Kathryn Davis’ works blend the familiar with the disquieting, the archetypal with the experimental. “The Silk Road” takes this tendency to its apex: It’s about families and journeys, spiked with a heady dose of philosophy and situated on a continually shifting narrative ground. References can be found throughout the novel to the “Savage Domain” and “the dog-headed beast” — but there are also moments set in a yoga studio and on a college campus.

The three novels that “The Silk Road” most resembles are Alan Moore’s “Jerusalem,” which offers a vision of the cosmic manifesting itself in the city of Northampton; Robertson Davies’ “The Manticore,” which is structured around its protagonist’s Jungian analysis; and Donald Antrim’s “The Verificationist,” whose narrator spends much of the novel in a hallucinatory state. That these novels have little in common is telling: Davis is charting unfamiliar territory here.

What “The Silk Road” is about is a hard thing to summarize. Much of the novel is written in the first person plural. There are eight characters referred to by titles (the Archivist, the Topologist, etc.), as well as a woman named Jee Moon who acts as their guide and facilitator. In the first chapter, the characters are in the midst of a yoga session when something goes wrong.

“Later we couldn’t remember which one of us it was who asked if anybody had a mirror to check for breath,” Davis writes — and that invocation of mortality leads this novel even more deeply toward the metaphysical, setting the characters on their journey across a varied geography and through (occasionally shared) memories.

This novel abounds with double meanings. The phrase “corpse pose” shows up a few times, reiterating the yoga motif but also tying it to the absence of life. The novel’s title alludes to the Eurasian trade routes of old, and the references to fleas and insects carrying disease can be seen as a nod to the Silk Road’s complex history: It brought disparate regions of the world into contact, but also aided in the transmission of the bubonic plague.

While reading this slim novel, one gets the sense that Davis has written a book about, well, everything. Her acknowledgments allude to the influence of works ranging from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to the poetry of Louise Glück, and may provide clarification as to her goals. But this novel isn’t a puzzle to be solved; rather, like a reading of Tarot cards (another motif), Davis is channeling the symbolically rich and evocative onto the page. No two readers may interpret this book the same way, or even close to it — but these unexpected and unruly juxtapositions carry plenty of emotional power and philosophical provocation.

 

Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.

The Silk Road
By: Kathryn Davis.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 132 pages, $24.