IN A 2007 REVIEW OF ANNIE DILLARD’S NOVEL, The Maytrees, Marilynne Robinson marveled at the temporal expansiveness of Dillard’s imaginative vision:
Dillard has always been fascinated by time—by the fact that existence is charged with it, saturated with it, borne along by it into a future that makes the span of any life less than negligible. And time in its mystery and grandeur bestrides this novel. Its sea is wild and generative, its sky orders the constellations, and both are primordial, archaic, full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything. If there were such a thing as cosmic realism, The Maytrees would be a classic of the genre.
“Cosmic realism” is a perfect description of Dillard’s slim novel. In it, characters’ lives “play…out before the backdrop of fixed stars”; their human-sized concerns—about love, poetry, the inevitable late-summer fade of the Boston Red Sox—are set against the time-scale of planets and galaxies. In one typical scene, a character “stood on the foredune’s lip and looked at the stars over the ocean. A wider life breathed in him, and things’ rims stirred and reared back.” Dillard’s is a poetics, even a metaphysics, of relationality and juxtaposition. Prepositions do a great deal of work: she places the earthly before the cosmic; her characters look at the stars; a wider life, and a wider time, live in her imagined beings. This is life seen, as Dillard writes in For the Time Being, “from the aspect of eternity.”
If there were such a thing as cosmic realism, what would the other contemporary classics of the genre be? Robinson’s Housekeeping, for sure. (It takes one to know one, I guess.) I’d also nominate the work of Joy Williams, particularly her novel The Quick and the Dead, where mean lives take shape against “the lucent night” of the endless desert sky.
But one of the strongest, and most surprising, writers in this tradition is the American novelist Kathryn Davis. For years, Davis has been a writer’s writer, admired by Joy Williams, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Carmen Maria Machado, among others. Now, with Graywolf reissuing her earlier work—a new edition of her second novel, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, was published last August—she’s receiving wider attention. I say that Davis is one of the strongest writers of cosmic realism because few others so regularly, so relentlessly, place the human subject and the cosmos side by side. Her nine published novels vary widely in subject matter: opera music (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf); Marie Antoinette (Versailles); a trip to Wales (The Walking Tour); the end of the world (The Silk Road). Davis’s novels also vary in style, though over the course of her career they have become sparer in plot and syntax: her more recent novels possess the chiseled shape of parable. Yet in every book, Davis finds the proper context for her characters’ lives not in social or political history but in deep time. “History is boring,” a character in Duplex asserts. “It’s what comes before history that isn’t boring.” What comes before history and what comes after it and how these things condition the present we live in: that’s where Davis finds meaning and story.
A paragraph from the opening to her 1998 novel, Hell, makes this clear:
In the beginning, we’re told, everything was the same. Everything was locked together inside a huge lump of ice. But soon enough the ice began to melt, and because it was too huge to notice the moistly fraying hem of itself, threads of milky silt-filled water unraveled across the landscape, slowly at first, then fast, faster, setting the miller’s wheel in motion, thundering toward a future where a little yellow leaf was sweeping over the lip of the dam. Rain was falling from a sky that spectral shade of gray that’s almost white, dispiriting, and I was sitting at my father’s bedside, eating fries out of a paper bag.
We start off in the beginning of beginnings; we end up in the time of french fries. Temporalities shift without announcement; it’s unclear how we got from glaciers calving to humanity snacking. And that’s Davis’s point. We see humanity most truly, she suggests, when the backdrop isn’t the stuff of an historical textbook (sections of Hell take place in 1950s suburbia, a setting that comes up in other Davis novels as well) but a canvas so grand that it might be called time itself.
