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.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Trevor

“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?

Betsy

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.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2013-07-15T13:08:32+00:00July 15th, 2013|Categories: David Gilbert, New Yorker Fiction|17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Betsy July 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Trevor, for pointing us to “Eraserhead” – at least those of us, like me, who haven’t seen it and would never make that connection. There’s a lot to that.

    I want to remark on the Childress name – apparently a very old Anglo-Saxon name that may be related to ‘cild hus” – or orphanage. The name plays into the idea of Childress himself being an orphan (his own parents being dead, his father’s memory tainted by his cruelty, he unable to parent himself, and perhaps at the moment an impotent parent of his own children as well.). .

    Gilbert’s emphasis on the birds didn’t bother me, Trevor, maybe because to me it was a link to Childress’s childhood, and to his own need to nurture. It is almost as if his boys’ approaching adolescence makes Childress wonder how he is to nurture them now. And so the half formed being is representational of Childress’s own capacity to not only nurture, but feel that altruism nurturing his own soul. So the birds felt important to me.

    You said, “He has become a deformity of himself.” Thanks for that.

  2. Trevor July 16, 2013 at 12:44 am

    Thanks Betsy! So, do I sense a nice family viewing of Eraserhead coming up? Ha! I like the movie, a lot, but it’s one I cannot recommend to everyone. It’s very strange, very disturbing, and I still have no idea what it’s about :-). I will say this: I have all the screenshots for a review. Other than that first step, the review isn’t in the works, but it’s a start. For anyone curious, The Criterion Collection has the rights and should be releasing it in November or December of this year (if they stick to their clues), but you can watch it now on their Hulu Plus channel.

  3. Betsy July 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Well, Trevor, our family viewing of Eraserhead would be much enhanced by a Mookse discussion. Given the Gilbert story, it would be very topical. Also helpful – to this viewer at least. And what better subject than one that is cloaked in mystery, horror, and possibilities! Or is that going too far?

  4. Trevor July 16, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Hmmmm, you’re tempting me to give it a shot, Betsy. I would like to do it in order to get others’ thoughts.

  5. Betsy July 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    On a different note, I am puzzled by the title. There is an awkwardness to it that seems intentional. Leave out the r and you get “father room”. which is certainly related to the theme. A farther room has to be death, and that is surely also a theme, in that he notes that his father is dead and that he is an orphan, and “Childress” name. Actually, the farther room is probably the coffin that he has fashioned out of his junior high wood project, or the coffin he has made of his own body, or the coffin that his marriage has the potential to become, or the dead place in which he has stored his dreams. What’s really troubling about the coffin is that the thing he tries to bury is still alive.

    I have to say I kind of like the way this all works, except the title seems just odd.

  6. Betsy July 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Well, and of course, there is the thing that has been gestated from a “father” womb.

  7. Roger July 19, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Trevor, I, too, thought of Eraserhead right away, and I saw that movie thirty years ago and have rarely thought of it since then. It was one of the most creepy, puzzling things I’ve seen on the screen.

    I found this story fascinating and it makes me want to find out more about Gilbert. Beautifully written, the voice, the rhythm of the language, the funny lines, like “Alert the media: unhappy, middle-aged white man on the loose.”

    On the subject of names and wordplay, “Childress” also may be a depiction of Robert’s upcoming childlessness, as he sees his children become more independent, with his role as a father diminishing. The vomit-baby seems like a potential replacement for his own children when they were babies Robert used to take care of. More so, I think, they are an alternative version of Robert, as Trevor suggests. It’s as if the creature is a second chance for Robert to take another try at life, which may be a reason why he considers stealing off to the woods to raise him. He’s rejected that choice, and the story left me wondering about the ending. At first, I thought Robert may have wrung the creature’s neck and left it in the basement, that the memory of Robert’s father doing this to the bird was meant as an analog to what Robert had now done, that the “sorries raining down” were what he said to the creature before killing him. But now I’m not sure. Is the creature stashed away in the basement, still alive? If so, what’s next?

  8. Reba July 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    I hated the story, then loved it. Read the whole thing in one setting (unusual), felt a sense of completion and satisfaction then put the magazine down and went to work. I think we are all rooting for David-and/or Robert. Maybe we are all rooting for ourselves.

  9. Julie July 23, 2013 at 1:40 am

    Hi all – great comments on this story. I just want to point out that the title is taken from the T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I know the voices dying with a dying fall/Beneath the music from a farther room…”).

    This is one of my favorite poems, and I recognized Gilbert’s allusions to its famous first lines when he talks about “…the decisions spreading before him like the evening spreading across the sky…only a bit of yellow tumbling toward the horizon” and also refers to “the question beyond answer.”

    I was so excited to see him refer to the poem in his Q&A interview with the New Yorker about the story. He said he wanted to transcribe the way that poem made him feel. I’m not usually one to pick up on allusions, but I got this one! Anyway thought it would help to inform the title, and a whole lot more if one were so inclined.

  10. Trevor July 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Ah, thanks Julie. I didn’t catch all of the connections (and am very disappointed in myself since “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of my favorites as well). I didn’t read his interview, I’m afraid.

    I will say, though, that this actually makes me like this story less. I get the connection to the man growing old and realizing the big dreams are giving way to more practical matters, but this story simply has nothing on Eliot in that regard. Referring to it, for me, simply makes this one feel lacking.

    I believe I’m being irrational and entirely unfair here, and that makes me wonder . . .

  11. Betsy July 23, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Thank you, Julie! I, too, missed all that.

  12. Rosalind Kurzer July 24, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    thank you all for your comments. Betsy, David Gilbert also made me think about Updike’s Rabbit books, especially when Robert comments about his kids.

  13. […] also must give a shout-out to the amazing Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes for her research into the name Childress: “apparently a very old Anglo-Saxon name that may be […]

  14. Ken August 4, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I really enjoyed this while I was reading it and was very impressed by his style and also found it suspenseful and a page-turner. After reading everyone’s comments, though, the story seems a bit heavy-handed an obviously symbolic. Clearly the ‘monster’ represents either his lost past or the many life forms he has nurtured over the years. In either case, he is not satisified with his present reality and has almost hallucinated an alternative. In the telling, though, I found the story really impressive.

  15. Madwomanintheattic August 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I think it’s ok to be allusive and symbolic. This story made me FEEL as stories in the past several months have not (not since Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic”), made me eager to keep reading even as my stomach was churning a bit, made me sad and happy and sad again. I think there’s a lot to be said for stories that awaken memory, and this was the first in a long time.

  16. Madwomanintheattic August 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Forgot to say that I found the illustration a false note: a story about the imagination does not deserve a literal interpretation. Crass.

  17. Susanne Braham August 10, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Maybe irrelevant, but having this story in the same New Yorker issue that carried “Sins of the Fathers” (about novelists as poor fathers) was an interesting juxtaposition.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.