So enigmatic, so elliptical, so implacably strange are the stories of Lydia Davis, the reader is tempted to avoid reckoning with any single one; instead he might choose to see them as fragments of a larger, more coherent project, like diary extracts, jigsaw pieces, cut-up reels of film. How else to make sense, for instance, of the one-sentence ‘Tropical Storm’, which runs in its perplexing entirety, ‘Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become “better organized”’? Or of the slightly longer ‘A Mown Lawn’ (all of one paragraph), which, standing alone, looks like no more than a bit of high-minded wordplay, an elegant joke? The desire one has to organize these varied strands and shards under some kind of rubric is of course tribute to Davis’ unusual talent for inciting a readerly longing, a careful ache for resolution – if she were no good, nobody would be much bothered – but such a desire might also diminish, or defer, the page-by-page pleasures which are as vital to her style as are its secrets and riddles and negative spaces.
Negative spaces, especially: if Davis has a territory, it is the lacuna which lies between one person and another, that non-place of the soul where the self and the other meet, or fail to meet. The emptied textures of this borderland are to Davis what the pubs of Dublin were to Joyce, the ghettos of Chicago to Bellow. ‘Mr Knockly’, first published in the collection Almost No Memory, takes place firmly in this realm.
Set among so many abstract morsels, ‘Mr Knockly’ – in particular its opening paragraph – looks disorientingly literal, and lyrical; the first few sentences seem to be setting up a very different kind of story. Here they are:
Last fall my aunt burned to death when the boardinghouse where she lived went up in flames. There was nothing left of her but a small pile of half-destroyed objects in one corner of her room, where I think she must have been sitting when the fire broke out: her false teeth, the frames of her glasses, her pearls, the eyelets of her leather boots, and her two long knitting needles coiled like snakes in the ash.
There is an almost nineteenth century feeling to these words, with their promise of such unDavislike excitements as mystery and adventure, plot and event. Notice how she keeps the language in a state of grey simplicity, so simple it borders on cliché (“went up in flames”, “the fire broke out”), right until she gets to that elegant list of the aunt’s objets trouvés, concluding with the memorable image of the woman’s burned needles, “coiled like snakes in the ash.” One of the remarkable features of Davis’ writing is the absolute control she wields. She knows that there is a time for prose and a time for poetry, and she is almost Lentenly willing to drain her sentences of colour if a flash of something vivid is oncoming.
Around the ruins of the aunt’s boardinghouse, people come to gather. Friends of the dead search through the ashes like “lonely ants, wheeling and backtracking”, and occasionally “a woman cried out in horror and was taken away”. (I love the sinister passivity of that was taken away). The narrator is standing close to the ruins, and she notices among the mourners a man called Mr Knockly, identified only as her “aunt’s old lover”, a man with a “face like a white pimple.” She approaches him, and he runs away: “He moved as though he had been wounded in the legs and arms, the chest, the neck, as though he had been shot full of holes.”
The rest of the story is concerned with the narrator’s increasingly obsessive pursuit of this pimple-faced mystery man. One night, in the strange, foggy, post-industrial city where she lives, she encounters him again. She is (for no good reason) standing in a “muddy lane” behind a seafood restaurant, when he appears from the back door, wearing a “white work shirt and white apron with a red anchor on it”, and begins emptying a “a small garbage pail into one of the large ones.” She once again tries to get him to speak, but only startles him. He spills the rubbish and stares back at her:
I said something to him, and for a moment I thought he would answer: his face moved, his lips unstuck. But when I put out my hand to take hold of him, he shied away and went indoors. There was a break in the noise from the kitchen. I stood there sinking into the mud and looking at the spilled garbage: crab’s claws, sauce.
“Crab’s claws, sauce” – things only get stranger from here. The narrator, who betrays nothing at all about herself, except that she likes to walk the streets at night, begins to act very oddly indeed. She keeps returning, evening after evening, to the seafood restaurant where Mr Knockly works. Davis beautifully captures the loneliness, the purposelessness of her narrator, an obviously unwell woman who spends her time wandering the dingy, nocturnal streets and lanes, in which there resides a Hopper-like urban melancholy, a glamorous, isolating mist. Look at this sentence, where the narrator is again outside Mr Knockly’s restaurant:
I would stop on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, pushed back and forth by the people passing behind me, and stare at the red neon anchor in the window, the tables inside, the cashier’s desk, the waitresses, the manager, and the assistant manager, with whom I had once had some unpleasant dealings.
Davis is more well known for what might be called analytic sentences, in which a word or phrase or state of mind is picked apart and played with until it begins to mean something else, or nothing at all, but here she is in a more familiar, realist mode. Clearly, she can do both. The cinematic clarity of those tables and bodies visible behind the “red neon anchor”, the sense of alienation and aloneness that is never baldly stated but alluded to in the people pushing past, and then that perfect touch of comedy at the end about the assistant manager – it’s sentences like this one that make Davis such a puzzlingly addictive writer. Even if the shapes of her stories are sometimes frustrating, their microbeauties are always there, and always worth it.
