The Reservoir, by David Duchovny (Akashic Books, 128 pp., $19.95)
In “Axolotl,” a short story by Julio Cortázar, a man gazes at a lizard, which, at some point, becomes a lizard gazing at the man. What’s inside is outside; what’s outside is inside. As above, so below.
The Reservoir, a new novella by actor David Duchovny, performs the same trick—except here, the man who is turned inside-out becomes himself. It’s hard to explain, and harder to carry off. And, if carried off, a classic.
And The Reservoir may be a classic. Duchovny’s writing is lapidary, and he maintains complete control of his astonishing narrative. (Watch the cell phone.)
Duchovny’s protagonist, ex-Wall Streeter Ridley, is isolated in his Upper West Side apartment by Covid, though Covid—as with the bubonic plague in Camus’s The Plague—is not merely a disease here but also a social and psychological state, a condition of life. Ridley wants to “Forsak[e] the world while influencing it.”
Throughout, Duchovny embeds references to Western culture like raisins into oatmeal cookies. See if you can find them all. The Secret Sharer is one raisin; Walker in the City is another. “How could he save all from drowning?” echoes Catcher in the Rye. And, after a number of Gatsby references, Duchovny describes a “rosy daisy future.”
The book has a DNA both very American and beyond American. It is first cousin to Melville’s “The Piazza,” in which a man gazes across a valley at another house on another hill, which he then visits, seeing his home from a new perspective. But Duchovny tells his tale in a Mittel European way: it’s as if Melville were being rewritten by Zweig or Werfel or by one of the three great interwar Viennese writers, performers, and café habitues: Alfred Polgar, Egon Friedell (who wrote his own sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine), and the greatest of them, Peter Altenberg, whose statue stands in the Café Central in Vienna. The Reservoir is also cousin to Frederic Morton’s Crosstown Sabbath—another connection to Mittel Europa.
Duchovny’s story is rare in revealing how our ego is really a body ego. Martin Luther may have been spurred to reform Christianity by terrible constipation. (A few prunes may have spared Europe centuries of religious wars.) But most of us, when our body is distressed, are not as acute as we normally are.
“Nothing funnier than a man in pain.” A lot of wisdom in that line.
It is a novel of many well-crafted and complex lines—“Did he know what he was saying or was it enough to know that he was saying something?” “He won’t be gone till she stopped dreaming of him”—that both foreshadow and look back, picking up themes and images to create a dense weave. (Pay attention to the virus-ventriloquist.) Duchovny’s writing is a combination of high and low—and yes, that distinction still exists, if barely.
His metaphors and similes are arresting: “the kickdrum of life,” Manhattan as “a prison yard,” “rats running like rivulets,” the “miracle menorah of a building,” “Of course, God doesn’t play dice; He is the House.”
Or this: a “photograph of God moving through His world.” That set the Emily Dickinson chills blowing off the top of my head. What an image. It conjures the moment when God tells Moses (who wanted to see God) to hide in a cleft of rock and watch as he passes by. But God warns Moses that he can’t survive seeing His face, so he covers Moses’s eyes, and all Moses can see is God’s behind.
With his references to God being a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere, Duchovny has made himself the Pascal of the pandemic.
The Reservoir is an important novel for how it captures, not just where we are now, but where we are forever. Disease—like Covid, or like tuberculosis in The Magic Mountain—takes us on a journey outward and at the same time inward. Both directions lead to the same transcendent consciousness, a state that evokes everything from William Blake’s “America: A Prophecy” to Emerson and Whitman, Vachel Lindsay and Robinson Jeffers.
If The Reservoir is this good, why hasn’t it gotten more reviews? Maybe because mainstream reviewers often resent movie or television stars who swerve out of their lane. If that’s the case, then their problem—like Ridley’s problem in the novel—is that their point of view has been turned inside-out.