>The New Yorker: "The Knocking" by David Means


On the plus side, this doesn’t seem to be an excerpt from a novel. On the other hand, it’s not much of a story. Flash fiction that needs considerable editing, maybe.
The narrator has moved into an apartment building in New York and almost immediately discovers that his upstairs neighbor is fond of knocking—in many different ways. The story explores many of these different types of knocking, although some of the knocking doesn’t sound like knocking (incessant moaning, grief-filled swooning) and may, in fact, originate elsewhere. The narrator has met the neighbor in the hall, but assumes that the neighbor knows that late in the day the narrator is in his “deepest state of reverie” pondering the nature of his sadness. Which, apparently, is related to the end of his marriage to Mary. At one point, while he’s remembering Mary, the knocking becomes sweeping and remains just above his head. Then the sound switches back to a knock. The narrator admires the knocker’s dedication, but projects his own pain (“the pain of a lost marriage”) onto the neighbor.
I don’t think there’s more here than that. Views?

March 15, 2010: “The Knocking” by David Means

About the author


  1. >Cliff, just saw a youtube recording of you talking about Linked Collections. Very nice, thank you. Really enjoyed listening to that. Anne Elliott posted it on her blog.

  2. >Pardon me for being blunt, but what is the point of summarizing a story only to say that you did not find anything about it particularly interesting or well done? Maybe you could suggest something you found positive or negative about it or one of each and contrast?

    And why does it matter if it was or was not an excerpt from a larger novel? I think that is pretty incidental in terms of the craft of the story itself, the quality of its writing, although of course it could have implications on the way we look at a story as a whole.

    I do enjoy this as a forum for discussing these stories but I personally would be more inclined to comment if we tried to look at some internal aspect of the story rather than superficial analysis.


  3. >Re the point of Cliff's comments: I'm not trying to speak for Cliff but there may be readers who go to this blog first before deciding whether or not to read a New Yorker story. After all, for a not-particularly-fast reader, reading a New Yorker story is not a trivial time investment for a busy person — perhaps 30 mins or so.

    In other words, some might be using Cliff's blog as a preview. For such readers, to hear Cliff summarizing the story and then saying whether he liked it or not is a valuable service.

    I'm sure that Cliff would be more than capable of providing a detailed review of a story if he had the time to do so, and felt the exercise worthwhile.

    Paul Epstein

  4. >Mr. Fox: whether a piece of fiction in TNY is an excerpt or not is relevant because clearly the analysis and evaluation of a work depends on what form it takes. TNY frequently extracts story lines from forthcoming novels, sometimes without much input from the author, a practice I find deceptive and worth commenting on. Therefore, when a story actually is a story, as appears to be the case here, it is noteworthy.

    I summarized this story, as I do when critiquing a story a student story, as a way to establish that I've understood the author's intent. Especially here, where the action isn't all that clear, I believe that was a worthwhile exercise.

    And, as I said at the end of my piece, I didn't think there was anything else going on in the story, i.e., nothing else worth commenting on. If you have a different view, you're free to express it.

  5. >Yes, first, let me apologize for being somewhat standoffish in my previous post. Too early in the morning, not enough sleep.

    I agree that the story feels like flushed-out flash fiction, that is, the writer has tackled and explored every potential offshoot of his narrator's fixation with the knocking neighbor.

    I think what's interesting about this story is how, at the end, the narrator projects his own thoughts and feelings on his neighbor, as when he says, "Each knock had my name on it! Each knock spoke directly to me! His was the work of a man on the edge of madness. A man who had lost just about everything, and was channelling all his abilities into his knocking…." and so on.

    I think it is interesting that the whole piece, short as it is, is contained entirely in the narrator's mind. It's a very claustrophobic piece, echoing the feeling of the narrator in his home. In fact, perhaps the interpretation of his neighbor's perpetual knocking is an extension of his own mental agitation and continual self-evaluation. He is trying to "hang pictures," and "keep the house in shape" as a way of recovering from or dealing with his own post-marital woes.

  6. >I do agree that knowing whether the piece is an excerpt or a standalone story is significant: the single slot for fiction in TNY should be guarded zealously for short stories. This discussion has surfaced again and again on this blog, and I do think there's a good reason for that.

    Now, about the story itself, I think TLF's adjective ("claustrophobic") describes it rather well. However, I found it very unsatisfying. Again, there's the matter of TNY's prestige and its very limited space for fiction, so one expects nothing but the cream of the crop.

    I read "Knocking" as a story about a person who's breaking down after his family is gone (left him? died?–we don't know). He is clearly feeling very depressed, and I think something in him is trying to bring him back. Hence the frenzied knocking; one might say that it's reason knocking on the door, if I'm allowed that metaphor.

    There are several bits in the story that point in that direction. Take the opening word: upstairs, which of course also means "in the head" and which proves quite relevant in context: it's the narrator's head that tries to reach the rest of him. (Sentences like "let the head fall in accordance with the demands of the nail" lend themselves to all sorts of interesting Freudian interpretations). There's also the phrase TLF quoted, about a man on the edge of madness. Note how the man upstairs and the narrator get confused in that series of staccato sentences in the midst of which the quote on madness shows up. In that sequence, the narrator projects some oddly intimate knowledge to the person upstairs (knowledge that it would be out of the question to have with someone with whom you've just nodded heads–there's the head again, BTW). The last words of the story also point to the effort of trying to rein in madness in the face of great grief–a struggle to keep the house in shape (houses have been used metaphorically so often).

    Even if such an interpretation were to hold water, though, the story is still no more than "[f]lash fiction that needs considerable editing, maybe," as Clifford so accurately put it.

  7. >FWIW, I fully agree with Paul. Before I delve into an issue, I check this blog for Cliff's take. Having a full-time job, 2 kids, 1 house, 1 husband, & 2 cats requires me to choose my fiction judiciously!

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