Like the artist Balthus, whose painting "The Living Room" appeared on the jacket of her first novel, Labrador, Kathryn Davis sketches the seamier scenes of domestic life with a fancifully diabolical touch. Her richly textured sentences begin in the real, then fold into themselves and fall through trap doors. Put together a novel of these and you have a bizarre, genre-stumping fictional landscape, a place where characters stumble about like sleepwalkers in a bad dream. Her last novel, Hell, featured a family living in a dollhouse. Her first featured an angel who corrupted children.
In her fourth novel, The Walking Tour, Davis addresses two themes--betrayal and time--that prove particularly conducive to her brand of narrative game playing. The novel ostensibly tells the story of a fatal walking tour in Wales. A woman orphaned by that incident attempts to imagine what may have happened on the vacation. This effort becomes a walk through memory's barbed forest--a journey more treacherous than the original voyage.
The Walking Tour begins during an unspecified year in the seacoast town of Pallas, Maine. Susan Rose narrates our story from the ruins of her family's rambling estate. Rose is the daughter of the company SnowWrite & RoseRead's late founder Bobby Rose and Carol Ridingham, a famous painter. Though she has riches and lineage, Rose is hardly secure in her life, thanks in part to her father's invention, a computer chip that allowed readers to interact aggressively with electronic text. As ownership of text dissolved, Susan later explains, so did moral culpability: "The minute you ceased to own your ideas, you could no longer be held responsible for them." In the wake of these events, life as we know it fell apart, and the twin pillars of modern society--property and time--have become meaningless.
In Susan's new world, gypsylike people called Shrags haunt the woods around her. They forage through trash and wash windows at stop signs. One fearless Shrag, a young pot-smoking man named Monkey, shows up on her doorstep and refuses to leave. At night he steals from her and breaks the windows and china in her home. During the day, however, he turns sweet, and with his curious mind helps Rose make sense of the fatal accident that occurred on the walking tour of Wales that her parents took.
To understand the event, Susan must piece together scraps of evidence that have sat around the house, moldering with time. Davis splices these elements into the novel with an elusive but oftentimes elegant touch. There are court transcripts from a negligence trial spawned by the accident. There is the notebook computer that contains the journal of Ridingham's best friend Ruth Barr, who went on the tour with her husband, Coleman Snow (also Bobby's business partner). There is the artwork that survived: poems Rose's mother wrote and signed "c.r."; cryptic postcards sent home; and images that Rose must consider the portent of tragedy. Finally, there are Susan's memories of growing up around the cast of potential killers. All the while, Monkey prods Susan to delve deeper into this sea of material.
While not always the most user-friendly of novels, The Walking Tour is a decidedly heady one. Its patchwork construction from these scraps of testimony challenges readers to play Clue with Rose to its gruesome finale. What emerges is a postmodern version of John Updike's 1968 novel Couples: In addition to Snow and Rose and their wives, the Wales tour included a group of couples and a few lone stragglers there for the joy of traveling. While they have a lot less sex than Updike's randy bunch, the hovering prospect of it turns this group of sedate vacationers into a pretzel of betrayal and deceit.
Though these twists and turns of fate indeed generate suspense, this comes as a mere bonus to Davis's grander project, which is to show how Rose sinks into the slippery, mossy text of the past and shapes a narrative. Rose is our journalist, our metaphysical Joe McGinness, interpreting motive and emotion into what is, at best, a foggy cast of characters. "I'm sure when Leon Edel wrote his biography of Henry James he had so much material at his disposal he had to leave things out," Susan writes at her story's inception. Unlike Edel's narrative, hers will be defined not by what is disposed of, but rather what she adds through her own deeds. Thus, Susan's project reveals to us the weight of our obligation to history: Even with imperfect information, we must lend our efforts to knowing the past--and in the process of doing so, implicate ourselves in its results.