Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). David Gilbert’s “From a Farther Room” was originally published in the July 22, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“From a Farther Room” is about the familiar story of a middle-aged man who has turned around to realize he’s simply not the man he always wanted to be. Everywhere, it appears, his true nature has been stifled, by his father, by his social class, by his wife, by his children. It’s not that he hates these things. It’s not even that he hates who he has become. He simply recognizes that he has become a deformity of himself. I say this is a familiar story, and it is, but it’s told in a way that is bizarre and surreal.
When the story begins, Robert Childress has awoken with a terrible hangover. His wife and children have left for the weekend to visit her parents, and Robert spent the previous evening doing nothing he considered too terrible — “No tequila, no cocaine. No strippers. One lousy cigarette.” – yet he feels terrible. The night before he remembers he got home around midnight (see, not even too late), played ball with the dog, Roscoe, and then threw up on the rug before falling asleep.
Now there is a crying from that rug: “Had Roscoe dragged in some creature from the woods? Was something dying right there on the rug, half ripped apart?” Worse. On the floor is a deformed bit of slop, apparently whatever it was he threw up. It has a mouth, hands, and it’s crying.
If you’re thinking of David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead, I think that’s appropriate. It’s hard for me to believe that the creature wasn’t inspired somewhat by that grotesque baby, particularly since Gilbert explicitly brings up Lynch’s subsequent 1980 film, Elephant Man. Here, Robert Childress’s vomit creature cries and laughs, and, in general, acts like a baby that Childress begins to love and care for.
At first, he thinks he just needs to bury the creature, whatever it is. To do this, he retrieves a wooden box he made when he was a boy. The box has carved into it, “Bobby.” He thinks it will be okay to bur the box; it’s not that anyone cares about the box anyway. He manages to bury it, working himself up into a frenzy in the process. Of course, he cannot leave it down there. Deep below the earth, he swears it’s crying.
As the story goes on, we learn a bit about “Bobby,” the child who almost doesn’t feel like the same person as the adult Robert Childress. He was sensitive, and he always tried to save birds with broken wings. His father, cruelly, told him it was pointless; even the birds knew it was time to die. We also get a glimpse at his relationship with his wife, Becka. Again, there’s nothing terribly wrong with her or with their relationship. Still, she comes from different stock, and this weekend she is “giddy from being in that childhood home of hers, with the tennis court and the swimming pool, the two guest cottages, her parents with those pleasant parent smiles and easy parent love and natural parent abundance.” With her gone, Robert is able to dwell in his own childhood, too, to remind himself of who he was, what he liked, and what he always hoped to do.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the birds and, more importantly, the deformed creature that Robert vomited up all represent Robert himself, the Robert he once was and who has been neglected. Well written and compelling, I am not sure how I feel about this story yet. On the one hand, I was engaged the entire time, always wondering what would happen when Becka came home to find this creature. On the other hand, I felt it was a bit overt — I mean, did we really need to keep reading about the birds?
In “From a Farther Room,” David Gilbert tells the sad, sad story of a middle-aged husband and father who has been left alone for a weekend while his wife and kids visit the rich grandparents. He goes out drinking with an old friend, and thinks he has been good – no cocaine, no hookers, not that he has been into either for a long time. Imperceptibly, the story veers into the realm of hallucination – perhaps something in his drink? Maybe what he ate? Maybe a break-down?
He wakes up the next morning, pukes onto the floor, and in the vomit there appears to be a slightly human living thing, with the emphasis on “thing.” Putting the thing on the bed, he calls his friend, but keeps a mental note on the thing out of the corner of his eye.
The stirring grew more agitated. There was obvious frustration on that bed, a rooting about that Robert recognized from years ago. This thing was hungry.
Thinking he would bury the thing, he gets out an old box he’d made in junior high, a box he’d once used to nurse injured birds. Running like a thread through this story is his own father: now dead, the father had once wrung the neck of one of the birds the man had rescued. Twined about that thread is the idea of fatherhood, of his comfort with having been a nurturer when his own kids were little. But now, they’re getting older, and the man seems to be left with the task of retrieving something very important of his own life, something he has lost or not cared for, something he has misconceived.
The issue here for those of us listening is what is it really that Robert is trying to bury? A memory? A part of himself? A desire? A part of his childhood self? The lively way burial works in this story is a story in itself.
There is a quality of John Cheever in this story: sorrow and the need to be nurtured are twined together with a hallucinatory, appalling image, and they all appear suddenly with inappropriate urgency in the middle of a sort-of well-groomed suburban life. I liked this story, although I was repelled by it; the image of the thing born in the vomit which Robert wants to save is at first very hard to tolerate. Also, I found Robert’s well-heeled crisis of identity at first beside the point, given the fact that almost no one is well heeled any more.
But then the story began to grow on me, and Gilbert seemed to asking the same question we all ask: What makes a life truly alive? Is it the ability to have nurtured yourself from the beginning, nurtured something in yourself that makes you feel truly alive? And, at the same time, there is a riff on fatherhood: What should a man be? What should he encourage his kids to be? How should he mourn a father who was brutal? How do you mourn what you never had? I’m reading way into this story. Gilbert himself sticks to the story and leaves it to the reader.
I ended up liking Robert very much and had some hope for him; once his wife comes home, she seems, despite her privilege, a very decent person whose nurturing may help Robert wrestle his stillborn self into being. There is an evolution to Robert’s hallucination that is very revealing and actually endearing. While I began the story repelled by him, I ended feeling akin to him. I found that journey satisfying.
The story-telling takes you there, and still leaves questions. The details of the story all lead the reader ahead of Robert. We realize things about him that he has not yet realized, and we wonder if he will be able to get there, too. I liked that.