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Hell: A Novel.

X marks a spot in memory, terribly warped by imagination. It is a real place - as real as a room in any house - and exists for one perilously compressed moment. It is Kathryn Davis' Hell, more highly vertical than even Dante's, a novel that zooms like a telephoto lens in and out of a dollhouse; a home in '50s Philadelphia; and Moss Cottage, home of Edwina Moss, doyenne of nineteenth-century household management. "Irrelevant X at the center of things," muses Davis between these whiplash alightings (to say nothing of side trips to Napoleon's banquet table and Atlantic City's Sands hotel). "Irrelevant X": cheeky irony indeed, considering how much torment soaks the target's heart.

"Something is wrong in the house," the book insists, comically, like a babysitter-slasher B-movie - Hell tricks the reader with Harold-&-Maude benignity just before plummeting into many moments of fetchingly true horror. Something is wrong in all these houses, sunk as they are into cheated foundations, populated by maybe-murdered childhood friends, beaten by hurricanes, labyrinthine as nightmares or the brain itself, threaded always with noisome odors coming from - where?

Within her book's grandly orphic structure, Davis can make hairpin turns in tone, from the flip ("Semidetached - when you think about the fifties, that's a pretty good description of the entire decade") to the eerily lyric ("Like whey through cheesecloth the sun drained through the organdy curtains and across the bow windowsill, over the sofa hump and onto Mrs. O'Rourke's creamy arm."). Davis, no stranger to ghosts, authored two other dreamlike novels: Labrador and The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Neither story matches the complexity or ambition of this one, where centuries melt into each other via a luckless Flemish doll whose head falls off in Philadelphia then tumbles, like Alice down the rabbit-hole, through every level of hell.

The author freely leaks all manner of trouble between her worlds. A suburban father, having suffered a stroke, is left powerless and without appetite. The doll-father, for his part, is stuck on the floor of a house where someone is wired for eternity to a lead horse while the girl in the night-nursery tosses and turns, cruelly sewn into her clothing. Some large god filled the cap of a plastic toothbrush holder with barley, which became cunning doll-food - but that was years ago, and it's moldering. The dolls are fed up. "Unfit to eat, madam," sniffs the butler, who's missing a hand. "Drilled through by maggots." Meanwhile Edwina's husband is being skewered "like a prune" in the Union Army. The Philadelphia daughter, repulsed by the butcher's meat-grinder, has stopped eating - Edwina's daughter is likewise fasting herself to death, but the sent-for doctor proves to belong to an abstemious Spiritualist cult.

Appetite is a table set for abstinence in Hell, whose devil is Antonin Careme, maniacally gifted chef of Napoleon Bonaparte: he haunts Edwina Moss and, through her, the whole spiritually disfigured cast. The book groans under a board of delicacies such as "galantine of eel arranged in coils like a rattler." Everyone is starving and feeding, starving and feeding - a frenzy of attempted control over ill-fated spheres.

Blinding terror of mortality is what allows Davis to greedily link so many "irrelevant" worlds in the space of 192 pages. Such high formal ambition risks self-indulgence, but Hell hardly ever falters. In the book's few addled moments, it's not so much the complex structure clouding Davis's central urgency - more the baroque surface of her language running amok. Images evince an obsessive, maniacal attention to detail, but occasionally accrue at a rate the quirky jump-cut chapters can't assimilate. Hell's conclusion - Edwina's moonstruck, seventeen-page, single-sentence rant - might be its largest concession to experimentation, but it is also the blancmange, that ethereal nineteenth-century concoction, frightfully difficult to prepare, that was supposed to nourish even the most gravely ill. Confected of nothing but almond water, isinglass, and precise chilling, the blancmange surely embodies heaven: no communion, however, for the lost souls of this novel, so bewitchingly damned, so brilliantly sin-pricked, so very much more fascinating than angels.

Joy Katz is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.
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Author:Katz, Joy
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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