A book review of Kathryn Davis’ Duplex: A Novel, by Stephanie D’Adamo
This is the story of a normal world. Where parents sip highballs in cookie-cutter houses. Where boys play baseball. Where girls collect trading cards. And where sorcerers and robots make pacts over human souls. Davis’ Duplex positively seethes with the nostalgic normality of our Americana fascination.
Set in an obscure time and mundane place, Davis relies heavily on the documentation of the traditional roles we see played out in any given “community”. This ongoing commentary first begins when we encounter the aging Miss Vicks and her little red dog. As a retired teacher, Vicks serves as a platform by which we are rocketed into the world of dreams, children, and fading purpose. From the very onset, her presence evokes deeply unsettling stills of the past. Between shots of “the edge of the world”, the purchase history of the American continent, and the romantic demise of Marie Antoinette, Davis paints a savagely erotic reflection of our own dystopic universe—where dreams are exploited as often as they are left unfulfilled.
Even more surprising is the way in which the novel deals with the issue of womanhood in such a dystopic state. By following the story of the neighborhood girls (from childhood, through teenage strife, to that moment of quietus before one becomes old) the text constructs a harrowing collage of self-destructive femininity. Janice, the lead storyteller and mentor of the girls, is finally able to articulate the process of this destruction only after the death of one of her friends. Lighting an (outlawed) cigarette, she chides:
What was important was that the deceased was no different from the rest of us. She went to school and she said her prayers and eventually all the bad things she never allowed herself to do blended together inside her into a feeling that wouldn’t come to the surface like the bubble in the carpenter’s level that was still down there in what used to be her father’s cellar workshop.
If you don’t believe me, go look, Janice Said. That’s what happens to girls when they have the wish to be good, so good they almost can’t be seen.
This idea that the division between normalcy and the fantastic occurs as a mystic byproduct of our collective inability to go against “the rules” replays itself throughout the novel. Specifically, this notion is recounted in “the Descent of the Aquanauts”. When a group of teenage girls decide to learn to breathe underwater, they unlock the gift of immortality. The Aquanauts are from then on remembered in history as notorious (and dangerous) women. In short, their rebellion allows them to be seen in the public eye and grants them a degree a power (higher than most any other women in the novel).
At it’s core, Davis’ story recounts a dystopic tangle of emotions: multiplicity, suppression, and cataclysmic despair. Entrancing on every page, Duplex quickly spins a universe torn between the mechanical and natural. I personally found Davis’ voice to be refreshingly reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s great feat, The Crying of Lot 49. Both novels draw unlikely parallels between our constructions of both emotion and capital in mysterious, and haunting ways that hit rather close to home. Ultimately, this book is best suited for readers unafraid to explore themselves to the innermost–for those brave enough to face “all the [pieces of themselves] that [have ever been] layered…inside [themselves], one atop the other, and increasingly small”.