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.
I’ve read some stunning short story collections in 2017: Bennett Sims’s cerebral, unsettling White Dialogues; Jenny Zhang’s lush and visceral Sour Heart; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s liminal, searing What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky; and Amy Parker’s beautiful and devastating Beasts and Children. The novels that took off the top of my head were Andrea Lawlor’s sexy, picaresque Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl: Alissa Nutting’s hilarious Made for Love; Kathryn Davis’s uncategorizable Duplex; and Jeff VanderMeer’s inventive, disconcerting Borne. I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth for nonfiction, but when I did, I was unmade by Roxane Gay’s heartbreaking memoir Hunger; Samantha Irby’s tremendously funny essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life; and Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, singular Proxies.
I’ve also gotten a sneak peek at a couple of unreleased books I can’t wait for: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, Mark Mayer’s Aerialists, and Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster. 2018 can’t come soon enough.
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The literary world has been waiting for a Carmen Maria Machado collection for several years, and in October, Graywolf Press will oblige with the release of Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of Machado’s haunting, graceful speculative stories that has been longlisted for a National Book Award. The Internet became aware of Machado in 2014 when her story “The Husband Stitch” was published by Granta. “The Husband Stitch” was something new altogether, and went on to be nominated for a Shirley Jackson Aware and a Nebula Award, among other honors. Every new story by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad has further stoked anticipation.
Machado’s stories take place in a version of our real world that has been subtly distorted. Identities blur, women become invisible (literally), and lonely individuals seek intimacy at the end of the world. But these events don’t occur in some alternate science fiction reality; Machado’s spaces are recognizably our own, forcing us into the emotional upheavals of their protagonists. Machado’s writing is both vulnerable and fearless, in complete control even as her characters lose control entirely, and she wields her unique voice to explore identity, marginalization, mental health, and what intimacy looks like in the light and shadow of all three.
We recently had the chance to talk over email about benevolent sexism, urban legends, and her writing process.
The Millions: “The Husband Stitch,” first published in 2014, seemed to be the story that made the Internet perk up and really pay attention to the name Carmen Maria Machado. It’s the story that opens Her Body and Other Parties. What has been the significance of that story and the response to it on your career as a writer and the formation of this collection?
Carmen Maria Machado: I always tell people that they should write the stories they want to see in the world, and that’s advice I try to take as well. I was nursing “The Husband Stitch” in my heart for a very long time—not that structure or narrative specifically, but the emotional arc. I thought a lot about benevolent sexism as a powerful and damaging force, and realized it was a critical note I needed to strike in Her Body and Other Parties. And then, one day, I had the story structure to tell it in a way that felt faithful to my own musings.
Of course, the explosion of interest around that story, and the persistent love of it, is really encouraging to me. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would have that kind of power and longevity. I’m not sure there’s anything more exciting or rewarding as a writer. But I don’t think it has much to do with me as an artist, particularly—rather, I think it was a note that needed to be struck. I think people were hungry for it.
TM: Your comment about benevolent sexism brings up a powerful piece of writing that was one of the first things I ever read by you: your essay “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity” for L.A. Review of Books. My wife and I both grew up in the Evangelical purity culture (and have since left the faith), and the essay spoke to a lot in our own pasts. While Christian purity culture is never mentioned in “The Husband Stitch” (the story takes place well before the emergence of that late-20th-century movement), it grows from the same soil from which that movement would later mushroom. Was that connection on your mind during the writing of this story? How does your background in the Christian purity culture impact your writing?
CMM: I think it serves as a constant reminder to me of what happens when people are not vigilant about the narratives young women absorb about themselves and their bodies and sex and sexuality—how catastrophically damaging they can be. I don’t think I can solve that problem single-handedly or anything, but I can provide an alternate narrative for those who need it.
TM: There’s this fascinating way you intertwine innocence and betrayal in that story without obscuring either. They are separate threads, braided together here—desire that is beautiful and desire that is toxic—and the reader can trace both throughout. Your use of so many old folk tales and urban legends—stories we all passed around among our friends as spooked kids and teenagers—takes the reader back to a more open, unprotected age, and then they’re confronted with the ugliness of patriarchal entitlement. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? What ties those old legends together, and what made you flip them on their heads here?
