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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "From a Farther Room" by David Gilbert

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. But only on Tuesdays and Fridays before 2:00 p.m., and on every third Saturday during months that end in -y...

Issue: July 22, 2013

Story: "From a Farther Room"

Author: David Gilbert

Plot: A young businessman, living in a suburb of New York City, goes out for a night on the town with a work colleague, while his own wife and children are out of town. He gets terribly drunk and vomits up a living organism resembling (but not exactly) a baby. He cares for the "baby," growing more attached to it while he decides what to do with it, keeping it a secret from his wife during their phone calls that weekend. Ultimately, he decides to bury it in the backyard, in a box in which he used to keep baseball cards as a child.

Review: This is Gilbert's second story in The New Yorker since Nov. '12, and his second novel, "& Sons" is out now. In other words, what we have here is another promising young writer who's already amassed some serious chops. I find that the younger writers who appear in the NYer almost only fall into this category; the NYer does not take chances.

Anyway, what's particularly great about this story is that, unlike a lot of New Yorker stories, it does not deal with far-flung locations or odd-ball characters. Instead, the main character, Robert Childress, is a normal, semi-prosperous, nine-to-seven, "cog-in-the-wheel" type guy  living outside New York City with his wife and three young children. The situation he finds himself in is not normal; however, he is...and in my opinion that makes him somewhat more engaging. Sometimes it's actually nice to see a short story about an Everyman.

Since I'm going for the Express Version of this review, I'll direct your attention to the singular, most salient element of this story: Symbolism.

Anyone who's read the story carefully (and made it through Junior High English) can see that the "baby" Robert pukes-up after his night of binge drinking is a symbol for his lost childhood. Looking back, the author makes this pretty obvious. For one thing, the character's last name is "Childress." For another thing, Robert buries the "baby" in a box with his own name etched into the top. Furthermore, Robert only gives "birth" to this baby when his wife and children are out of town and he's left at home to have a sort of "Guy's Weekend" by himself, behaving as if he were 25 and not 35. His reversion back to childhood, for one weekend, results in a literal regurgitation and re-discovery of a part of himself.

Though the symbolism may seem a little ham-handed here, it's not immediately apparent what's going on and Gilbert manages to build a sort of Sci-Fi like suspense as we watch, wondering what Robert is going to do with his new charge. However, as the story goes on, at some point we realize the baby is in Robert's imagination; for me that moment was when he fails to tell his wife about the baby. He's the kind of perfectly adoring, devoted husband who wouldn't hold such a thing back from his wife. The character was well-crafted enough that this colossal omission was a signal to me, the reader. And, of course, looking back it's completely obvious the "baby" was imaginary all along.

Gilbert's previous NYer story also had to do with ideas of adolescence and adulthood --  "growing up" if you will -- and I wonder if this is a consistent theme throughout his work. As themes go, it's a pretty good one, as we all have to do it. Here Gilbert seems to suggest that one's lost childhood feelings, desires, and habits of irresponsibility are best left buried underground; during the brief period in which Robert is left to nurture his "symbolic lost childhood baby" he seems to begin a reversion back to childhood, himself, licking old wounds, dreamily wondering what could have been, and almost being tempted to stray from fidelity. However, the return of his wife and kids knocks some sense back into him and all returns to normal.

The beauty of this story is the way Gilbert's sleight of hand, using the red herring of the "puke baby" to distract the reader's attention from the overall theme, while at the same time developing that theme to a point where, without forcing the issue, it still becomes apparent to the reader. The more I read well-crafted fiction, and the more I try to write it, the more I realize how much of literature is just that: sleight of hand. That is, distracting or otherwise directing the reader's attention while, hopefully unbeknownst to them, you're carefully developing a theme. And again, the real trick is to remove the veil in such a way that the reader doesn't feel like they've been slapped in the face.

As Han Solo said to Obi-wan Kenobi: "That's the real trick, isn't it?" Easier said than done, my friends. That's why I'm reviewing New Yorker short stories, not writing them.


Anonymous said…
Hi Grant - I had to go online to see if there was anyone as wholly unimpressed with this story as I was. The symbolism is handled with zero aplomb and the clunkiness of an undergrad beginning fiction student. I'm a bit surprised at how you didn't think this story was forced - I felt like it was forced with such insistence that my unwillingness to accept the author's clear genius is a failure on my part as a lowly reader. And you're mistaken about this puke baby being purely symbolic and not real - how did Stearns hear the odd noise? This story has been talked about in a number of places (in the middle of writing this post, I googled more and found it on A Just Recompense and on Cliff Garstang's site). Seems to me that many people like the story because of how confusing and unsatisfying it is - if it is so, it must be good for you. Malarkey.

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