Davis strikes this note again and again. The Thin Place deploys a contrapuntal structure, setting the narrative present—a group living and dying, having affairs and attending church, in an imaginary Vermont town—against geological and theological time. “The world was already acting strange millions of years ago,” one passage begins, as “the glacier rode the world, and the world let it change it.” “The world was strange from day one,” another opens. “Let there be light, God said, and there was light.” In The Silk Road, Davis writes, “We were all caught in the flood of time but without a back-pool or sluggish eddy or swamp root or anything to catch on.” “Seconds were always passing this way,” a character thinks in Duplex, “thimbleful by thimbleful, as were the lives of living beings.” In The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, the narrator observes, “Over, against, under, into: the mystery was so frequently prepositional.” As in Dillard, so in Davis: the thing against which characters are placed is deep, deep time.
Still, describing Davis as a cosmic realist might seem surprising since, in many ways, she’s as far from a realist as a writer can get. Sometimes, her fiction resembles fantasy: fairies flit in and out of view; beings are brought back from the dead; a teddy bear is transformed into a child. Sometimes she borrows tropes from science fiction: a postapocalyptic scavenger here, an unexplained hovering object there. In Davis’s novels, transformation, the inexplicable passage from one state to another, is all.
We’re near the Canadian border, and then we’re at the origins of the universe. We’re in a coming-of-age story, and then an angel appears. Her novels often read like poems or dreams. Or, rather, they make experience itself feel like a poem or dream, governed by some logic we sense but can’t articulate. A.O. Scott encapsulates the weirdness of Davis’s work: her “approach to novel writing is so original and the results so magical that trying to review her fiction in a thousand words on a tight deadline feels as doomed as trying to review one of Blake’s prophetic books.”
The Blake comparison is apt. In Jerusalem, Blake announces his theme—“of the passage through / Eternal Death! and of the awakening to Eternal Life”—and then gives us its strange players, its Spectres and Emanations. In The Silk Road, Davis proclaims her interest in “what’s left of the universe after everything else has been destroyed” and then introduces characters with names like the Archivist and the Topologist. In both works, we’re in a world that is visionary, prophetic, so vast and unfamiliar that it can seem inhuman. Here is a typical passage from Duplex: “Unlike toasters or vacuum cleaners, though, the robots were endowed with minds. In this way they were distant relatives of Body-without-Soul, but the enmity between the sorcerer and the robots ran deep.” Robots and sorcerers: we’re a long way from Robinson or Dillard. Both of those writers remain, at heart, humanists—interested in the beauty and significance of the human mind, the human body, human existence itself. Can this be said of Davis too? Or is her vision so cosmic that it obscures the real, her attention so attuned to that which has preceded and will succeed humanity that humanity itself gets left behind?
As test cases, we might consider two of Davis’s more recent novels, The Thin Place (2006) and Duplex (2013). I choose The Thin Place because it most consistently engages with deep time; I choose Duplex because it is arguably Davis’s strangest book.
A.O. Scott is right: even with more space and less of a deadline, it’s impossible to summarize either of these two novels. Here goes. The Thin Place, set near the Canadian border, is Davis’s most populated book, as much a choral production as a novel. The human chorus includes Mees Kip, a fierce young girl with the ability to reanimate recently deceased creatures, human and animal alike; Mees’s two friends, Lorna Fine and Sunny Crocket; and a host of older fellow townspeople: an Episcopal minister, an elderly denizen of the Crocket Home for the Aged, the owner of a local bindery, and many others. There’s also an animal chorus. Dogs, cats, beavers, moose: all are heard from in short bursts of close third-person narration. (Here is Gigi the cat, for instance: “the next thing she knew there was a big brown DOG face looking at her. Dog nose, dog teeth, dog tongue, dog drool. That smell. So excrementitious, dogs!”) Davis dips into the perspective of corn (“In terms of its consciousness, corn isn’t particularly evolved”) and lichen too: “Lichen speaks a language like some music, repetitive and incantatory: manna star fold. star star fold reindeer. fold fold fold fold. starlight starlight.”
