From her 1988 debut “Labrador” to her latest novel, the gorgeous and confounding “The Silk Road,” Kathryn Davis has written fiction that resists paraphrase. Action is often less explicable by psychological motivation than by the logic of the fairy tale, or the dream, or the parable. The sentences are smooth, often elegant. The gaps between them, though, are abyssal: one minute you’re in the American suburbs, the next you’ve been teleported to the edges of the universe, or to the beginnings of time.
Trying to summarize a Davis novel — “Labrador” is about a girl who talks with an angel who may impregnate her sister who may also be angel; “Duplex” takes place in a 1950s Philadelphia where humans, robots, and sorcerers live side-by-side — is like trying to close read the northern lights. Not only is it impossible. It’s beside the point.
Like several of Davis’s books, “The Silk Road” reads like a mystery novel at a slant. It opens with a group of Chaucer-style pilgrims (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, etc.), finishing up their daily yoga practice with an instructor named Jee Moon in a labyrinth in the Arctic north. The pilgrims, who seem to have family ties, are in Savasana, corpse pose — “the most challenging of the poses,” we’re told, given “that the room was filled with people who knew the world was coming to an end and that if we worked at it hard enough we would never die.”
This sense of dread and purpose is clinched by the chapter’s end, when we’re informed that a person who was just in corpse pose has now just become a corpse: “Later we couldn’t remember which one of us it was who asked if anybody had a mirror to check for breath.” We appear to be in a locked-room mystery. Which of the pilgrims is responsible for this death? Which of the pilgrims is dead? Is the pilgrim even dead, since the ordinary laws of life, death, and selfhood don’t seem to obtain in Davis’s labyrinth at the end of the world?
It’s typical of Davis’s delightful weirdness that, over the course of the novel, none of these questions are answered. At one point, the Archivist is described as possessing “a delicate nature stretched and then suspended above the fathomless abyss.” That’s how it feels to be a reader of “The Silk Road,” too — stretched and suspended over the abyss, jumping from one place (the labyrinth) to another (the Aubrac region of France), having the past folded into the present until you can’t tell them apart, seeing characters blend and blur. (Besides apparently sharing parents the pilgrims can hear one another’s thoughts. One begins to suspect that they may have originally been a single self, fractured now into various components.)
Time is wobbly in “The Silk Road,” as is identity, as is place. We get snatches of family life and tarot card readings; the pilgrims live together and break apart and then, unaccountably, they’re back together again.
Before she finds herself in the labyrinth, if “before” has any meaning here, the Topologist is in Le Puy-en-Velay, a point on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Standing on cooled volcanic rock, the Topologist “could feel the fury of the earth’s molten core coming up from the bottom of her feet and out the top of her head. Before it had been a Christian chapel this had been a shrine to Mercury, god of messages and poetry, commerce and thieves.” “The Silk Road” hunts out this kind of landscape — Christian and pagan and elemental all at once — and dwells in this kind of timescape — palimpsestic and spiraling — again and again.
Davis’s descriptive gifts are abundant. Here is a throwaway sentence on a character smoking in the rain: “The cigarette was damp but she managed to get it going, its round orange eye looking this way and that.” I’ll never see the tip of a lit cigarette the same way again.
Yet balanced by this perceptual acuity is an intensely metaphysical bent. Davis hooks us with a murder mystery only to abandon it. That’s because she’s after bigger game: the mystery of time and mortality (“How is it possible for the solid objects around us to melt away into the past, and for a new order of objects to emerge mysteriously from the future?”) and of the pure contingency of all that exists: “We could have been a caterpillar or an acorn, fashioned of cloth or hammered tin. We could have been like paper money or silver like a coin. We could have been silverfish. We could have fallen to the floor, slid between the tiles, never to be seen again.”
Early on, the narrator describes the aura surrounding Jee Moon: “something radiant and endlessly shifting, the impenetrable deep blue of a newborn’s eyes. The winnowing basket used to separate the husk from the grain, the outer illusory form from the inner reality.” Radiant and endlessly shifting, sensitive to outer form and inner reality, wildly and beautifully impenetrable: that’s as good a paraphrase of this splendid, poetic novel of ideas as you’ll get.
The Silk Road
By Kathryn Davis
Graywolf Press, 144 pp., $15.91
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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’