Kathryn Davis has already published several wickedly inventive novels with titles like The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf and Hell, which is only to say that her decision to call her latest book The Walking Tour lends a deceptively innocuous air to yet another tour de force of twisted imagination. Davis’s particular gift is to be at once uproarious and lyrical, never a standard combination. The Walking Tour is ripe with evocative prose that always manages to undercut itself neatly: “The sun is just starting to turn the sky across the road a pale pinkish gold, as well as all the east-facing windows. Birds are singing loudly, the way they do after a rain. It’s a nice day, Friday the thirteenth.”
Meet Susan R. Rose, the narrator of The Walking Tour, whose bristling, mordant worldview makes her a kind of kindred spirit to Wednesday Addams. Susan is all grown up and living alone in her parents’ house in Maine sometime not so far into the next millennium, but the time she pieces together is at the close of our fair century, when she was a young teen, a moment when technology and greed threatened to cancel out all that is human. The novel follows Susan’s attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding a fateful walking tour in Wales, which her parents—the charismatic, schizophrenic painter Carole Ridingham and the horny, mercenary Robert “Bobby” Rose—undertook with a group of fellow travelers. Essentially a retrospective mystery, The Walking Tour has elements of the joke book as well as the elegy.
Carole never returned from the walking tour, the victim of a mysterious drowning at sea—a most 19th-century death for a mother mourned from the 21st century. Such temporal crisscrossing is one of Davis’s great joys. No one really knows what happened, though it seems some blame must lie in Bobby’s lucrative Internet venture with a man named “Uncle” Coleman who—along with his wife and Carole’s childhood best friend, the rapaciously flirty “Aunt” Ruth—is also on the walking tour. Bobby and Coleman founded a company called SnowWrite & RoseRead, which introduced an invasive editing program that rewrites others’ thoughts. Explains Susan:
When Bobby’s business took collaboration as its model, insisting that every great idea had its roots in many minds, what it meant was that you couldn’t write a single sentence without watching it get tampered with, “improved,” “perfected.” And of course the minute you ceased to own your ideas, you could no longer be held responsible for them. The dish ran away with the spoon, as my mother said, by which she meant, when art went out the window, morality went along with it.
Given her pledge to the ethos of originality, it’s a smidge ironic that Susan’s own “book” is mostly a pastiche of found sources that she’s assembled to propel her quest: court transcripts, florid Welsh myth, Aunt Ruth’s diaries, travel snapshots, and her mother’s drawings and effusive, lowercased letters (“darling thank u! thank u! meds arrived today & so a good night for once tho moon was full & RIGHT THERE doing its best to drive me mad”). Then again, Susan’s identity seems to be based solely on being the flippant daughter of a genius mom and a filthy rich dad: She is pure conduit, channeling a wild confluence of disparate texts.
Apart from the repeated appearance of an odd young male stalker named Monkey, who overinvolves himself in Susan’s obsession with her mother’s demise, The Walking Tour sticks mainly to an evocation of the titular subject. Davis perfectly captures the feeling of being stuck with a cluster of neurotic people in a bruising climate where they hike all day in dampness and work one another’s last available nerve at night.
While her mode is often high comic, Davis’s point is clearly to send out a twilight warning, filling The Walking Tour with memories of heavy snowfalls killed off by global warming and a pastoral world unsullied by the distractions of point-and-click. Computers can always undo all that we try to create (a fact made evident in one great scene where Ruth’s screen sucks back her words before her very eyes), and sense memory is a precious, if painful, commodity. Ruminates Susan of her parents:
How clearly their voices come back to me! Except these aren’t figments of my imagination but real voices adrift on waves of yellow sunlight, linseed oil and oil of cloves glowing in jam jars, a steaming pot of China tea, and out the window a sprinkler fanning its rainbow of water from side to side. Everyone knows that to get rid of a part of the past completely, the part of the brain that remembers must be surgically removed—an extreme measure, though not unheard of.
In The Walking Tour, Davis makes a sidelong but utterly persuasive argument for embracing, rather than shunning, all that life leaves behind.