CMM: I was a Girl Scout for almost my entire childhood, and when we went camping I really loved the part where we told scary, theatrical stories around the campfire. I enjoyed hearing them, and I was really good at telling them. The version of “The Green Ribbon” I heard at that age—which is the one famously retold by Alvin Schwartz—has stuck with me ever since; I don’t know why. (I’ve been trying to explore this very question in an essay.) It’s possible that I was fascinated by the question of the ribbon itself—how did it get there? How did she go her entire life without disturbing it?—but there was something about the ending that really distressed me. Alfred asking and asking and asking, and Jenny relenting on her deathbed. Was she trying to fuck Alfred up as her final act on this earth? Was she just tired of saying “no?” Why did she give him what he wanted? Like the best folktales, the story was spare enough that a reader could project all sorts of things into it; the flatness serves as a kind of scrying pool for whoever is looking inside.
And, so years later, when I was at a residency in New Hampshire, I sat down and found myself combining several ideas: a sex-loving, midcentury housewife, the story’s title—which I’d learned about from my OB-GYN nurse aunt—and the woman with the green ribbon. I revisited all of those questions, to try and find my own answers.
The secondary urban legends and stage directions didn’t come until later drafts. When I went to go add those secondary stories, I consulted Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I flipped through the pages until certain stories spoke to me as ones that could stand one of her retellings. I think urban legends (and folktales, and fairy tales) have this way of showing us what we already know to be true, and I wanted these narratives to reflect that fact.
TM: For you, the speculative elements in your fiction seem to be a way to subtly tug and pluck at the strings of reality on a very personal level. How did you get started writing speculative stories, and how do these elements play in your imagination as a writer?
CMM: I get “into” stories in a number of ways, but a lot of my ideas come from observing what’s around me and pushing into it a little. My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, “What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?” I do this in my own head, too, and sometimes I’ll stop talking mid-sentence and my wife will say to me, “Are you getting an idea right now?” as I run for paper and pen. (Or, if I’m driving, I’ll say, “I’m about to say some weird sentences to you, please text them to me.”)
When I teach, I talk to students a lot about “play,” and how that critical part of your young imagination can be snuffed out if you don’t feed it and take care of it. There’s been a lot of good and interesting writing about this idea of nursing one’s creative subconscious—I’m particularly fond of this essay by Kelly Link—and I think it’s an element of craft that doesn’t get touched on enough. Before plot or dialogue or even character, the mind needs to be observant, nimble, playful, and curious around the world around it. Without that, fiction is DOA.
TM: I’ve found Kelly Link’s thoughts (the essay you linked to) about writing from our obsessions, no matter how trivial they seem, to be tremendously helpful. Do you similarly maintain a list of these obsessions for yourself, as Link does?
CMM: I do! I make lists of obsessions, of fears, of images that strike me, of phrases that might make good titles, of potential formal constraints, of stories only I think I can tell, of memories, of sentences that come to me, of settings that give me a thrill…list-making is so satisfying, and such a useful way of cataloguing what’s going on inside my head.
TM: A number of your stories are only one degree separated from our present reality. A plague is wiping out humanity, or women are becoming incorporeal for no discernible reason, but otherwise the characters and settings are, for lack of a better word, normal. They’re what we’re all living every day, and then this awful warping occurs. What does that method open for you when you’re writing a story?
CMM: As a young woman, I did read some secondary world and/or portal fantasy (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), but my absolute favorite work presented a familiar world with tweaked fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror elements: A Wrinkle in Time, the work of Lois Duncan, Behind the Attic Wall, all of Louis Sachar’s books, John Bellairs. I was not leaving for another world; instead, I was being shown potential avenues of perception in my own world. I don’t think this is, like, aesthetically superior or anything, it’s just what tickled my own imagination. I think it created in me an acute sense that magic could be just around the corner. And quite frankly, so much of our world is just straight-up surreal—look at the current political climate, for example—that this kind of worldbuilding often feels very natural to me.
TM: Who are some writers, past or present, who inspire you creatively?
CMM: I’m particularly indebted to a certain generation of 20th-century writers: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Lois Duncan, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel García Márquez. But there is also an incredible line-up of contemporary folks who have shaped me into the writer I am: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Kevin Brockmeier, Nicholson Baker, Bennett Sims, Sofia Samatar, Alissa Nutting. And I’m discovering more every day: I recently finished Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door and Kathryn Davis’s Duplex—the first novels of those writers I’ve ever read—and I feel like my imagination is firing on every cylinder.
