The Extraordinary Enigmatic: Kathryn Davis’s ‘The Silk Road’

Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.

Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.

This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.

Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”

The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool 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.”

Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.

It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.

I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.

A Sense of Sensibility: On ‘The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick’

A review of Elizabeth Hardwick is almost obliged to begin with the following facts: (1) she was born in Kentucky in 1916 and moved to Manhattan in the early 1940s with the self-declared aim of becoming a “New York Jewish intellectual;” (2) in 1963, along with Barbara and Jason Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, she helped found The New York Review of Books; (3) for more than two decades she was married to the famous—and famously “confessional”—poet Robert Lowell. Notable though these facts may be, however, they are hardly the reasons why Hardwick’s writing continues to be read. As the 55 essays gathered in the new Collected Essays make clear, Hardwick was one of the most penetrating literary critics of her time. Whether she was writing about Henry James or Renata Adler, Edith Wharton or Joan Didion, “every assignment got Hardwick at full sail,” as Darryl Pinckney says in his introduction. She was a “writer’s writer” without question—a prose stylist par excellence.

Hardwick’s style is not for everyone. Her wit is subtle, her syntax sinuous, her learning deep, which is no doubt why her work is so seldom taught in the classroom. It is, in the best sense, un-teachable. “The essayist,” Hardwick once wrote, distinguishing him from the journalist, “does not stop to identify the common ground; he will not write, ‘Picasso, the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.’” Such refusal to stop and explain might easily be mistaken for snobbery today; Hardwick, however, saw it as a gesture of respect. She was not only a “writer’s writer,” she was also—silly though the phrase may be—a “reader’s writer.” She addressed her readers as equals, never wanting to bore them with what they already knew, or what, in the course of their reading, they would soon enough find out for themselves.

Although Hardwick often made her living at universities, she kept aloof from the specialized babel of scholarship. In the Collected Essays, one finds a wonderful absence of “arguments” and a plenitude of splendid sentences, alive to nuance and allergic to jargon. Hardwick has a bit of a reputation as a doyenne of the take-down review, and it’s true that she is very good at disparagement, especially of conventional biographers and biographies. (“Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors,” she writes in a blistering evaluation of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life, “for only they have the inclination to look at life as a sort of dig.”) But Hardwick is equally good at formulating praise, as in her passionate plea for the reprinting of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—a “genuine novel in the traditional meaning of the term…a story of life, faithfully plotted, clearly told, largely peopled with real souls.”

“Real souls” were important to Hardwick. In her essays, as in her fiction, she combined a poet’s sensitivity to language with a novelist’s attention to character. Her great gift was to convey a sense of her subjects’ sensibilities, sketching them in a few swift strokes. Consider the beginning of her essay “Frost in His Letters”:
Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one.
The progression of images here is elegant. The phrase “sorting them out” leads straight to the image of “two picture puzzles,” implying the pictures have already been cut to pieces even before they’re further jumbled in a single, person-shaped box. And this imagery isn’t just so much verbal window dressing; it’s a prelude to the rest of the essay, which will proceed to pick up some of these pieces and examine them, without ever pretending to “solve” the puzzle that is Frost. For Hardwick, a real soul is a complex one.

This is partly why she so disliked “exhaustive” doorstop biographies, with all their endless endnotes filled with archival loot filched from “pharaonic tombs.” Her own approach to biographical matters was more circumspect and more artful. She could pen indelible portraits drawn from life, as in her recollection of her longtime acquaintance Edmund Wilson—“a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis.” But she could also conjure up writers she had never laid eyes on, drawing from their work and letters. Gertrude Stein, for example, is:
as sturdy as a turnip—the last resort of the starving, and native to the old world, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerized and isolated, castlebound too, under the enchantments of her own devising.
No critic writes this way today. Few would have the chutzpah to rely so entirely on the power of metaphor and image. But to acknowledge this is not, for once, a matter of lamenting a lost midcentury literary milieu. Hardwick was a product of her time and place, yes, but she was herself possessed of a sensibility that set her apart even from her contemporaries. Her attunement to the art of the English sentence, together with her feeling for human character—her “thing about people,” as Pinckney calls it—made her a singular talent, and an enduring one.

Her enduringness may be all the more remarkable if one considers how many of her essays began as book reviews (an ephemeral form if ever there was one). Indeed, the Collected Essays lays special emphasis on Hardwick’s work as a reviewer. Its centerpiece would seem to be “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959), a spirited critique of the “malaise” and tepid praise to be found in the Sunday New York Times and Herald Tribune, and which served as a fillip to the founding of the NYRB. There are several “non-review” essays in this new volume: memoirs of Italy and Brazil, profiles of Maine and Boston, reflections on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are many dozens of pieces that Hardwick wrote—for venues as various as Granta and Home & Garden—that have never been collected and that are not collected here, largely for reasons of length. In Pinckney’s introduction, he modestly compares this Collected Essays to the “first Collected Works of most poets,” because “its existence invites a revised collected.”

For a Hardwick fanatic such as myself (who has stockpiled copies of nearly every scrap she ever published, down to a 1936 review in her college paper, The Kentucky Kernel), the absence of so many pieces seems to invite not so much another Collected Essays—one could hardly ask for a better one than Pinckney’s—but an Uncollected Essays, chosen to indicate the full range of Hardwick’s curiosity. Although she, for her part, may have regarded some of her magazine contributions as little more than pecuniary means to an end, she was just as impeccable when musing on Faye Dunaway, second-wave feminism, and grits soufflé as she was on Robert Frost or Gertrude Stein. If she took book reviews as occasions for essays more insightful than most scholarly monographs, she took even “puff pieces” as occasions for meditations far deeper, and more scrupulously composed, than the glossies perhaps knew what to do with.

But The Collected Essays is in no sense a provisional volume;  it’s an assemblage of essentials. Chronologically arranged as they are, these essays represent Hardwick’s intellectual autobiography, the stylish record of a reader steadily engaged by what T. S. Eliot called “the relations of literature—not to ‘life’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” In Hardwick’s criticism, we discover nothing of the professor with her ax to grind or the peacock with her feathers to flaunt. We encounter an uncondescending intelligence, a humane sensibility, and a forthright independence of mind for which we, in our scatterbrained era, cannot be grateful enough.