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An Alternate Universe Delights In Complex, Perplexing 'Duplex'

Sep 3, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 5:22 pm

You're walking your dog in a suburb that may or may not exist in this dimension. The dog whines. You ignore him. Anyway, you're too busy looking out for that sexy, evil sorcerer. Suddenly, a gray rabbit appears, and you realize: the world is ending.

That is not a direct quote from Duplex, the latest novel from Kathryn Davis. Her sentences need a bit too much explanation. But there are plenty of passages I could cite that are equally bewildering. Really, I can't remember the last time I read a book so disorienting. Half the time I didn't know what was happening. Who was speaking. Whether or not they actually existed. But I can tell you, reading this book is a blast.

Duplex is a traditional love story tucked inside an adult fairy tale, wrapped in science fiction. I think there are two planets in the novel. Possibly they're the same world. Possibly they're neighbors. In the end, it doesn't really matter.

World number one is like a 1950s suburb. Kids play in the street. Neighbors gossip. Teenagers find sex confusing. So far, so good. However, there are also robots, but they're mostly like everybody else: discontented. Also, there's a playboy sorcerer, who will make your dreams come true for the measly price of your soul. And the suburb, as far as I can tell, operates in space and time like Brigadoon.

World number two: it appears to be our own. There, we track a group of schoolgirls at different stages of life. The head girl, Janice, is a bossy know-it-all. She's that older girl on the playground who keeps the little ones enthralled with dubious wisdom. But the stories Janice tells actually hearken back to that first world I mentioned — in fact, the two worlds may exist on top of one another, hence the novel's title. As you read, you realize it might even be possible to pass from one world to the next.

Thankfully, the laws of quantum mechanics do not power Duplex's magnetism. Instead, it is Davis's beautiful prose, her psychological awareness. She writes, about one of her robot characters, "The act of pretending to get older had managed to confer a kind of dignity on the robot, making it hard to remember that in actuality it was the size and shape of a needle."

Speed-readers, skip sentences at your peril — if only because something will happen that won't make sense for fifty pages, then turn out to be an essential narrative hinge. Halfway through, I put the book down for two days. When I picked it up again, I had to start all over just to understand what the hell was going on. Still, I wouldn't take back one minute of reading. Sometimes really good company, the interesting, mind-expanding kind, leaves you scratching your head.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

"Duplex" is the title of a new novel from writer Kathryn Davis and that's really the only thing we're sure of. The book itself is a fanciful fever dream. It straddles worlds, plays with space and time, and is populated with robots, magic and creatures called aquanaughts. Rosecrans Baldwin has this review.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: You're walking your dog in a suburb that may or may not exist in this dimension. The dog whines. You ignore him. Anyway, you're too busy looking out for that sexy, evil sorcerer. Suddenly, a gray rabbit appears and you realize the world is ending. That is not a direct quote from "Duplex," the latest novel from Kathryn Davis.

Her sentences need a bit too much explanation. But there are plenty of passages I could cite that are equally bewildering. Half the time I didn't know what was happening, who was speaking, whether or not they actually exist, but I can tell you, reading this book is a blast.

"Duplex" is a traditional love story tucked inside an adult fairy tale, then wrapped in science fiction. I think there are two planets in the novel. Possibly they're the same world. Possibly they're neighbors. In the end, it doesn't really matter. World number one is like a 1950s suburb. Kids play in the street. Neighbors gossip. Teenagers find sex confusing. Robots live there, too.

But they're mostly like everybody else, discontented. World number two, it appears to be our own. There, we track a group of schoolgirls at different stages of their lives. The head girl, Janice, is a bossy know-it-all. But the stories Janice tells actually hearken back to that first world I mentioned. In fact, the two worlds may exist on top of one another, hence the novel's title.

As you read, you realize it might even be possible to pass from one world into the next. Thankfully, the laws of quantum mechanics do not power "Duplex's" magnetism. Instead, it's Davis's beautiful prose, her psychological awareness. She writes, about one of her robot characters, the act of pretending to get older had managed to confer a kind of dignity on the robot, making it hard to remember that in actuality it was the size and shape of a needle.

Speed-readers, skip sentences at your peril, something will happen in the plot that won't make sense for fifty pages, then turn out to be essential. Halfway through, I did put this book down for two days. When I picked it up again, I had to start all over just to understand what was really going on. Still, I wouldn't take back one minute of reading.

Sometimes really good company, the interesting, mind-expanding kind, leaves you scratching your head.

BLOCK: The book is "Duplex" by Kathryn Davis. Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book is called "Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.