Duplex is a book about the end of the world, not through the destruction of humankind or of Earth itself, but through the drifting of our universe into space-time. It’s about the ordinary parts of our lives that lie in infinitesimal proximity to what is extraordinary. It’s thoughtful and sometimes beautiful, but alas, it’s unsuccessful. Reading Kathryn Davis’ Duplex is like watching a foreign art house film with no subtitles: the audience might appreciate its moments of beauty, but lacks the language or frame of reference necessary to become fully immersed.
Davis establishes the dualistic nature of her world early in the novel, when she introduces the science fiction elements populating a seemingly ordinary tree-lined suburban street. On this ordinary-looking street, schoolteacher Marjorie Vicks is walking her dog. But Marjorie, however unexceptional she may seem, is in a relationship with the sorceror Walter Woodard, and is only “normal” in comparison to her robot neighbors.
The robots are a peaceful, but unsettling presence to the humans who live on the street with them. This discomfort is partly due to the fact that the robots have no souls and no understanding of love. If this sounds devoid of context, that’s because it is. Still, it’s early in the novel, and it would not be unreasonable for an author to simply plunge her readers into the thick of things with minimal exposition, trusting the reader to absorb the necessary worldbuilding information along the way.
When these details do materialize, they raise more questions than they answer. It seems the uneasiness between humans and robots goes back to an event now known as The Rain of Beads. Some time in the past, a group of robots, misunderstanding the way humans worked, attempted to have sex with a group of human girls, and inadvertently destroyed them.The girls exploded into millions of tiny beads that fell to earth like rain. It happened so long ago that people talk about it as if it were myth, and indeed it’s never quite clear to the reader whether the story is intended to be taken solely as metaphor, or whether, in the world of the novel, it literally happened.
In the present, Marjorie Vicks teaches school to young Mary and Eddie, who are sweethearts. One night when they are teenagers, Eddie disappears and comes back changed, though no one is sure exactly what’s different about him. He has sold his soul to the Walter Woodard in exchange for a brilliant baseball career. In doing so, he has damaged his capacity for human emotion and becomes estranged from Mary.
Walter, meanwhile, has been plotting to separate Mary and Eddie and has been using Marjorie Vicks as a tool in his scheme. He’s successful: Eddie goes off to play baseball and Mary weds Walter and gives birth to a strange hybrid child. Walter is unaware, however, that Mary is destined to one day travel through a wormhole, opening a passage in time and space that leads to a new universe.
As metaphor for the juxtaposition of the mundane and the incredible, these events are effective, in the technical sense. The houses on Mary, Eddie, and Miss Vicks’ street are not actually the kind of “duplex” to which the title refers. The residents of the duplexes, believing they inhabit discrete spaces, are nevertheless constantly reminded of their neighbors’ proximity due to the sounds and smells traveling through the thin walls and floors.
There are references throughout the text to Brigadoon, the 1947 musical about a village that appears only once every hundred years. One character unwittingly waxes poetic about the hinge of a scallop, “the hinge not only being the place where a real scallop attached itself to its shell, but also the place where you could go forward and back with equal ease.” The “duplex”, then, is the anomaly that Mary is destined to travel through.
It’s impossible to read the book without recognizing Davis’ talent for symbolic narrative. Then, too, her descriptions are careful and lovely and untortured: “It was a late afternoon in the month of October… the month’s thick, almost substantive yellow light holding the rest of the year aloft above the darkness lapping at its feet.”
This technical prowess, however, is not enough to gel the elements of the novel into a cohesive work of art. The story feels fragmented and unfinished. Spurred on by Davis’ considerable writing skills, readers may make it to the end of this slim volume in hopes that the author will make it worth their while, only to find themselves as adrift as the fictional universe itself. Duplex, like the world it describes, feels separated from something new and exciting by only the thinnest of barriers, and is never able to transport the reader through the wormhole.