March 28, 2005

Kathryn Davis is the recipient of a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman and the 1999 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her many novels include: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, Hell, and Versailles (among others). Davis teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and lives with her husband and daughter in Vermont.


John Barth reflects in his seminal essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion," that he once was accused of inventing that infamous writer of labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges. This isn’t completely surprising (though it does seem terribly uninformed.) After all, Barth characterizes his own fiction as "novels which imitate the form of the Novel by an author who imitates the role of the Author." And it might be said that Borges—who himself muses, in his own piece, "Borges and I," that he is unsure whether he, the writer Borges, or that other Borges (the author Borges) was the scripter of that essay—might cautiously engage such speculation. From this point, it would be easy for us to don our spelunking gear and begin to negotiate the cavernous warrens of postmodern narrative. But before we enter, we might first want to rethink its shape, and perhaps, even—if we’re willing to take a lesson from Kathryn Davis’ The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf—what tools we need to explore it. After all, in Davis’ work, the boundary between the real and the fantastic, the ordinary and the otherworldly, begins in the far marshier locale of the peat bog whose surface is as equally subtle as it is perilous, and the depths of which threaten to preserve its explorers in a deadly (and unfortunately) eternal realism (to which the perfectly preserved peat bog mummies, such as Tolland Man and Lindow Man, might attest). A ball of twine will not lead us out. There is no map, there is no door. The bog, after all, was not built: it is always there, just a step away, part of an enigmatic terrain we have merely become accustomed to negotiating. In Kathryn Davis’ fiction, however, the landscape is peeled back to reveal its sedimentary layers which, as she writes, "invite entry without offering any possibility of discovery." We are mired in a bog of language. "The sad truth [is]," as one of her characters notes, "no one’s life has even been saved by art."

Instead, her fiction showcases for readers what they have already perhaps sensed: that our words don’t just get away of us, we never had them to begin with. And that the distinction between so-called fictions and so-called truths, the real and the fantastic, is illusory and haunts us. If every story is a "pack of lies," as one of her characters reflects, they also penetrate and inflect the truth. Borges describes it another way, as a "contamination of reality by dream." It takes a bold and elegant writer to parse out these boggy borders, and a particularly plucky one to drive fearlessly forward to evolve our understanding of the substance of fiction itself in a range of situations: from a dollhouse which takes on a life of its own; to operas which are history as much as fable; to the royal corridors of feminine power—to wherever she takes us tonight.

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