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.