"Duplex" by Kathryn Davis

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Kathryn Davis wrote the multilevel and arresting Duplex in a feminine palette, by which I mean the chief characters, the main driving focus, and the lens through which life is viewed, are all female. And on this palette she has loosed an array of forces and fictional effects, which readers (like me) will struggle to come to grips with. She tells a story of shifts in the fabric of space and time, of robot guides to eternity, which features a sorcerer who takes souls. I find it quite the challenge to pin down and evaluate.

The main plot, if there is one, concerns a woman who, as a young girl, falls in love with a neighbor boy. A sorcerer in a metallic gray car steals the boy’s soul, however, and in a Faustian transaction the boy becomes a famous baseball player. This girl, Mary, later marries the sorcerer, perhaps while hypnotized (so little of this episode is rendered in the story). Mary then becomes the mother of Blue-Eyes, a machine-daughter who started life as a yellow Teddy Bear. Mary leaves the sorcerer late in life, is transported through a wormhole, and performs admirably with poorly identified but heavy cosmic stakes on the line.

Obviously I’m having a hard time prioritizing plot elements. I only want to give the potential reader a flavor of what’s on offer.

Most clearly, however, this book contains a series of lovely chapters each of which stands as a memorable short piece, particularly “The Four Horsewomen,” “The Rain of Beads,” and “Descent of the Aquanauts.” The clear theme carried by these pieces is the murderous mistreatment of girls and women, and the need such mistreatment engenders for escape. But girls and women own these themes; Ms. Davis expresses them through their voices and points of view. An oracle of dubious trustworthiness enraptures the girls as they reach puberty, and continues to lecture them through their lives into advanced middle age. We learn a substantial amount from this irascible know-it-all, much of it told in dreamy monologue, as though she were talking to herself.

One striking element: grade-school girls experience
a large portion of the angst and express many of the opinions and instruct a considerable number of the lessons here. Time shifts backward and forward with startling ease, so this is readily possible in Ms. Davis’s plot. However delightful the author’s skill in rendering the shifting universe in vivid visuals, there are so many elements that no single one dominates. Robots inhabit homes and look like people and can see infinitely forward and back in time. The sorcerer steals souls, but getting rich from shady real estate deals can’t be the reason he does it, can it? Who is Downie, and how does he know the robots so well? Why does the grade school teacher figure so prominently before utterly disappearing? How come there are overgrown rabbits in the countryside?

I ask too many questions, I know, and perhaps it proves I’m missing the point. This is a highly diverting read from a very inventive author. It takes an unorthodox (to say the least) approach to explore essential human themes, and recondite cosmic themes as well. Unfortunately I find myself nonplussed. If these treatments and tropes interest you, by all means take it up. Ms. Davis’s talent for invention speaks for itself.