Dzanc Books has just brought out Philip Graham’s entire fiction backlist in ebooks, two fabulous story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and Graham’s amazing first novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language. Each book has a new introduction, each is beautiful. From this embarrassment of riches, we have chosen to tease you with only a sample. Here is the story “Light Bulbs” from The Art of the Knock. The story originally appeared in The New Yorker. Also Kyle Minor’s splendid introduction to the book.
Philip Graham is an old friend, a constant supporter of the work we do at NC. He is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa (co-written with Alma Gottlieb) published by the University of Chicago Press. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the fiction editor. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at www.philipgraham.net.
An Introduction to Philip Graham’s The Art of the Knock
Chinese boxes. Russian matroyshka dolls. The thing within the thing within the thing. The thing opening out onto the other thing opening out onto the other thing. “We seem to have been digging for a very long time,” say they who narrate the first words. “Everything gets darker, and darker, and while with our shovels the path constantly gives way, it never breaks into a clearing.”
Are these people talking about “The Road to China,” the distance from here to the other side of the world, or about everything, the groping in the darkness of the every day, and the possibility, the mystery, just beyond what can be seen?
“We chip away,” they say, “at what we hope to be behind it: the possibility of an exotic marketplace, intrigue and its attendant court, intense voices that reject our alphabet.”
Only one paragraph separates the word “alphabet” from the sentence about shovels that reads, in its entirety: “These dull tools.” Then: “After all our careful and devoted sharpening, all they do is shrink away. Soon they’ll be nothing but exposed necks, wooden phrases against this hard silences.”
“Yet if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, we’ll end up scraping our hands—our shovels long gone—against the first root tips, those same root tips that have been growing toward us for such a long time.”
Are we talking about the distance from here to there, or the realization of something circular? When we get there, will the path through the darkness have led to a new light or to the same light we fled in the first place?
Soon the story changes, and so does the speaker. Now the we has become the I, and the I is telling us what to do. “First rule: don’t deny the knock its pleasure, play with it.” Our speaker is a traveling salesman, and what he’s selling is The Dissolving Toothpick, the All-Peel Orange, the Beanless Bags, the Chilly-Pepper Doggy Bones. “Me, I sell anything,” he says, “and so I’m an adaptive knocker.”
(Like our speaker, like many writers and human beings of my acquaintance, I, too, have become a developer of the antiknock. “I rap very forcefully, stopping just a half-inch shy of the door . . . I’ve been known to terrify a door with implied threats for hours while waiting for the residents to chance out on an errand.”)
What has one speaker to do with the other? And what do either of them have to do with the we who have “banished the voice,” the we of the printed hands, the we with the Granny who will “silently move her lips, designating her desire”?
And what has that we to do with the I who was the young girl when she first found the binoculars, or the daughter who wants to know “Why is the wall dirty?” or the woman who wakes to “the sound of her husband’s fingers tapping against the mattress”?
As the reader moves through Philip Graham’s The Art of the Knock, it takes some time to realize how misleadingly the book has been packaged, because we begin in the idea that we’re reading detachable “Stories,” yet we soon realize we’re in the midst of a terrible, fearful, and ultimately wonderful design, which emerges slowly as we move through it, which has direction and symmetry, in which the preoccupations recur and recur, and in which all the parts are in conversation.
We begin on “The Road to China,” and we end in “China.” The three sections titled “The Art of the Knock” (One, Two, and Three) are equidistant, as parts II, IV, and VI. The bulk of the book’s pages, the little stories, are nestled between knocks, and they are mirror images of the same catalog of twinned mysteries and wonders: sounds and silences, distances and nearnesses, oldnesses and newnesses, light and dark, the inhabited and the deserted, the shadows and the substantial, the inside and the outside, the here and the there, the living and the other-than-living, the she and the he.