In addition to the polyphony of human and animal voices, the novel offers short interstitial sections that take place in the vastest of timescapes. In the narrative
present, there is the semblance of a plot: the young girls find a dead man and Mees returns him to life; affairs begin and end; relationships flourish and fade. But these strands always are enfolded within a longer view. Often, this longer view is the history of the earth (“At least four glaciers covered Varennes over the past three million years”) or even of the cosmos: “Space and time are made out of strings the universe conceived when it was still a baby, little and fierce.… Eventually the strings made waves, some smaller than the smallest thing we’ve discovered so far, some greater than the distance between our world and the farthest star.” At other times, Davis looks to religious history, from the moment of creation to Jesus’s temptation and beyond. The novel’s tutelary spirit might be Julian of Norwich: on several occasions, Davis returns to the medieval mystic’s vision of an impossibly small world held in existence by divine love. (Davis herself was raised Episcopalian.)
The Thin Place is a chorus, then, but also a series of circles, each larger than the last: human to nature to cosmos to God. As the narrator writes, “But what does that mean, distant? It’s still part of the same world, only farther off.” Davis isn’t particularly interested in historical context. On the first page, the narrator writes, “This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock.” History remains largely unspoken going forward. The town of Varennes sits near a border—a fraught area at all times but especially shortly after 9/11, when the novel was written—yet the politics of homeland security are absent too. Davis places her characters not within a nation but within a universe: a universe that lives and dies and speaks and sings, that is bigger than humanity and saturates it, whether we know it or not, at every moment and at every point.
Surprising as it is to say, the novel at times resembles Middlemarch—or, perhaps, Middlemarch as written after some psychotropic drugs—primarily in its commitment to decentering narrative interest. For Eliot, we come to understand ourselves most fully when we come to realize that we are not the only character in the story that is our life. Empathy is a moral imperative but also an epistemological one: get outside yourself, Eliot says, see the other human stories surrounding you, and you’ll see the world more truly. The Thin Place implicitly makes a similar claim: know that there is a universe around you, a grand sweep of time and life, and you will come to know yourself more deeply. At one point, Davis even offers a “but why always Dorothea” moment (as when Eliot shifts us into the point of view of a character we haven’t been much inclined to sympathize with). Only Davis does it with beavers: “On the far side of the lake, the beavers resurfaced and got back to work, felling saplings and fortifying their dam.… But like what? Like what? How little patience we have for the impossibly slow unfolding of stories about the lives of anything that isn’t human!”
As in Dillard’s fiction, time’s grandeur bestrides the world in The Thin Place, and this grandeur amplifies rather than leeches the world of its significance. That’s in part because cosmic vastness doesn’t just surround humanity; it attends to it. Early on, Davis describes existence itself as intended, as something that need not have been but still is:
It was beautiful and it could have stayed that way but Nothing reached its beautiful endless hand-that-is-not-a-hand into the infinite Nothing of itself and turned itself inside out, giving itself form. The hand of God, which has no shape, no up or down, no end or beginning, drew the world from itself like a rabbit from a hat.
This is, to use a traditional theological term, creatio ex nihilo, the original and originary rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. There was Nothing, then there was Something. Presto. Later on, Davis recasts one of the most famous passages from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love:
She looked at the small nut-sized thing lying in the palm of her hand and thought, What can this be? Everything which is made, came the answer, and Julian was amazed that it could last, because of its littleness. But it would last, created thing that it was, she was told, and always would, because God loved it, even though there was no peace in it.
What is most striking about the hazelnut passage in Julian of Norwich’s account, and in Davis’s account of Julian’s account, is how creation isn’t a one-time act but something that is continually happening as long as there is anything at all. From Julian’s perspective, God’s creative love is the only thing sustaining the small, fragile world from moving back into nothingness. Creation is always and everywhere on the verge of dissolution; it’s only the attentiveness of that which exceeds the world that sustains the world. In the Middle Ages, this notion was called creatio continua: the continuous, loving act of creation that, were it to cease for an instant, would cause Something to collapse into Nothing, the rabbit to go back into the hat. As Davis’s narrator writes, “In the beginning it was beautiful. Beautiful Nothing—it could have stayed that way, but.” That “but” is everything. The fact that our human lives, small as they are, continue amid such immensity is, in The Thin Place, a marker of humanity’s significance. I’m reminded of a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Psalm Eight”: “The strategy of the Psalmist is to close the infinite distance between God and humankind by confounding all notions of scale. If the great heavens are the work of God’s fingers, what is small and mortal man? The poem answers its own question this way: Man is crowned with honor and glory…how is this dignity manifest? Surely in that God is mindful of man.”
