“Fantasy” would be too weak a word to describe Kathryn Davis’s transgressions against realistic storytelling in her seventh novel, Duplex. “Horror” would miss the point of her sustained assaults against any semblance of normal or peaceable life. Neither would “surrealism” do the trick, for her page-by-page devastations of the reader’s expectations are the stuff of nightmare, not art. “Fairy tale” perhaps comes nearest to the case, but any analysis offered up in an attempt to categorize Davis’s prose must (alack for the reviewer!) weakly fail to account for the supreme disorientation this novel generates in the reader’s imagination.
Meanwhile, not one weak word exists in this author’s arsenal. Every word of Duplex, every doomed character, every fractured timeline, drops in the ear, on the mind, in the troubled heart, like a Rain of Beads—those horrific beads of blood that rain from the sky when an entire generation of girls on a neighborhood street (laid out like a “Twilight Zone”set) are lifted up and then ravished to death by robots at a cotillion in the sky. The unspeakable facts of the matter (robots infiltrating and monitoring hapless humanity, stealing their lives quite literally from them) are not anywhere near as disturbing as the void of meaninglessness underlying the facts, the implacable, duplicitous logic of Davis’ Duplex universe that eludes her own understanding.
Did I say “eludes her own understanding”? You bet I did. There is never any question of our understanding what the bloody hell is going on in the novel; but it is far worse (better!) for any reader attuned to Davis’ diabolical music to realize that the author herself has relinquished ultimate control over the liturgy of unholy rituals hypnotically recited throughout the novel, the discordant fugue of The Rain of Beads, The Descent of the Aquanauts, The Great Division, and so on. This most awe-inspiring aspect of the writer’s achievement—her own cloud of unknowing—rubs very close to the bone of her primary literary inspiration, the fairy tale, the one genre Davis herself has invoked time and again as the source of her daemonic delights. In the end, Davis’ technique is entirely traditional, a well-turned page out of Hans Christian Andersen’s book: You enchant your reader, you lift them up . . . and then you killingly knock their socks off.