The Walking Tour
Kathryn Davis
Houghton Mifflin, $23 (cloth)


In her new novel, The Walking Tour, as in her three previous books, Kathryn Davis takes what would seem to be a simple story and complicates it almost beyond recognition. In itself this is not exceptional, but what’s striking about Davis’s work is the peculiar concentration of careful art and pure fury with which she pursues her digressions. She doesn’t illuminate the complications intrinsic to a story, or embellish it with odd new ones, so much as subject it to attack, invade it. She multiplies and fractures narratives, ropes in elements from myth, history, natural history, and fairy tale, accumulates allusions, superimposes characters, raises expectations and then lets them hang. The effect–like a cross between Nabokov and Plath–also reminds me of something Pierre Boulez once said: "We must take delirium and organize it."

In The Walking Tourthe fundamental story, set in the present, is of two American couples on a tour of Wales. Bobby Rose and Coleman Snowe are partners in a wildly successful computer business. Their wives, Carol and Ruth, who occupy the foreground of the novel, have been friends from childhood, though their relationship is perhaps better described as a rivalry. Carol is now a famous painter. She is also said to suffer from schizophrenia. Nobody in the group is very happy in marriage. In the course of the tour, longstanding sexual and financial tensions between the couples grow increasingly acute until at last the disaster that has been heralded from the start of the book arrives. The party is caught in a freak storm of savage violence. Carol, separated from the group on an outcrop over the sea, is blown, or jumps, into the water. Coleman (who we have learned has long been hopelessly in love with Carol) is swept off too as he dashes haplessly to the rescue.

So far, so good. But the complications and distortions come quickly. For one thing, the story is recounted from an unspecified point in the future by Carol and Bobby’s daughter, Susan, who ponders the letters her mother sent her from Wales and the transcript of the rather farcical suit for wrongful death that followed the tour. But from Susan’s distance the details are unclear, and as she seeks to make them out, she is increasingly drawn into what looks like, from the reader’s own uncertain vantage, making them up. Meanwhile the world at large, in the years since the ill-fated walking tour, has gone badly wrong. Davis sketches a scene from a Mad Max movie: bands of illiterate scavengers ("Strags") roam the American continent; basic services are in collapse; supplies are dwindling.

And all this has something to do with the computer technology that was the foundation of Bobby and Coleman’s success. Their innovation had been to find a way in which computer users’ thoughts could act directly on text, thus breaking down the firewalls between mind and reality. As a consequence, a cloud of shifting impressions, a vague fluctuating mass of unsecured information, has come to obscure whatever used to be taken as truth. The actual physical substance of things seems to have been compromised–they are crumbling away by a process akin to rust–and everything is literally disappearing, in a gray dismal fog.

After the walking tour came the end of the world. The one thing seems to have led to the other, but just how is unclear (even if Bobby and Coleman’s cyberstunts did bring things to this pass, it is not obvious how the character of their responsibility is mirrored in the specific events of the tour). Bobby’s philandering may have driven Carol to her doom (a relation that Davis glosses allegorically as the betrayal of Art by Business), but then again Carol’s leap may just as well have been determined by her otherworldly character–or madness. And Susan’s compulsive reconstruction of the past may reflect her damaged and embittered vision more than anything else. There is in any case a disproportion between the various private and public disasters involved, but it is one that Davis doesn’t try to smooth over or explain away; she is content to let be, even to loom large. It is like a blind spot in the center of vision, and in The Walking Tour, where inner and outer worlds have merged into a single haunted dimension, where everything both does and doesn’t connect, it is just this blind spot that Davis wants us to see.

Thus, though Davis introduces various ways of making sense of what happens–psychological, allegorical, historical, mythical (the fog that covers the world comes from a tale in the Mabinogion, the medieval Welsh collection of Celtic myths)–they swirl around without assuming final definition. Past, present, and future bleed uncontrollably into each other, and what the novel finally conveys most distinctly is a kind of terror at the elusiveness of time, place, and person, even as it insists on a sense of inescapable moral responsibility in spite of that. In the end someone (all of us) will really have to answer, right?

There is a comprehensive sense of crisis, so much so that it runs the risk of seeming irrelevant. At times the apocalyptic thrust of the book seems more willed than realized, especially since the characters’ various faults and frailties are, all things considered, ordinary enough. But the urgency and engagement in the book’s execution, its compressed plot, its astringent, percussive sentences, its mix of the sarcastic and the lyrical, make up for that. Without a doubt, Davis writes beautifully. Her prose conveys actuality and commands attention, much as Carol’s intricate and crowded paintings, where "everything [is] equally vivid and detailed as if the normal rules of perspective don’t apply," are said to.

Carol, we are also told, is very interested in "anamorphosis … using tricks of perspective to so distort an object, to so radically flatten and stretch it that it can be comprehended only from an unusual angle or through a special lens." Behind this is the example of Holbein’s great painting The Ambassadors. Two resplendent Elizabethan gentlemen are depicted standing before an array of books and scientific instruments, proud of their attainments, confident in their prospects. In the foreground, however, a strange dark blot, like an outsize mote in the eye, appears, and only when the viewer assumes an unnatural position near the ground does this anamorphic image become proportional as a skull. Like Holbein’s painting, the carefully finished surface of The Walking Tour violently compresses disjunct forms of awareness, the better to make the treacherous rifts between them all the more vertiginously apparent.

"Modern poetry," E. M. Forster once remarked, "is obscure and minatory." Much the same could be said of Davis’s intricate and bracingly poetic novel. Forster, of course, intended a putdown, but at the same time offered a certain tribute. He saw that behind modernist experimentation is a sense that the given forms are inadequate, that they must be called to account in the name of some still undiscerned good. Davis wants to write books from which we can’t escape, and in a way she does too good a job: the work is so distinctive and fine that one is almost content simply to step back and admire. Her new book is like a strange glittering weapon hanging in the void. It’s hard to know what to do with it, but it’s impossible to ignore.