The Art of the Knock

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The Art of the Knock: Stories (William Morrow, 1985). Short stories appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post Magazine, Carolina Quarterly and Chicago Review, and in the anthologies The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Brad Leithauser, and Contemporary American Short Stories (Germany), and were reprinted in India and the Netherlands. The Art of the Knock was listed as one of the best new works of fiction of 1985, by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Art of the Knock is now available (2014) as a Dzanc Books e-book reprint. This edition has a new cover (artist: Naomi Thellier de Poncheville), and has an introduction by Kyle Minor.

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“Philip Graham astonishes us with two unusual combinations: stories that are original and unalienated, risky in form and language and joyfully accessible.”  
–Grace Paley

“Philip Graham is at his best when writing about the mysteries of domestic life.  His sleight of hand is so sure that the revelations never seem random; time after time, we are subtly persuaded that magic moments do exist.  The stories are unique, risky, funny,and often quite beautiful.  This is a wonderful book.”
–Ann Beattie

“Philip Graham’s stories follow very ordinary people through the rituals and patterns of daily life, and each glimpse behind the door shows people trapped in a common solitude. A few stories are beautiful and touching; most are very, very weird; but all are an artful blend of the ordinary and the fantastic.”
–Sharon Gibson, Houston Chronicle, February 3, 1995.

“Graham investigates and celebrates human intimacy in this book. He makes the reader laugh at the characters’ idiosyncracies, grow sober at their problems, but he leaves the reader wiser to human predicaments, to the baffling ways we hide from one another and the frightful loneliness that results. This is a book you will remember with fondness.”
–James Mendelsohn, reviewing The Art of the Knock for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 9, 1985.

“The stories in Philip Graham’s first book of fiction are charged with an insouciant blend of playfulness and menace. Pondering The Art of the Knock, we are as likely to break into a smile as to debate its mysteries. We are in the presence of a young writer whose wit lights up the dark night of loneliness . . . there is no question of a quietly insistent artistry at work here, laying the groundwork for yet greater art to come.”
–Dan Cryer, Newsday, February 17, 1985.

“The art of Philip Graham, on exhibit in this collection of short stories, is to take an image and run with it in dazzling, elusive patterns. The collection is tied together by three stories, each entitled “The Art of the Knock,” told by a narrator obsessed with the need to knock on doors, get inside, break down barriers. The other stories tell of people stranded on one side or another of barriers of their own creation. In one, a man finds that his wife has left him, but not before painting the walls of their house with quotations from the lies he has told her. In another, an aging couple, their children grown and gone, compete at nurturing light bulbs. We remember these images long after the individual stories have blended, but suspect that this, too, is part of the art of Philip Graham.”
–Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe, February 17, 1985.

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You can listen to Philip Graham reading an excerpt from the short story “Light Bulbs” here.

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Original cover of the 1985 edition (William Morrow). Artist: Alain Gauthier.

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Excerpt from the short story “Silence”:

Around here, we have banished the voice. Too messy, too much ease of misinterpretation, too much mumble, hiss, and shout. No, we have retained for the mouth its true, original function as receptacle, not cannon bore. Why, our children, when we tell them of speech, can only conceive of it as a kind of clear and noisy vomit.

Another means of communication seems to us far better: as we write, so do we “speak”; we have chosen the ten strong throats attached to our hands. We love how their words travel and yet at the same time stay. How they never shed a skin to an echo. How, clear to sight, rather than tell a lie our hands remain stuffed in pockets. And so, even immobile, the bulge of deceitful intent belies itself, becomes a confession.

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Excerpt from the short story “Twins”:

He was just as overweight as I, the shirt above his belt bulging with baby rolls of flesh. Though I’d always known I had a twin, I had never fully imagined someone who looked exactly like me. He stood there, stiff and quiet, and somehow I knew he was thinking the same thing. I wanted to extend a hand, but the thought that his hand reaching to receive it would be the same in every detail stopped me. It would be like touching the cold surface of a mirror, and I was afraid.

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(cover of the 1984 Summer Fiction issue of the Washington Post Magazine, which featured the short story “Twins”)

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Excerpt from the short story “I Dreamt About You Last Night”:

He was exhausted and felt ensnared in his accumulating falsehoods. He switched off the television, the lights, and walked to the bathroom, where he turned on the water from the shower head and adjusted the temperature. His left foot tingling, still half-asleep from standing, Turley undressed in front of the mirror and was suddenly afraid of what he saw. Under the harsh fluorescent light he could see the symmetrical trails of blue veins that traveled his pale body, half of his blood running to his heart, the other half running away. He turned off the light, felt his way to the tub, and showered in the dark.

He dried himself quickly and then walked carefully to bed, his hand sweeping before him in the darkness. In bed, he slowly turned under the covers, and when he lay still he could feel the force of his monotonous, trembling heart as he thought of all the lies on the walls. When he was finally asleep, Turley dreamt that his bones began to grow fluorescent in his body, beginning with his jaw and spreading down the spine and limbs until they gleamed against his frail and hidden muscles and organs. When he lifted his hands the bones glowed, illuminating a mirror on the wall. He walked to it and stared, terrified, at his livid skull, at the shining sockets beneath the gristle of his nose, and he ran from this vision. But as he rushed through the rooms the walls flared bright, his own dark words now visible through the paint and surrounding him. He continued to tear through the house, his feet aching, his lungs beating against the blaze of his ribs, and he tried to leave his body behind, but how could he escape from his own terrible light?

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Excerpt from the short story “Waiting for the Right Moment”:

They met one afternoon at a Japanese restaurant, strangers side by side at the hibachi table. He was intent upon the last grains of rice in his bowl; she, alone and bored while waiting to order, was taken by his look of concentration and listened to the awkward and yet musical clicks of his chopsticks. The lantern behind him luminously framed his face, and she began quietly fashioning his features in origami from the cigarette pack she’d just finished. After he cleaned out his bowl he turned and discovered her just as she was finishing the line of his jaw, the Surgeon General’s warning jutting out at an odd angle. When she saw him staring at her she embarrassed herself by blurting out, “It’s you.”

His forehead wrinkled and he stared at the cigarette pack, unsure of her meaning. Afraid he was offended, she quickly added, “Cubism becomes you.” He smiled. The monosodium glutamate was beginning to affect him. Yes, he thought, sometimes I feel like that. Though he’d finished his meal, he ordered a bottle of plum wine, which they shared, and over the nearby sizzling of steak strip and bean sprouts they made their acquaintance.