I know what goes on here at night. The bedroom walls are like paper. The good news is it’ll start getting better once you’re older. Cocktails at five—that’s the answer. If those mothers and fathers hadn’t been drinking their cocktails when the wave broke….”
There’s a nice undercurrent of symbolic meaning here, with the cautionary tales about what happens to young girls through the generations, from the 1950’s to some unimaginable post-apocalyptic tidal wave future. It stays just an undercurrent, though, with no overarching narrative to allow readers to spot anything valuable in it. Instead we’re left with the image of old Miss Vicks eating a single seed or bite of cake so she has to stay in fairyland, feeling eternally young while time washes by outside the window: “by now the water had come so close to the hotel that if a window were to be opened she could reach out and her hand would get wet.”
Opposed to the magical future imagined by the young girls is their imagined realistic future: “after two people got married everything that had formerly seemed interesting became uninteresting—this was common knowledge, too. Once you were married, romance and heartbreak were no longer an option.” They don’t want to become the adults in the world of the duplex: “vacation was a nightmare when you were a teenage girl forced to live in a rented duplex so small and with such thin walls that the sounds and smells of your whole family not to mention the people downstairs…were always right there.” They don’t want to die and have someone say “nothing interesting happened.” When the story they perceive is realistic they want to know “what became of all the interesting parts…things like getting taken up into the sky, or being part horse, or being immortal. This story doesn’t have anything like that going on in it. In this story things like that aren’t even possible.”
In the end, the girls decide, “if you wanted to be remembered you had to become famous….Even so, the person you’d been, the person who breathed and had blood circulating through every part of herself, would be gone.” All that remains are the facts, the kind you learn at a “good school….The kind of school where they dance around a maypole but also volunteer at soup kitchens. That kind of place.”
I think that to the extent this novel has a point, it is an attempt to flesh out hopes and dreams. The sorcerer is called Body-Without-Soul. The girls are souls who don’t always identify with their bodies. The duplex is both trap and portal. But the novel, at 195 pages, is too short for sense and too long for comfort.