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Fiction ‘Duplex’ piques the imagination, but doesn’t cohere

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“Duplex” by Kathryn Davis (Graywolf Press, $24, 208 pages)

Davis is unlike any writer you are likely to read. In Davis’ fiction, the whole world is teeming with activity, including humans, animals and spirits. In her 2007 novel “The Thin Place,” three girls find a body on the beach, and one of them brings it back to life. We get chapters told from the point of view of a pet cat or a beaver.

In her new novel, “Duplex,” her seventh book, we again find ourselves in a world both familiar and strange, full of characters we rarely encounter in stories. Early on, a character called the sorcerer looks at a street “crawling with souls like the earth with worms. It was no secret that even the lowliest of the unruly, uncontainable beings living there could partake of love’s mystery, and his envious rage knew no bounds.”

As in “The Thin Place,” we are in a small town, though it’s not clear where or when, only that it’s near the ocean. For Davis, suburbia is a place where the mundane disguises a phantasmagoria of strange characters and events. It is “a world where the adults were too busy to notice whatever those things were that were tunneling under the streets and slipping from their holes at night to dart under porches and along the telephone wires.”

While it reads as if we’re in a “Twilight Zone” episode with dark forebodings, Davis seems less concerned with some arc of plot than with exploring an imaginative world that doesn’t always cohere.

While “The Thin Place” plays with the thin border between the natural and supernatural spheres, “Duplex” plays with time. Here, children live in a kind of eternal present, while adults lament the too-quick passing of their lives. “Time was making a ticking sound as it passed though there didn’t seem to be a clock anywhere in sight.”

In Davis’ magical prose, we encounter Mary and Eddie, students in Miss Vicks’ class who seem destined to be together for life. But Walter, who turns out to be a sorcerer, seduces Mary away from Eddie, who pursues his dream of being a star baseball player.

Mary, later married to Walter, gives birth to Blue-Eyes, a precocious child that may be a monster. And Cindy is a robot, married to Roy. They live in one of the town’s duplexes, and their babies “started out looking like hand grenades and were just as likely to explode.”

Janice, another classmate, longs to be a writer and tells other children fantastic stories about the Four Horsewomen and the Descent of the Aquanauts.

Davis uses an unnamed, first-person narrator who is part of the town and one of Janice’s classmates, but we learn nothing about her.

Davis includes fine, humorous descriptions. She describes one man as “very delicate and pale, the way a hermit crab looks between shells.”

Fascinating as it is to read something this different, “Duplex” fails to cohere in a meaningful way as a story. I much prefer “The Thin Place,” which includes her imaginative variety of characters and the interplay of past and present but is more coherent as a story.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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