TM: Your book’s title directly reveals a theme that weaves through every story in the collection: women’s bodies, the ways they both serve and betray these women (or are used by others to do the same), the ways they are both pleasured and violated. Can you tell me a bit about that theme and how is defines so much of this collection?
CMM: I am singularly obsessed with the body; even my interest in the mind is rooted in the body, since the two are inseparable from each other. I’d be lying if I said this interest didn’t stem from my relationship with my own body: with moving through the world as a fat, queer, not-quite-white woman, experiencing physical ailments and struggling with mental illness. My mind is housed in my body; my body is flawed and also falls outside of specific culturally-acceptable parameters and is also actively oppressed. It experiences pleasure and brings me joy and it suffers; I fight against it and love it and accept it and loathe it. How better to grapple with these contradictions than write a book about it?
TM: Full disclosure: I have never seen a single episode of Law & Order: SVU. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into your story “Especially Heinous,” which creates a fictional episode listing for the show’s entire run. I found it absolutely fascinating. What was the inception of that novella, and why did you choose such an unusual structure?
CMM: I often tell people that its root was years before, when I’d spent a severe bout of swine flu in front of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, and drifted in and out of feverish consciousness in front of my computer. Whether or not that’s the actual place where it began, during my second year at grad school, I had the idea of writing a story using a television show as its anchor. I initially toyed with idea of taking existing episode capsules from IMDB and simply altering them toward fantasy, but I realized pretty quickly that this format was far too limiting. I did, however, notice that Law & Order: SVU only had single-word titles, which seemed to be as good a jumping-off place as any. The story came together pretty quickly after that—the titles provided a kind of mental springboard, and I bounced between plotlines and pulled everything together. Up until that time it was the longest singular project I’d ever written. (I should add that I intend the story to be readable to folks who haven’t seen Law & Order: SVU; but if you have, there might be some small Easter Eggs you can enjoy.)
I think the structure works for this story for a few reasons. First, we’re very accustomed to marathoning TV nowadays, what with Netflix and other online streaming services, and so in some ways this is like a Netflix marathon from hell. The format also allows the pleasure of cutting one-off “episodes” with continuing storylines, which taps into the reason people enjoy shows with formulas like Law & Order to begin with. This structure doesn’t work for everyone—I received the meanest workshop letter in my entire MFA from a student who very much disliked every element of this story, and derisively referred to it as “fanfiction”—but obviously some folks respond to it very strongly. I don’t mind writing aesthetically divisive work; on the contrary, it’s a real pleasure.
TM: In “The Resident,” you toy with the trope of the misunderstood madwoman forced together with other, “saner” folks (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind), but in this case you redeem her from that relegation to insanity. That story seemed to come from a very personal place?
CMM: When I workshopped a very early version of this story, a reader said, reluctantly, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories.” I felt bowled over by this note, because I, too, dislike sexist tropes about mad women, particularly mad lesbians, and here I’d created a story that centered around them. So I asked her, “What happens if you want to write a first-person story about a woman with mental illness? What do you do then?” She just shrugged.
So I had this massive, sprawling story that felt important to me but ran up against this trope, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As someone who has mental illness—acute, debilitating anxiety—I’ve always been very interested in trying to snatch back narratives that have seemingly been taken away from me. So I decided during my many rewrites—and there were many!—to try and address this idea more forcefully. I reasoned, as long as the story took on these tropes, and she had agency and intelligence and context, she could be as mad as she needed to be. (I should add that I don’t begrudge the note that led me down this path—it was, in fact, critical to the story’s development.)
It also helped that I did a ton of editing for this story under my editor Ethan Nosowsky’s guidance. Many of the other stories in the collection were functionally finished by the time Graywolf bought the collection—they’d been published elsewhere, and had already received thorough edits—but “The Resident” had never seen anything except that very early workshop. Ethan gently told me he thought this story would need the most work out of the entire book, and he was right—we went back and forth on it for ages. There was even a period of time I didn’t think it would appear in the collection at all. Ethan is brilliant, and also not prescriptive—he simply looked at each draft and suggested to me where he thought my subconscious was leading me. And then one day, it all snapped into place.
TM: What’s next for you after the release of Her Body and Other Parties?
CMM: I recently sold a memoir to Graywolf—House in Indiana—which will be coming out in 2019, so next year I’ll be revising that. I’m also at work at a ton of other projects—a new story collection, an essay collection, and a few different novels, though whether or not those take is yet to be determined.