Reading Like a Writer: Frame Stories, Wonder, and Duplex

Posted on Fri, Jun 20 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

Kathryn Davis's Duplex is told in the first-person omniscient voice—I rambled on about it in a previous column. But it's not the only voice she uses to tell the story. In her novel about robots, sorcerers, sex, and the suburbs, she occasionally hands the narration to a different character, Janice, who relates the world's mythology.

It's not that the narration shifts perspectives but that Davis employs a frame structure. The original narrator doesn't disappear, just hides, temporarily, behind another.

But why should the narrator hide? Davis has found a compelling voice in her original narrator, one with personality and authority, one who knows all the dirt. If a student pulled a stunt like this—switching storytellers midway—I might protest. I might advise to keep it simple, (stupid).

Well, Davis is not about keeping it simple.

As discussed in the earlier column, Davis implies a listener who is inside the world she's describing. This strategy helps us accept the fabulous aspects of the world without wasting time on elaborate description. But there are still parts that need description and it's hard to believe that this particular voice would have reason to give it. Perhaps the narrator dismisses the mythology as too well known to be worth telling. Janice has different motives, as do her listeners, and can tell the story more naturally.

But I also believe that something stranger is happening in the framed story, something more impressive. I believe that the primary narrator, the effaced first-person, becomes apparent in the hiding.

Janice, the secondary teller, has a body. She "smears her thighs with suntan lotion." "Her nipples disappeared in one big thing called a bosom."

The original narrator does not have a body, not one that's described. But, paradoxically, every time I learn about Janice as a physical character (Can she be physical? She's made up! That's the magic, right?), I wonder about the other narrator—the one without a described body. And these questions give the narrator a different type of body. I may not get to see the primary narrator rub sunscreen on her thighs, but because I wonder about them, she acquires ghost thighs in my mind. I don't know this other narrator's history either, but when I hear Janice's history, I wonder about it, and that past becomes a mystery rather than a non-entity. A ghost.

A related thing happens as a result of the peanut gallery that Davis employs in Janice's sections.

We don't just get Janice; we also get a group of young girls listening and responding. Thus, the listener (the all-important listener) is embodied, animated, and given agency.

They walked and walked and walked and meanwhile the moon was practically on top of them, like they could touch it. Like they could stick a finger in one of the craters—you’ve all seen the moon do that.    

My dad says that’s just an optical illusion, someone said.

If your dad’s such a genius, why did he ever have you? said someone else.

The curly-haired girl moved a little closer. I wouldn’t dream of touching the moon with my two arms, she said. She was quoting the poet again but no one cared. They were too busy listening to Janice.

Like Janice, these listeners have bodies, personalities, and histories.

And they don't just listen, they question. They doubt. They get distracted and talk about other things. Their remarks remind that life is happening outside the story and carry the story outward, into their lives.

The story moves both ways—from teller to listener and from listener to teller. In this way, the book acknowledges that Janice's story is not the universal story, but just her version of it, twisted further by her audience.

Janice even admits that she's leaving parts out, that there are details she doesn't care about. When asked the number of aquanauts: "What difference does it make? I don’t know… Maybe four. Maybe five."

And this sense of the telling and retelling, of the story changing as it moves from Janice to the girls, as a teller twists it and as a listener doubts it, opens up a remarkable mind space for the reader. A space where ghosts can live, where a certain type of un-pin-down-able idea can flourish.

The chorus of listeners shows the mythology's alternate versions—all versions exist at once!—and makes us trust the story both more and less. Everyone knows the story and no one does. Everyone believes it, sort of, while not believing it at all. I believe it's in this fantastic space between believing and not believing that wonder occurs. When we believe and disbelieve at the same time, when we hold contradictory ideas, we experience that breathtaking feeling.

It's in this space, with a different character seizing authorship and the reader's mind open to wonder, that we best get to understand the original narrator as a person instead of a bodiless voice. When the narrator hands the mythology to Janice, that pushing away of the story gives shape to the original teller. The narrator steps back with the attitude of "that's not how I would tell it." And there she is! It's where the narrator differentiates herself, even as she identifies with the group of girls listening to Janice's stories.

So the teller has flipped to be the listener—does that make the listener flip to be the teller? Not exactly. But it does emphasize that the listener is also, always, the interpreter.

One of the many things I love about this book is the way it recognizes a complicated relationship between the words and the reader—and then exploits that relationship. It acknowledges the role of interpretation, guiding us to interpret the story a certain way, of course, but winking the whole time.

When has a book inspired wonder in you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.