Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: Duplex by Kathryn Davis


by Kathryn Davis

Graywolf Press

Paperback: $16

Reviewed by Renee LeClaire

Let me just start by saying that I have no idea how this book ends. I have my theories. But the ending of Duplex is like waking up and realizing that the dream-logic you’ve been following all night, which seemed so solid and certain while you were in the middle of it, falls apart like handfuls of wet sand. You can go back and try to piece together the trail you thought you were following, the signs you thought pointed the way — and some of them are there. But this is not a story told neatly in chronological order, and the sentences scattered like clues throughout the book only led me to what I realize is my own perception of the narrative. Kathryn Davis has created a choose-your-own-adventure novel where everyone reads the same pages in the same order, and everyone ends up in a different place in the end.

So here is my advice for you, if you read Duplex (and you should): Trust Kathryn Davis. Also, pay attention.

Trying to describe the overall plot of the novel not only makes your friends think you’ve done a lot of drugs before texting them passages (as I can personally attest), but also ruins the experience. So rather than attempting any sort of linear, coherent description or interpretation, here are five of my favorite quotes (clues) from the book.

  • The most important thing to remember is that a duplex’s properties are stretchable but they aren’t infinite.

Most of the major characters in this book grew up and/or reside as adults in duplexes. At first, you get the impression that this is done to contribute to the Leave It To Beaver-esque 1950s sensibility of the novel. Then you think it’s a statement about dualities and dichotomies. Then you think it’s a science fiction device to talk about the properties of physics and time folding in on itself and how things can exist in two places at once or be two things in the same place. It turns out, like most of the rest of the novel, to be all of these things.

  • A lot of people died, Janice said. You’ve studied it in school. The world didn’t actually come to an end, but it might as well have. It was like scientists predicted. Whole countries weren’t there anymore. You’ve all seen the globe. It looked completely different.

The voice of Janice is our Sybil, our soothsayer, our liar, and through her Davis makes reference to major global changes that have occurred in the world of the novel: war and global warming and catastrophe. But she does so through a child storyteller (Janice), which makes it feel like both truth and fable. This isn’t a solid future, where we know what has happened and what the consequences were — but we know enough that it feels like our future anyway.

  • If it wasn’t possible to reinvent the past in such a way as to make it conform to the present’s cheerful view of the way things ought to have been, why bother living?

The novel may take place in a post-post-apocalyptic world, where tsunamis destroyed most of the population, but we (and the robots) have rebuilt, and beehives and bassinets and baseball are back, baby. Or that might just be a story that Janice is telling the neighborhood children, like The Four Horsewomen or The Descent of the Aquanauts. Either way, Davis uses the pastimes, fashion, and mentality of the 1950s (parts of it feel like the Cleavers live next door, parts feel like we’re seeing where the mothers and children went off to in Seven Year Itch) to enhance the sense of what the characters aren’t talking about — the everything-is-fine, behind-closed-doors claustrophobia that allows our protagonists, Mary and Eddie and Walter, to follow the path(s) they do.

  • The thing about a life is how hard it is to make it shift course once it’s gotten going. There was no wind, no wind at all.

This book contains characters whose lives shift dramatically, and who find themselves unable to shift back. We are told early on that there will be a moment, a narrow window in which to change things, and that so much hinges on that moment. But when it comes, the change that has occurred is unclear, and you can’t help thinking to yourself, “Sure, Davis is talking about a literal moment for a single character where she has to seize the chance to maybe walk through some sort of portal into time-space, but damn if that doesn’t feel like life.”

  • Everyone knew the meaning of a thing didn’t emerge until there’d been an ending and you could finally see how all the parts worked together.

This line comes near the end of the novel, and when I saw it I felt like Kathryn Davis was winking at me, her reader, and saying “Just hang in there, baby. It’ll all come together soon.” Well, some of it did and some of it didn’t, and most of it left me immediately wanting to read the book again to see what other parts I could find to put together and maybe make work. But the statement well represents the novel as a whole and manages to ring true, the way Janice’s stories ring true. Maybe there were floods and aquanauts and pieces of girls falling to earth like rain, and maybe they are just magnificent images that you’ll carry around with you for a week or forever. The world Davis shows us in tiny glimpses, in little windows looking out on suburban streets, is incomplete, but so vibrant you feel as if you know it anyway.