Monday, February 17, 2020

Prayers bore them

You're blaming the robots, right? That's what everyone did. The robots didn't mean to start trouble. They weren't happy about what happened. It was a mistake, and they don't like it when they make mistakes. It was no different from when a nuclear reactor blows up and for years afterward radioactivity rains down from the sky making people sick. It was better than that, even, because the robots wanted to make things better. It wasn't their fault they didn't understand the poem.
[What poem?]

Duplex, by Kathryn Davis, is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I've read in a long time.

This book is exquisitely sad, and I'm not sure why. It reminds me of e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town," only instead of being a poem, it's a string of fairytale pearls, but with robots and magic and you can't tell whether anyone's alive or dead.

I don't understand what it's about. And I want to reread it immediately.

It's set in a suburban community of duplexes, where one can hear the neighbours living their life next door. Sometimes the noises raise eyebrows, and other questions.

It's a thin wall between one existence and another, and that wall is porous. As I write this, the novel clicks into place...

Davis explores all the duplexes we live in and how their two sides seep into each other: life and death, history and mythology, dream and reality, past and future. (This novel may have affected me more deeply as I read it on holiday — my vacation world and my real life were similarly separate but interwoven.)

Duplex is neither science fiction nor fantasy, despite the drone-like scows, the mind-reading robots, and the magician.

This is a book primarily about girls and women, about their disappointments, and I can't help but feel it's meant as warning. This is the life you have. This is the life you could have. Could have had.
After she returned home the girl washed the breakfast dishes. She stood there with her head bowed, crying into the sink, leaving the nape of her neck exposed all the way through the many different layers of her house and the debris floating in the upper atmosphere to the X-ray vision of the operational apparatus of the scow hovering in the air above.

Think of them like gods, Janice said, because that's what they are. The nape of a human neck is especially easy to see through — that's why they love it when we bow our heads. It doesn't have anything to do with praying. Prayers bore them.

Unlike the boy she had a crush on the apparatus could see through the girl perfectly; it knew it wasn't meant for her but that didn't stop it. It was her fate, which had nothing to do with love. It had nothing to do with the boy and the note, either. Things just worked out this way sometimes.
It's very difficult to summarize this book, but I can give you no better recap than this one:
The main plot, if there is one, concerns a woman who, as a young girl, falls in love with a neighbor boy. A sorcerer in a metallic gray car steals the boy's soul, however, and in a Faustian transaction the boy becomes a famous baseball player. This girl, Mary, later marries the sorcerer, perhaps while hypnotized (so little of this episode is rendered in the story). Mary then becomes the mother of Blue-Eyes, a machine-daughter who started life as a yellow Teddy Bear. Mary leaves the sorcerer late in life, is transported through a wormhole, and performs admirably with poorly identified but heavy cosmic stakes on the line.
That leaves out some of the mythological elements, and the robots who live down the street, but otherwise nails it. Since the first resident we're introduced to is Miss Vicks, schoolteacher and one-time lover of the sorcerer, it seemed to me the story was told through her lens on the community. At times it seemed Mary's story was one of her lives that could have been, perhaps even directed by her.

Some reviews of this book focus on the element of time, the clockwork lives, the ticking, the surprise of aging.

Despite clocks and calendars, the big events in our lives always feel like they come out of nowhere. Even when we expect them, even when we know they must happen, even when, like old age, we constantly watch them approach.
Like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia, the duplex functions as both a physical place and a point of access to a different world—one in which past and future collide.
Washington Independent Review of Books:
As the novel continues, the boundaries between these characters become increasingly fragile, even permeable. Davis plays brilliantly on the claustrophobia of American suburbia, and the duplex houses in Mary and Eddie's neighborhood serve as an ideal site to explore the proximity that both separates and interweaves their occupants. Duplex is obsessed with halving and doubling, with hinges and doors, with places where you can go "forward and back with equal ease." Some characters split into doubles; others seem to live multiple lives.
The Rumpus:
The narrator confides, "I think the robot was trying to warn her about what was going to happen. I think this because the story of what was going to happen is also my story, the story of girls everywhere." This declaration is open to plenty of interpretations. Is Duplex also telling the story of girls in our world, outside of this odd street, where time and space connect like a hinge on the door of a duplex?
The Rain of Beads (audio)
Descent of the Aquanauts
Through the Wormhole (account required)
[Full text online.]
That's nothing compared to what it felt like. Nothing. You can't even begin to imagine. Supposedly the sound the girls made was so loud no one could sleep. It wasn't like being torn to pieces, because pieces are big. It was like having the smallest parts of your body like the corpuscles and peptides and nuclei and follicles rip loose from one another, every single one of them. The parts were so small they were practically invisible and all different colors, the main ones being red and yellow and blue. They were gorgeous if you didn't know what they were. There was nothing left of the girls. Nothing for the doctors to replace with new parts, nothing.

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