After all that digging, when China is nearly in reach, we realize that the we of the diggers and the I of the knocker and all the other he’s and she’s and I’s and we’s and they’s have become a vast parade in which we, too—the reader, the writer, you and the I and the we we have become together—are one we, even as we imagine ourselves into isolatingly particular I’s. This is Philip Graham’s special magic, to bring close to us a thing we have already been experiencing. And so it means so many different things, all at once, to hear how “The dark walls had come to a comfort,” and “only then did we begin to fear our tunnel might actually reach to the other side, to China.”
And what then?
Perhaps you already know, or perhaps you are finding out, or perhaps, like me, you’re still a few feet away from those same root tips that have been growing toward us for such a long time.
Mother and Father seldom hear from the children. Their daughter, living alone in Asia, writes letters in a calligraphy so beautiful that they have stopped having them translated. Instead, Mother laminates them for use as place mats. The graceful characters enhance the irregular swirls of spilled gravy, the random drips of coffee. And the twins, who recently swapped spouses and are fighting over custody of their children, rarely call.
Home remains quiet. Mother and Father never were great talkers and they still aren’t; they keep busy in other ways. Mother continues to knit her afghan for the children—each knitted row another line of a sad, undelivered letter that has long since grown out of the sewing room and lies in neat folds along the sides of the hall. Father continues to repair the abandoned toys, remembering with amusement how the twins would insist on identical toys and how they would always break them in the same way. Now the old playroom seems like a convalescent home, where fewer and fewer visitors come. Waiting for the return of something they perhaps can’t name, Mother and Father keep the curtains open in the evenings and all the lights on. Sometimes they stand together at the bay window and stare out at an impenetrable darkness—a darkness like a photographic negative, which reflects back their lonely, peering faces.
Lately, the light bulbs have begun to go out in an unpredictable and alarming way—in the study, over the stairwell, in the middle of a recipe in the kitchen. Some nights, Mother and Father have to stalk from room to room, fresh bulbs in hand, seeking to transform every dim corner. From the outside, their home seems to have a nervous blink.
Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.
Father stands in the hallway, peering around a bookcase, waiting for a room to be enveloped in darkness. When it happens, he untwists the bulb and listens to the death rattle of its tiny filament. He stares at its pale face, dimly lit from the next room, and notes the smudgy bruise on its forehead: a fatal inner injury. Then he holds the bulb up to his ear in an attempt to hear any last words. Mother watches him from a corner. She follows him from room to room. She notices how he replaces each used bulb with a fresh one from his supply. “Soon,” she murmurs to herself,“ all the lights in the house will be his.”
One night, when Father returns to the bay window, Mother isn’t there. He calls her name, but there is no answer. Almost without knowing it, he feels a satisfaction slipping away inside him. He hurries down the halls, peering into every doorway. There, in the bedroom, standing on a chair, replacing a ceiling light with one of her own, is Mother.
“What are you doing?” Father cries out.
“I don’t trust your light bulbs,” she replies.
After this, Mother and Father avoid each other. They brood in separate rooms, each of them alone with a single lamp and its sympathetic light. Quietly, without formal declaration, they agree to split the house between them. Father claims the study, the guest room, the twins’ bedroom, the playroom, the basement, and half of the hallways. Mother claims the master bedroom, their daughter’s bedroom, the dining room, the living room, the attic, and the other half of the hallways. The bathrooms are disputed and the kitchen is neutral.
Days pass and the mail accumulates. Bills, catalogs, and even a beautiful letter from overseas lie unopened on the kitchen table. Father spends his afternoons in the basement, where he attempts to repair the broken bulbs. The useless vacuum, the trapped filament, the untouchable interior all serve to hold him at bay. When he inspects his rooms in the evenings, he half-hopes he won’t find still another lifeless bulb to add to his defeats.