The narrator continues to stalk Mr Knockly. A routine develops; she waits for him to finish his shift and then follows him from the restaurant until she loses him (“always his brown coat ahead of me like a smudge in the gloom”). One night she follows him all the way to a grim part of town, full of warehouses and prostitutes, and into a bar there. She spends some time lingering at the entrance; when she eventually goes inside she finds him resting his head on a prostitute’s lap. He seems to be asleep. “Then, as I stood there,” she reports, “the woman picked up her glass and emptied a little beer into his eyes, and into his ear. He hardly moved, only kicked the back of the bench with his foot.”
Weeks pass. She keeps herself away from him and from the restaurant. When finally she works up the courage to return, she discovers that he no longer works there. The next time she sees him he is clearly a broken man, probably drunk, hardly able to stand, yet “jabbing the air with his fists”. He harasses a woman, and then manages to get himself kicked out of a movie theatre. She follows him once more, this time fully chasing him. “I went after him under the fire escapes” she says. “Though I had nearly caught up with him at the next corner, when I turned it the street was empty.” Then, after another account of her meanderings (where she explores “the blanket of grass beyond the factories, the rutted road that skirted the woods” and the “bridge over the narrow part of the river”), she tersely reports that “When Mr Knockly died, I was there.” His body lies at the edge of the city dump. A crowd of men are poking it. She reports his murder, and when they ask for her name she hangs up. The story ends there, on a note of ominous ambiguity.
Having just summarized the “plot” of ‘Mr Knockly’, having lingered a while on its weird details and its weirder characters, it seems to me now that this story resembles nothing so much as a David Lynch film. To me, Lynch is still the best filmmaker alive, and I tend to love writers who can trouble me into a similarly delicious trance (Bolano could, in 2666; Bernhard could, in Correction; Kafka could, in almost everything he wrote). Davis, at first, seems utterly unlike Lynch – there are few dwarves and fewer dumpster-devils in her work – yet in this story one senses all kinds of correspondences between the two artists. As with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, ‘Mr Knockly’ proceeds by its own obscure logic, generating drama not so much by means of smooth narrative development, but by the dreamlike accumulation of imagery. And what could be more Lynchian than the images that fill Davis’ text? Look again at the opening stave, and at those false teeth recovered from the ashes – haven’t they the taste of Blue Velvet’s severed ear, which sets Jeffrey’s demented odyssey in motion? Elsewhere, there are rusted-over factories and warehouses, spooky movie houses, the filthy bar with its prostitutes, the seafood restaurant with its atmospheric “red neon anchor” in the window and the smoky, garbage-strewn alley behind – all could have been tickled out of the great man’s forehead.
If Lynch was in fact on Davis’ mind when she wrote ‘Mr Knockly’, then perhaps a Lynch-style analysis is what her story deserves. The reader first might ask the question, Who really is this narrator? It might then occur to him that no gender is ever given. If our night-dweller is actually a man, then Mr Knockly’s tendency to keep running away from him might make more sense. One could go further. How do we know that our narrator isn’t a far more sinister creature than he/she originally appears to be? How do we know he/she wasn’t responsible for the fire that killed the aunt, or for the murder of Mr Knockly (which is maybe hinted at in the final line about calling the police)? Is it possible that Mr Knockly and our narrator were both responsible for the aunt’s death? Are Mr Knockly’s unusual activities the spasms of guilt, rather than of mourning? Does Mr Knockly exist at all? Does the narrator? Are they one and the same? Or is the narrator in fact the ghost of the dead aunt, haunting Mr Knockly, and finally killing him? (We’re getting into real Lynch territory now). Lynch’s greatest film, Mulholland Drive, appears at first to be a straightforward(ish) amateur detective story, only to morph toward the end into something else. The parts that are presented as reality turn out merely to be episodes in a dream, a smoke-filled nightmare in which the disappointments of a failed actress – the disappointments, but also the erotic obsessions, the paranoia, the self-disgust, and, above all, the guilt of having murdered her ex-lover – take on surreal shape and sound. Is Davis’ story such a dream?
Or, more simply, is it the tale it seems to be, the story of one damaged person pursuing another damaged person through a dark, damaged landscape, and hence pretty consistent with this writer’s lifelong theme? Is it one more artful reminder that other people are, if not hell then purgatory, voids that don’t seem like voids until you’re caught inside them? Who knows? All I will say by way of conclusion is that Lydia Davis is a dazzlingly good writer, one of America’s best, and that her stories are themselves little voids, by which the reader might well end up chewed and then swallowed, and then left to float in ambiguity, seemingly forever, or at least until he reads the next one.