I don't think I've said much on this blog about Kathryn Davis, whose peculiar novels have earned her something of an obscure-genius status among people who read peculiar, obscure things. Needless to say, I'm one of those people--I think Davis is a fantastic writer.
One book of hers I fully expected to love when it was published is Hell, a slim, nightmarish novel about several households in the grip of suffering. For some reason, though, I couldn't get through it. I have felt rather guilty about this for some time, and maybe that was what made me add it to the syllabus of my ongoing Weird Stories class--if I assigned the thing, I figured, I'd be forced to read it, and would get to drag a bunch of students down with me in the process.
As it happens, though, I loved it this time--and a few students seem to have had the same experience. Tried it once, didn't like it, read it again, thought it was great.
Why should this be? I think that the problem, for me anyway, was that Hell doesn't make the slightest attempt to adhere to any traditional form of narrative momentum--yes, it jumps around in time, but it also blurs the lines between these times, so that you never know when you are. To make matters worse, the characters bleed into one another, and an apparent murder mystery that emerges halfway through (yes, there's even a detective) remains, in the end, firmly unresolved.
It's not that I need narrative linearity to enjoy a story. But it's certainly an approach to story that I am programmed to expect and appreciate. Hell defies this convention, and at first doesn't seem to offer anything to replace it--as a representation of lived life, the book is utterly incoherent, and the rules for reading it do not appear, at first look, to be built in. But on the second read, a pattern emerges. Hell is built in translucent layers, each layer a household at a particular time and place. There's the narrator's childhood home, and then that same home thirty years later. There is the doll house the narrator plays with as a child (filled with its own existentially-challenged "characters" in the form of her dolls), and the home of Edwina Moss, a cookbook author of the late nineteenth century who seems to have lost her mind. There is the home of a dissolute (and possibly murderous) bachelor, and briefly, we get the court of Napoleon. None of this is supposed to make narrative sense--but it all does make thematic sense. Stack up the layers, then hold them up to the light; a picture begins to emerge. During class yesterday, I was suddenly reminded of an old game show, Camouflage, on which contestants had to try to find images hidden in a complicated line drawing, made up of layers that were stripped away over several rounds. It was my favorite game show ever, I think (though that YouTube link above doesn't do it justice--or doesn't do my memory of it justice, anyhow).
Anyway, once I had this idea--that the book was a palimpsest, with the places, events, and characters all existing in parallel planes, casting shadows over one another, sharing characteristics, combining and pulling apart--I thought the book was great. I still do. I also realized for the first time what a dedicated Woolfian Davis is--the dreamy precision of her prose, her preoccupation with history's bearing on the domestic sphere, her disinclination to embrace the conventional satisfactions of the novel. I can now recommend Hell as strongly as Labrador and The Walking Tour, two books I push upon everybody.