Diving into the Fantastic in Duplex by Kathryn Davis

By Peter McCrady

Duplex (Graywolf Press, 2014) by Kathryn Davis keeps readers on their toes. It weaves a wonderful fabric of fantastic and relatable elements—ranging from light-hearted to horrific—that keeps the reader engaged and waiting for the next sentence. Davis’s writing style is crisp and pointed; her sentences are precise and flow from one image to the next. Her textured writing helps ground the reader in the complicated world of “stretchable” properties and complex relationships presented in the novel.

Duplex is not only a love story, but also a coming-of-age story following Mary from her suburban school days through the intricacies of relationships to marriage and raising a child. Mary and Eddie, school sweethearts, become increasingly intertwined until an unplanned pregnancy leads them to choose separate paths. In the aftermath of this situation, Mary pairs with a magical character who is initially called Body-without-Soul—a sorcerer whose powers are neither fully described nor explained. The two foster a new child, but the residue of her previous relationship with Eddie is never fully erased. Both Eddie and Mary are often shown, in small glimpses, still pining for the other, despite the seemingly positive course their lives have taken. To escape her situation, Mary uses a magical creation called a “Mary bean” to travel through a wormhole, and though it is ambiguous where the wormhole takes her, the text suggests the possibility of her reunion with Eddie.

Layered on top of the main plot, fairytale-esque stories are employed to help give the reader a deeper understanding of the world Davis has set up for her characters. These distinct stories within the novel feel like cautionary fables—like what parents would concoct to warn their children of dangers lurking in the real world. The fables provide a context for the main plot and eventually become more fact than fiction. 

Like its name implies, Duplex is a novel of dualities. It uses the past and the future to bring clarity to the present plot, and it uses the juxtaposition between realism and magical realism—between fantastic mythology and modern reality that harkens back to the suburbs of John Cheever—to give readers a sense of nostalgia while also instilling a sense of unease about the forces they may have missed in their own lives.

Time is not a linear progression in Duplex. Davis uses the novel’s mythology and reality to bind together the past, present, and future. Mythology is the common thread that propels the characters forward. We see characters develop while still grappling with elements from their past, trying to make sense of where they came from and how they are supposed to move forward. The shifts in time make the novel seem more episodic, but each fragment imbues the next through magical elements and allows the reader to connect with the story.

This perspective allows the reader to understand how “the world had edges but you couldn’t see them going, only when you were trying to come back,” while finding solace in “feeling as if all of this had already happened.”

The mythology in Duplex feels like it was originally constructed and formed from childhood. It is as if the way the world makes sense as a child—with haunted houses and neighbors who would take attributes more animal or supernatural than human—was never fully dispelled. The Sorcerer progresses from a mystical being known by the name Body-without-Soul to Walter Woodard, the owner of a baseball team, but he never fully loses his other-worldly attributes. Walter creates his and Mary's child from what seems like inanimate objects and, when Mary is younger, is found giving her advice from an adjacent bathroom stall with intimate knowledge of her reactions despite not being able to see her. He also is knowledgeable about the time-warping effects of the “Mary bean,” and his family spans back into the ancient mythology of the novel.

A central story in the novel’s mythology is the Rain of Beads. In this tale, the reader sees how a fantastic construct influences the trajectory of the novel’s setting and its characters. The Rain of Beads describes how a group of girls “died for love” after robots misunderstood a poem. The robots were looking for a child that was part robot and part human, but instead disassembled the girls almost down to their molecules and rinsed their pieces over the neighborhood. The story serves as a moral warning to girls reminiscent of Grimm’s Fairytales and explains the coldness of adults who “had to harden their hearts so they wouldn’t keep breaking.” The weight of this myth carries throughout the novel.

The heavy use of magical realism takes a little while to settle into—longer than the suspension of reality fully permeates the text. At first, the fantastic elements of the story command much of the reader’s attention. It’s easy to try to unpack metaphorical meanings in every odd mention. But as the story continues, it becomes possible to accept the world as easily as the characters do.

Set against the fantastic elements of the novel is a reality resembling the world of John Cheever. The reader sees a bleak landscape of suburban stagnation and the struggle of coping with unachievable societal expectations. In Duplex, the outlying pressures often seen in Cheever’s world are expressed through ancillary characters. Davis steers away from making these characters and situations the focus of the narrative, using them only to serve as the backdrop for her story’s plot and themes. It is this somber backdrop that sets up a vision that is both hopeful and terrifying.

Davis’s mythology, in its horrific and cautionary nature, also shows the struggles women face as they mature in our current society. Davis says that the story is “also my story, the story of girls everywhere” and can be seen as a commentary on the standards women are often pushed to fulfill even when they are childish and outdated. The mythology tells girls to be wary of romantic love and distrustful of friends, among other lessons. Just as the characters navigate their reality through the mythology, readers are forced to consider the course their lives took through their own forgotten mythologies. Readers must examine how their lives have been governed and what forgotten factors could have been heeded to modify their situations.

Duplex shows the reader that when looking at life, sometimes all that really matters is the perspective.