With a scope no smaller than human existence and no greater than the life span of a flea, Davis’ (Duplex, 2013, etc.) eighth novel navigates the territory of history, faith, family, and mortality on the backs of a caravan of cosmic siblings.
The Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman, and the Cook are the archetypical siblings of this haunting novel, which opens in a yoga class held in the heart of a labyrinth deep below an icy settlement at the literal end of the world. Led by the enigmatic Jee Moon, the group is meditating in corpse pose at the end of a strenuous practice. When one of them fails to arise, the remaining characters are thrust on a journey of memory through which they carry their shared childhood “like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.” It is from this slender thread that all resemblance to traditional narrative is woven. In keeping with Davis’ earlier novels—which explore interstices, numinous metamorphosis, and the stretching, twisting, crumpling, bending space between being and nonbeing—her latest effort takes place in a realm of almost pure language. The siblings’ childhoods together on Fairmount Avenue with their great and terrible Mother, their unknowable Father, and their untrustworthy Nanny occur in simultaneity with their adult lives, their separate journeys to the settlement (a symbol of the Tibetan bardo), and their future journeys toward enlightenment. The reader gathers a sense of their characteristics—the Botanist is humorless and idly flirtatious, the Iceman is bluff and lovable. However, these characteristics are meant less as markers to delineate individual characters than they are facets of the single, complex temperament of a family, or a generation, or an entire species. So, too, is the reader encouraged to relax their expectation of the book as a chronology and instead approach Davis’ singular object as a limbo of the now in which all gestures carry equal weight, all characters are interchangeable, all perspectives are “we.” The challenges of this kind of approach are formidable, but the tenacity of Davis’ language, her spellbinding images and spellbound objects, the fragile beauty of the worlds she creates in the moment of their destruction reward an open-minded reader’s labors.
A book that stuns, almost literally, with its force and its humility. A tender book. A savage book. A once-in-a-lifetime story.