Mother continues to knit. When a bulb dies with a silent sigh in one of her rooms she rushes to it with open palms, unscrews it, and then carries it to the afghan, which now lies along her side of the hallway. Her sad, used bulbs are tucked under the folds of the blanket, with the names she has painted on their foreheads: Buzzy, Janet, Spencer, Darlene, Kevin, Tia—names she always wanted to give to children she never had. Now Mother places the latest—Charles—under the warm fold. When she tucks him in, he stays tucked: a little sleeper who will never awake.
Father, far from content, begins to plan sabotage. In the afternoons, while Mother nods over her latest stretch of afghan, Father untwists her bulbs slightly in the sockets until they go out. Later, drowsy but then anxious, she hurries to replace them, not noticing Father’s trick. In the evening, Father switches his used bulbs, his failed patients, for the good ones that Mother has unwittingly laid to rest under the blanket. In this way, Father begins to light his rooms with her bulbs. One afternoon Mother dreams that her little sleepers are restless, rattling their filaments as they doze. But she wakes to see it is Father, unscrewing one of her bulbs. Mother is startled, but remains silent. “Soon,” she whispers to herself, no longer fooled, “all the bulbs in the house will be mine.”
But this plan fails too. When lit, Mother’s painted bulbs begin to melt their names, which, drop by drop, gather in puddles on lamp stands, chairs, and rugs. Father stares for a long time at the stains, difficult script of another language. Though disappointed, Father now launches further raids on Mother’s territory, searching for broken bulbs, bulbs without names. Mother, her half-closed eyes ever alert, keeps watch through her nap. When he passes down the hall, she lays aside her knitting and, bulbs in hand, explores his dark rooms. Father hears her light footsteps overhead, in the study. Like Mother, he now begins to understand that each bulb could be a friend or an enemy. Boundaries disappear, and Father and Mother enter the rooms like guerrillas, ever on the alert.
One night, the light in the playroom goes out, and Mother and Father arrive there at the same instant, through different doors. Each convinced that the other is about to seize the dead bulb and twist it from its socket, they circle each other in the dark, crushing toy soldiers and porcelain dolls under their feet. Little wooden helmets and tiny, unblinking glass eyes roll about on the floor. Mother and Father try to step around these as they tiptoe silently, listening for the dry squeak of a turning bulb.
The phone rings. Who could it be? One of the twins? Gripping their bulbs tighter, Mother and Father each wait for the other to break and run to the telephone. Perhaps it’s long distance from their daughter! Both Mother and Father are close to giving in, when the ringing stops, just before the tenth bell. Mother and Father stand very still, facing each other, eyes now accustomed to the darkness. The bulb above them waits patiently in its socket. They each take two steps forward, and then, without speaking, Father lifts Mother up and she replaces their bulb.
Now Father and Mother live silently together. They have disconnected the phone, they continue to leave the mail unopened, and they do not answer the doorbell. Mother and Father are busy with their bulbs. Mother knits shades for all the lamps in the house, choosing a different stitch for each—a special pattern of light on every wall. Father builds cabinets to hold the new bulbs—a honeycomb of unborn lights. Now when a bulb goes out, the feeling for Mother and Father is bittersweet: the gift of light has given way to the gift of darkness. When the bulb over the dining room table goes off, right in the middle of dessert, the last few spoons of tapioca seem to taste better in the dark. Then they rise and take that bulb slowly out of its socket, Mother standing on a chair and Father holding the chair steady. They place the still-warm bulb in a potholder Mother specially knitted, and together they climb the stairs to the attic.
Once there, they open a large hope chest. Even in the dimness they can see rows and rows of bulbs laid to rest. Mother and Father stand quietly a few moments, respecting each other’s thoughts. Then they carefully place the bulb with its companions. The new addition sends a staggered chorus of sympathetic clicks throughout the rows of bulbs, and this slight song is heard by Mother and Father long after they close the hope chest and descend the stairs to their brightly lit rooms.
Here are Philip Graham’s personal book pages:
Also an essay on the use of objects in his fiction:
And finally, a collection of recent interviews and articles that have appeared in support of the reprints: