Skip to main content

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.


Comments

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.

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…