Odd as The Thin Place is, it retains much of the traditional armature of fiction. Its characters resemble ordinary fictional characters, even if they are more distant cousin than sibling. We learn about their backstories; we inhabit their minds; we see their desires and the ethical challenges they face. Duplex is a much stranger work, in part because the world it imagines is much less like our own. At first, the novel’s setting resembles suburban America, circa perhaps 1955: families listen to the ballgame on the radio; parents drink cocktails; sycamores and brick houses line the neighborhood streets; duplexes sit by the seaside. Then, we get to the third paragraph: “She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound.” A sentence later, we see “the blue-green lights of the scow, those slow-moving heralds of melancholy.” Samuel Delany has described what happens when we read science fiction or fantasy: the “level of subjunctivity,” which he defines as “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object,” begins to change. In Duplex, we think we’re in one kind of world: tree-lined, suburban, ordinary. Then, we encounter something novel (the phrase “a real woman”) and have to correct our world-picture. In what kind of a world would one have to specify “real woman”? Real with regard to what, specifically? Then, we encounter another novel element (an object called a “scow”) and our world-picture must shift again. Are we in an alternative version of our world? Or are we in a distant future that somehow mimics, at a slant, our own past? This process of calibration and recalibration happens on almost every page of Duplex. You’re cruising along, and then something sticks in the gears. The world of the novel is larger than you’d thought.
Again, Davis offers the bones of a plot. Or, as befits a book of its name, she offers two plots standing side by side—two in one, like the apartments in a duplex. In the first strand, a young boy named Eddie sells his soul to a sorcerer, Body-without-Soul (also called Walter), so that he can achieve baseball stardom. Mary, Eddie’s high-school sweetheart, ends up marrying the sorcerer, who at an earlier point had an affair with Eddie and Mary’s teacher, Miss Vicks. Walter and Mary have a daughter named Blue-Eyes (the aforementioned teddy bear turned into a child). Everyone gets older and sadder: Eddie regrets forfeiting his soul; Mary regrets her marriage. That’s unit #1. In unit #2, a group of girls, led by a know-it-all named Janice, tells stories about the distant past. We hear about mythic events called the Rain of Beads and the Space Drift; we are introduced to mythic beings named the Aquanauts and the Horsewomen.
These stories partly serve as clarification for the narrative present. They explain, though not all that clearly, how robots came to live among humans and how the world almost ended but didn’t. But what they really do is widen the novel’s temporal scope, suggesting that the deep time of myth continues to make itself felt in the narrative present. “The story of the Rain of Beads goes back far enough to seem like it never really happened,” one chapter mysteriously opens. The Rain of Beads is a mythic story involving what myths often do—sex and violence, an apparent trade turning into a slaughter—and this ancient story inflects our own reading of Eddie’s exchange and Mary’s marriage, even if we can’t precisely say how. “Everybody thinks it’s going to be different for them. The dinosaurs thought so too,” Janice begins another chapter. She then describes a wave that long ago buried the world and most of humanity with it. “I’ve had that dream, someone said. I dream about those kinds of waves a lot. It’s an ancestral memory, Janice explained primly, as if she was mentioning something better left unsaid.” Better left unsaid, perhaps, because it’s terrifying to see oneself borne along by an immeasurable past of apocalyptic destruction. And it’s terrifying to be in the churn of the present too: “Every night there were more planets; planets were being born somewhere in space, calving off larger, older planets.” The past stretches out endlessly behind us; the future rushes toward us with ferocity; time feels like “taffy, something a person could get caught in.”
