Journey to Death: On Kathryn Davis’s “The Silk Road”

By Michelle LatiolaisSeptember 20, 2019

Journey to Death: On Kathryn Davis’s “The Silk Road”

The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis

PERHAPS NO STORY of one’s death can be divorced from the story of one’s origins. One cannot happen without the other. At least, I think that is true. Something cannot die without having been in existence, and that existence is one inexorable march toward annihilation. I have the feeling this is news to no one. How very grim … though not in the hands of Kathryn Davis. The Silk Road will be thought of as a difficult novel, a challenging read, and it might be wise to set aside any desire for palliative care and take up the raucous and demanding work of dying (or living). And though I myself have used the phrase “inexorable march toward annihilation,” perhaps that metaphor, the idea that life is a march, and a march forward, is not all there is. Perhaps this novel also captures life as a Zia, say, an existence going in all six directions, not just north and south and east and west, but also up into the sky and down into the earth. Perhaps this novel is a mandala, or a wheel, a fire, those metaphors for life and death and what might be beyond. The novel is certainly a burning consciousness, “the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.” This sentence is on the novel’s first page, and with respect to dying, and just what this might be or might hold in store, most thoughtful lives have tried out every cultural notion. And probably most of what the human mind conjures about death is metaphorical, a way by which we associate something understood with something incomprehensible. Perhaps the human mind never tires of this work of fathoming its end, of what it might mean, of how it might be made familiar, or made important when death is probably not much more momentous than a grain of sand moved by the wind within millions of other grains of sand.

The Silk Road is first and foremost a repository, a mosh pit of cultures and religions and philosophies on the subject of death … or living, because dying, of course, starts before one is even here! Yes, that moiling chaos of protoplasm, or is it firmament, call it some convening of matter that draws to a focus a human life, produces a mortal coil. The novel writes several early scenes of becoming, of various kinds of births or origins, and the scenes do double duty, beginnings, and they might also be the beginnings of the end, or holding chambers, renderings of paradise or limbo or the beginning of “the year of feeding in the human realm,” a sentence on the novel’s last page.

If one is easy with the notion that this book traffics almost exclusively in metaphor, then this encrusted, intricate, exotic novel can begin this journey along the silk road, or this pilgrimage starting out of the mouth of a volcano on the coast of Spain. There is an internal structure, as the novel’s travelers move from one cairn along the journey to another, and a reader might entertain the various intentions of cairns, markers that guide adherents or pilgrims on their journey. Or are they memorials, creations to mark a death, a life no longer, or merely the idle industry of man, given too many hours within which to get this all over with? All of the small journeys within the big one. Or is it really the infinite journey of the mind cramped inside a smaller, physical existence that will end soon. “We needed to sever the ties of attachment, that much was clear. Our bodies were going to be snatched away, even though we cherished them, our life spans shorter than our memory of what just happened.”

Along the route is a game of Clue in which we move our game pieces around a board, ask big questions, a game of Hangman with its slow accrual of the gallows’ parts, and a game of Sardines, too, in which a hiding place must be found that will accommodate everyone, as a life gathers a huge cast of characters. In play, too, is a yoga class lying on mats for Savasana, the pose of total relaxation, final resting place, corpse pose.

There is an “us” on this journey, a cast of characters named only as the Cook, the Astronomer, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Archivist, the Geographer, the Topologist, the Iceman, all active along the way, and who are variously difficult or helpful. The intimacy among them might suggest to the reader that they are aspects of one consciousness, a “you.” Or they are siblings, all members of one family working within a collective memory of their past that is usually far from being in agreement. There is also this nanny, whom they exchange stories about, and a mother and a father, and a big house on Fairmount Avenue in clear view of a prison, and this last may be one of the novel’s finest, most extended metaphors. Life with its promise of imprisonment, its monolithic — read institutional — ever-present certitude, what waits for one after one’s period of probation is up, or after you’ve broken parole, been out too long, and are returned.

We forget to laugh with writers whose work scares us, or challenges us, or makes us heft up the huge Webster’s Third International onto the couch too many times because not even the internet is giving us a definition of that word — or not a good one, not with cognates. There are hilarious passages in the work of William Faulkner, or old Cormac McCarthy, pre–National Book Award McCarthy, and there are passages in The Silk Road of great humor and delicious bawdiness. What is this great cosmic void from which we hail? Perhaps a child’s earliest reckonings with darkness, with questions of origins, is looking at his mother’s backside as she leans down to kiss goodnight a sibling. “From behind you could see up her skirt. […] You could see where the tops of her stockings attached to the garter belt.” The Cook weighs in, so, too, the Geographer — “He put his hand up there, said the Archivist. She let him. He could fit his whole hand inside her, said the Cook” — and on and on the musings, the fantastical glimmerings of what sex might be, of what has caused them to be here, and how puzzling the lack of maternal reception is when they ask to be once again inside her. Only her perfume can envelope them now: “Our mother, on the other hand, smelled like perfume, the kind of dense yet hollow smell a body cavity exudes after pleasure.” And here is yet another astounding metaphor for living, for the journey: sexual arousal, a kind of atmospheric orgasm, les petites morts, as the French say.

As promised, the trail didn’t descend sharply, nor was it rock-strewn. If anything it was resilient underfoot, a moist web of vegetation, pale green and translucent like a luna moth’s wings. While she walked, [she] felt herself becoming aroused. It was as if whatever lay beneath her had its attention fixed amorously on the cleft between her legs. She felt like she was naked from the waist down, hungrily observed and getting wet, her breath coming faster and faster.

What is frustratingly odd to me in listening to so much criticism of writing is an insistence on “realism,” an insistence on the narrative world working in the way that the reader deems the actual world to be working. I find most contemporary writing categorized as realism more fantastical in its insistence on the stripped-down, simplistic worlds that seem more wishful thinking than anything resembling the chaos of life.

Kathryn Davis’s novel The Silk Road is an act of profound and uproarious consciousness in the face of so much that is involuntary and inescapable: the workings and failings of our physical bodies. As much as science might inform us, as startling as seeing our MRI-ed selves as the T-bone steaks that we are, as enlightening as watching a digestive system work through a vitrine mounted in the side of a living cow, as much as this is knowledge, it still really does not quite inform our psyches because all of that biology happens whether we want it to or not. I may come to understand through science just how this radish I popped in my mouth will progress down my esophagus and into my stomach and then around and about, and out my backside, but, for the most part, I do not feel that happening, nor do I control it, nor am I conscious of it.

“What’s the big idea?” asks Nanny, and the collective speaker of the novel thinks, “That was the question, really. The thing is, we were all caught in the flood of time but without a back-pool or sluggish eddy or swamp root or anything to catch on, to get a grip on, to stop long enough to have a look at what we were becoming or had become.”

The Silk Road is precisely that, a handhold in the flood of time, a not particularly sluggish eddy, but an eddy nonetheless: “Swing low, Sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home.” Go with the metaphors, entertain them all, that’s the life we have, language, our parole. That chariot ain’t here yet.


Michelle Latiolais is a fiction writer and professor at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Michelle Latiolais is an English professor and co-director of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine. Her novel Even Now won the Gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California. Her most recent novel, A Proper Knowledge, was published by Bellevue Literary Press. Widow was largely written after the tragic death of Latiolais’ husband, and her stories explore the physiology of grief — reminding us that the inner life is best understood through the medium of storytelling.


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