When reading the most original novelist in America, Kathryn Davis, I recommend keeping in mind the first sentence of her 2002 novel, Versailles. “My soul is going on a trip,” Davis wrote, and that seems the best frame of mind to adopt when opening any of her books—especially the most recent, The Silk Road. Davis produces books that sometimes don’t seem like novels at all. They don’t have main characters, and while dead bodies and mysteries crop up a lot (Davis has professed her love of Agatha Christie), these books can’t really be said to have plots. Most experimental writing is about writing itself, and this tends to give it a solipsistic quality that I find a chore to read. But Davis’ fiction wants to expand its readers’ blinkered understanding of what a novel can be about.
Imagine, Davis seems to be urging, that this story is about more than one or two people, and then imagine that it’s about more than people, period. Her books are always about everything. The Thin Place, her 2006 masterpiece, is set in a town in Vermont, but Davis’ idea of the town comprises not just everyone who lives in it, but also everybody who ever lived in it and is now dead, and also the dogs, the beavers who keep damming up the mill pond, the deep geological history of the place, and, while she’s at it, the thin sliver of cosmic time during which humanity itself has existed. Part of that novel is told from the point of view of a 90-year-old woman who contemplates the inadequate new potatoes served during her birthday dinner at a nursing home, and part of it is told from the point of view of some lichen. The effect is sometimes bewildering but always exhilarating.
The Thin Place remains the first book I’ll recommend to adventurous readers interested in checking out Davis’ work, but The Silk Road is also a feat of flashing enchantment. I read it in a state I can only describe as baffled wonder, and no small part of the wonder came from how much I enjoyed the novel considering the fact that much of the time I had no idea what was going on. It begins with the ending of a yoga class that has taken place in a labyrinth surrounded by permafrost. Narrated in the first-person plural, the story is told by a group of eight characters, male and female, known only by their professional labels: the Cook, the Topologist, the Archivist, the Astronomer, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Geographer, the Iceman. All of them are aware that “the world was coming to an end and that if we worked at it hard enough we would never die.” A ninth character, Jee Moon, is their elusive guide and teacher. They have either known her since childhood or first met her when she walked out of the snow and into their arctic redoubt; they can’t seem to remember which.
The memories of these characters swirl and intermingle. They all recall growing up on Fairmont Avenue, next to a prison, with an imperious, perfumed, secretive mother, a nanny bearing armfuls of warm towels, and a father who could always be heard “whistling a tune from a popular show but we could never figure out what room he was in.” What they remember less clearly is how they made their ways through the labyrinth to the settlement where they now reside. The Topologist was hiking in central France, following a trail designed for pilgrims paying tribute to St. Roch. The Geographer had been mapping a glacier. All the Archivist can remember is “an overwhelming need to keep a long-standing appointment.” The rest are even less clear:
When you arrive at the edge of the world you stop remembering things like how you got there. Your attention keeps pouring over the edge, out and away from the footprints left behind you in the snow, unable to focus on anything except the cove of sparkling light there at the foot of the escarpment. It was either a real pool full of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.
The above is Davis in her mode of radiant, bemused stillness; at other times, she is wry, as when the Topologist is tempted to receive a blessing from a bishop along with the rest of the pilgrims because it comes with the gift of a plastic rosary: “It was hard to resist the kind of prize a person got for doing something for which you’d normally get nothing.” The siblings, if that’s what they are, quarrel over the details of an excursion they once took to celebrate their mother’s birthday, but mostly they try to reconstruct, over a cascade of cross-talk, their journeys to the settlement. These tales involve spouses and lovers (“It was always so exhausting to find a mate, said the Geographer”) and an academic cocktail party in honor of a narcissistic poet, but at some point they found themselves traveling together—or was that the excursion on their mother’s birthday? The two events flow into and out of each other like twinned streams.
History intermittently collapses in this novel; within two sentences, a character will inhabit first the present and then the Middle Ages. They arrive on a floatplane and then they are wearing “particolored and striped hose” and walking past piles of the dead. Plague is a recurring motif. St. Roch protects those who pray to him from plague, and the bubonic version arrived in medieval Europe from Asia via the Silk Road. A modern-day pestilence may have brought about the destruction of the world as we know it now, but surely it seemed that the world was ending in the 14th century, as the Black Death rampaged across the continent, and yet on humanity went. You could say that every time a human life ends, a world ends with it, and that this is the doom the characters in The Silk Road want to elude.
Then again, perhaps it’s too late. The characters’ memories appear to be disintegrating and dispersing like those of a dementia patient, from the most to the least recent. Other memories from other times seep into them, along with mythic apparitions. Their journeys are harried by a dog-headed beast, and at one point the Botanist floats through the air like a ghost. Long before an afterword in which Davis acknowledges The Tibetan Book of the Dead as one of the “animating spirits” of the novel, many readers will have begun to suspect that the eight siblings are already dead and possibly multiple aspects of a single person.
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But could that be the “solution” to this ravishing, enigmatic novel? Surely not. The only proper way to read the fiction of Kathryn Davis is in a state of happy, profound, and irreducible uncertainty. Here is the place where the membrane between the mundane and the mystical becomes so thin as to be transparent. No answers will be supplied, and the metaphors will bend your imagination to its breaking point: “The sky was dark but the darkness still had a sheet of light inside, the way a philosophic tenet is backed by intuition.” If you can countenance all of that, the rewards are infinite. The Silk Road is a mystery for sure, just not the kind that Agatha Christie ever wrote.
I can be an impatient reader when I sense a writer is being obscure for obscurity’s sake, but Davis has an oddly humble approach for someone whose work is so ambitious. She only wants you to understand how stupendous creation is, as well as all the works of human ingenuity and passion. I spotted lines from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, but there’s probably a lot more I missed. Perhaps if she were more grandiose (or, let’s face it, male) she’d have a large following of fanboys intent on decoding her every allusion and device, like Thomas Pynchon’s. As it is, she has a devout but tiny band of admirers. Join us.