There’s a coldness to Duplex—the coldness of interstellar space, of an almost-but-not-quite-posthuman world. In The Thin Place, Davis saw the human world surrounded by vastness. In Duplex, she looks from that vastness at the human world. The telescope has been flipped. Take this paragraph from early in the novel:
Miss Vicks, for example—when the sun shone through her dachshund’s russet earflaps she experienced deep inside herself a sensation of softness and smoothness that made her feel as though Cupid had shot her through the heart. She had to nip her front teeth together as if she were trying to snip a thread, so overcome was she by feelings of unsurpassed tenderness—she couldn’t help herself. Whereas when the robots looked at the earflaps—the pinnas, they called them—their tendency was to focus on the physical composition, including the exterior coat of very short fine hair and the pink internal tissue, the brachiating veins, the blue-red membrane. The idea of soft remained completely alien to them, yet they began approximating some sense of it through study of Vicks, M.’s face, its composition not unlike the dog’s and therefore porous and providing access to the brain, where they watched the thoughts take shape.
I have cats; I’ve looked at their ears in the sunlight; I’ve felt what Miss Vicks feels. I haven’t felt, nor do I ever hope to feel, what the robots feel. The sunlit russet earflaps are a touch of lyricism, of warmth, that Davis can do well. They’re not so much absent from Duplex as chilled by what stands beside them. Consider this description of a robot’s voice: “Cindy’s voice still sounded human but it also sounded as if it had gotten trapped in a box made of metal on a planet in another galaxy and was beating against the sides of the box trying to get out.” The vehicle runs away from the tenor and the simile barely holds. We start off on earth and end up in a galaxy far away.
Yet Duplex never abandons the human altogether. All that is beyond humanity in the novel—the sorcerer, the robots, the fairies—looks at humanity with great interest: sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with envy, but always with interest and intention. Souls are precious things in Duplex. The sorcerer wants one; the robots do too. “What is it like to live without a soul? The robots gave this a lot of thought, it being their condition.… Sometimes Cindy cried herself to sleep. How could she cry? How could she sleep, for that matter? Often what you don’t have breaks your heart.” The fact that souls can be won and lost, the fact that they are what is at stake in all of the book’s plotlines, proves their value. Toward the novel’s end, Janice uses a statue of Saint Francis to explain an apocalyptic event from the deep past: “That’s the Great Division, like I was saying. That’s the hinge. On one side, Saint Francis there receives the stigmata. On the other side, he isn’t even a saint. He’s a stonemason, something along those lines.” In this instance, the know-it-all Janice doesn’t know much. Duplex isn’t a disenchanted world, where saints have been replaced by stonemasons. It’s not even a world where belief in the soul has been replaced by the fact of robots. It’s a hinged world, a duplex world, where the human and the cosmic, the soul and the stars, stand side by side. In The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, a character asks, “Who needs a window to the soul when it’s generally agreed that souls don’t exist?” In this way at least, Davis is a traditional, even old-fashioned writer: her novels believe in the soul.
Another passage from The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf nicely articulates what reading Davis’s later, stranger fiction feels like. In it, Helle Ten Brix, a Danish opera composer, remembers tuning a piano in Copenhagen:
Helle had been sitting at the piano for hours, attempting to retune it according to the rules of the mean-tone system, a method of tuning originally in use around 1500. Because, in the mean-tone system, what you end up with is a perfect third and an almost perfect fifth, the triads sound much purer than those produced according to the rules of equal temperament.… Purer and yet troublesome, for as you continue projecting such a series of mean-tone fifths, an odd discrepancy is created between the sharps and the flats, a sort of hole in the harmonic texture, which is called—just like that other, mystical hole in the hours of the Danish day—a “wolf.”
Davis’s fiction opens up a discrepancy, a wolf interval, in time’s harmonic structure. The “mystical hole in the hours of the Danish day” is ultvetimen, the wolf hour, three a.m. It’s the hour when things fray and passage between worlds become possible, when time reveals its true depth and wildness. It’s the hour when all of Davis’s novels seem to be set.
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, the books columnist for Commonweal, and author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins). His reviews and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Book Post, and the Boston Review.