The progeny of our current pandemic is various: illness and death, of course, but also economic dislocation and personal isolation, the concept of ‘social distancing’ having quickly morphed from an advisory into a way of life. David Duchovny’s excellent new novella, The Reservoir, is a fever dream born out of this isolation.
The narrator effectively drills into the psyche of Ridley, the bumbling and darkly comedic protagonist, with only the slightest narrative distance from Ridley’s stream of consciousness. And quite an odd stream it is – a meandering tributary of New York’s Central Park Reservoir.
Ridley’s mind is a jumble of shallow misunderstandings: of psychology and physics, of personal motives and behavior, of social customs, nature, and history. Over-thinking everything in his very peculiar way, he has never, according to his ex-spouse, enjoyed life. Despite being long divorced (and estranged from his daughter and her children) and long retired from a mid-level career on Wall Street, he has become lonely, isolating himself in his apartment high above the Reservoir.
In his hyperactive mind, Ridley begins to draw connections that are just concatenations of data points: the history of Central Park (“an unmarked graveyard for enslaved people and indigents”, generating “unsettled ghosts”) and 9/11 (when the city was unified “in a brotherhood of victimhood”) and the pandemic lockdown itself (he thinks that “the virus was speaking through him like a ventriloquist”).
Feeling the need to reconnect – not with his family but with the world at large – he believes that he is “something of an artist” and wants to create an artistic legacy, something “zeitgeisty”, by setting his phone on the windowsill each night with the camera in time-lapse mode. He wonders if, as an artist, he needs “to know what he was saying or was it enough to know that he was saying something. Yeah, it was enough,” he concludes.
The plot’s throughline emerges when Ridley checks his video and notices a light flashing in a regular pattern in a high-rise window far across Central Park as if someone there were likewise trying to communicate with the world – in this case, by “riding the switch” during the night. Readers might see this tale as a 21st-century version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, spied-upon information – but now without content, just on-and-off, dot-and-dash, binary bits.
Here begins a downward spiral for Ridley. He convinces himself that the person at the light switch, whom he thinks must surely be a woman, is trying to communicate not with the world but with him. He begins to toggle his light switch in response, on and off, throughout the ensuing long nights. Ridley ventures outside to stake out the building he thinks might be that of the mystery woman (he removes his mask to take in the Central Park air and enjoy a ‘dirty-water stand’ hotdog, “virus be damned”), but the doorman at the building chases him away.
Later, after returning to his apartment window, Ridley observes a woman standing under a streetlight, looking up at his building before receding into the darkness. Surmising that she is the light-switch jockey and has come looking for him, he decides to head out to follow her and make still another connection.
It is at this point that Ridley begins his descent into what seems increasingly severe madness. He burrows into The Ramble, the darkest part of Central Park, and goes down on all fours to sniff for the scent of her perfume. He thinks he spies her. When he approaches from behind and tries to turn her for a kiss, she pushes off into the darkness.
He immediately encounters a man who, in an oddly stilted conversation, speaks about the Reservoir being filled with 9/11’s fallen papers, dumped ballots, and dead bodies. Ridley returns to his apartment for days, during which he suffers coughs and fatigue, after which we see him venturing into the Park once more. There follows an extended set piece in which he descends into the depths of the Reservoir itself, experiencing all of the swirling items mentioned by the man in the Park, the grasping bodies pulling at him.
Apart from the darkly funny writing, the value of this novella lies not only in Duchovny’s creation of a complex and wildly quirky protagonist but also in the waterfall of increasingly mad events which leave the reader wondering. The growing ambiguity of where to locate the line between fact and hallucination surrounding a character who is deeply odd, to begin with, is the center of gravity of the reader’s experience.
There is a final chapter, however, in which everything becomes all too clear. This explanatory epilogue resonates with the wrap-up cadence of television drama, the territory where Duchovny has succeeded so well, cutting off some interesting book-club study questions. Perhaps, in the end, the author is unsure of his readers’ willingness to live with the ambiguity that he has expertly crafted. Still, The Reservoir is a finely wrought story that taps into the deep current of dislocation that continues to bedevil us.