Origin Stories: Kathryn Davis’s DUPLEX


Duplex begins with a suburban street, a woman walking her dog, fireflies prickling in the gathering dark, boys playing stick ball, and headlights rounding the curb. Totally normal, except that the dog walker likes to go out “when the blue-green lights of the scows, those slow-moving heralds of melancholy, would begin to appear in the night sky,” and the car is driven by the sorcerer “Body-without-Soul.”

Here’s what I love: we don’t get an explanation. Kathryn Davis said that she wanted to “replicate that sense of, ‘It is just the way it was,’ the way that things are presented in a fairy tale.” But there’s a difference between her project and fairy tales. Whereas the story of, say, Cinderella is an ejection seat from life as we know it, Davis is trying to recreate life as we know it. She uses the supernatural to capture feelings better than she’d be able to with literal descriptions. “The world of Duplex,” she’s said, “is completely based on the street on which I grew up. On some level, I think it is as realistic as a description of a world can be, according to that sense of it you carry with you as your life moves on.” That rings true for me. I remember the magical feeling of playing on a darkening street as headlights approached. Who else could possibly be driving but a sorcerer?

More mystifying things happen still in Duplex. The sorcerer hits a Yellow Bear with his car, pours semen into it, and gives it to his wife to raise as a human child. An older girl tells a group of school girls a story about another set of girls who date robots. The girls are abducted and used until they rain out of the sky in beads; parents put out buckets to collect the pieces. Such strange happenings didn’t estrange me; they captured the feeling I sometimes have that I only understand half my life. It’s as if I’m living in a duplex. On the the other side of the shared wall, uncanny things happen all the time. I can’t see them, but I hear the muffled evidence.

Davis’s elliptical style contributes to the book’s uncanny atmosphere. She explained her intentions to Patrick Lauppe of the Harvard Advocate:

I’m very interested in the place where a work of literature makes a transition from one place, one thing, one person, one something to another-where there is an implied gap of some sort. Sometimes, this will literally appear as white space on the page. Sometimes, you’re sitting in the car with a character, and then, without any real descriptive transition, you are no longer in the car-rather, you are walking up a hillside three days later. When those kinds of transitions work, you don’t feel jolted or shocked or confused. It makes sense in some weird way that you were here and now you’re there. In between, there’s this place where I think the reader’s mind is working in concert with the writer’s mind in an incredibly strange way. The psyches join, so that the reader has access to something that hasn’t even been put into words.

So we come to one more meaning of the title. A book itself is a duplex, and imagination is the shared wall through which the writer and reader can commune.

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