David Gilbert: “Here’s the Story”

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 “Here’s the Story” was originally published in the Jun 9 & 16, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is the Summer Fiction edition, so you can click here to see the other stories in this issue.

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Betsy

David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” is one of four “love lost” stories in the June 9 issue. There’s a flat reportorial tone to the opening: it’s 1967, the Monday before Thanksgiving, a plane is coming in for a landing, and a man on the plane is holding a woman’s hand, “gripping” it.

Then the story drops back seven weeks.

Ted Martin has two extra tickets to a Dodgers game. He had wanted to take his daughters, but what with one thing and another, he ends up taking Renshaw, somebody from the office. Renshaw brings his son.

The villains in this story are banal. There’s no evil general, no corporate greed, no corruption that we can see, no racism, no prejudice, no mugging, no murder. But there is this. Renshaw, a walk-on, treats his son with contempt. “Hopeless,” he comments when the boy cannot catch the ball Ted tosses to him.

Renshaw hears Ted explain to the boy that he’s keeping a box score on the game. Ted says: “I have that information right here, the whole story. It’s like I’m a necessary witness.”

Renshaw “snorts” at that, at the respect Ted is showing the boy, and there is an exchange of conversation between Ted and Renshaw in which Renshaw is snide and contemptuous: “Ted heard a hint of his wife in the tone, an impatience that bordered on outright scorn [. . .].”

The contempt is the engine in the story. Renshaw is so openly contemptuous of his son that Ted feels these excursions from Renshaw as “humiliations.” At the same time, we hear Ted wondering about things at home, the way Carol treated him, the way she treated him in front of their daughters. He wonders if he is “pedantic and sentimental.” We wonder if he can really hear the way Carol is treating him. One thinks of the “necessary witness” that Ted talks about to the boy — a legal term describing what kind of facts a lawyer can testify to regarding his client — and the reader wonders if Ted needs to be a “necessary witness” to his own marriage.

Across the way in Elysian Park, a woman and her son are attending a hippie love-in. What we notice is that they are there without the rest of the family, as Ted is at the ballgame without his girls, for whom he had bought tickets. We also notice that Ted had apparently not bought a ticket for his wife. We notice that Emma, the woman, thinks of how her husband can give her “that look.”

Emma was unsure how many more of those looks she could survive.

In John Gottman’s research on marriage, he says he can predict which marriages will not survive. His research is based on interviews he conducts with couples. The ones in which there is no hope are the ones where one partner is openly contemptuous of the other.

Both Ted and Emma are trapped in marriages where they are the object of their spouse’s casual contempt.

Emma and Ted happen into each other at Elysian Park and spend a happy carefree half hour together. They return home — but things have changed. They are “sick of the everyday complaints,” they realize “they were trapped.”

I liked the story immensely for the non-judgmental way Gilbert brings Ted and Emma together, the way a half hour together is so golden that it lights them up. I’m no fan of fooling around on a spouse, but I’m even more no fan of casual contempt being a companion in a marriage.

That Gilbert makes such a point of the “necessary witness” is like a statement about a writer’s responsibility: to state the things, under a kind of oath, that should be obvious, but often are not. He is able to persuade us that Ted and Emma’s few hours together make them a kind of modern Romeo and Juliet — right and true and golden. And I liked seeing what was wrong and what was right, if even for just a half an hour. I liked this story immensely, as I have also liked others by him. This one turns on a narrative gimmick, but one I think Gilbert pulls off to good effect. I enjoyed the story’s structure and turns.

Of course, what if the doomed lovers had been able to shed their miserable spouses to marry each other? What then? What of their children? Then we’re in Updike territory. But Gilbert leaves that to Updike. The structure of “Here’s the Story” leaves the reader to be the necessary witness on the children’s behalf, regardless of contempt or true love or the everyday pressures of everyday life. I liked it a lot.

14 thoughts on “David Gilbert: “Here’s the Story””

  1. Roger says:

    This is the most hilarious, dark, twisted, poignant, amazing work of fiction I’ve read in God knows how long. I was floored by the ending and nearly gasped when I read it – I was in a public place and somehow managed to stay silent. I did not see the ending coming despite all the clues and loved re-reading it and picking up additional ones. An inspired riot of a story!

  2. Marsha says:

    It is a terrific story and the ending was just tragic, and out of the blue (I, too, didn’t see the clues/hints). I read the “conversation with David Gilbert” at the New Yorker web site and he said that the story is modeled after The Brady Bunch, and his imaginings on how Mike and Carol get together.

  3. I still haven’t started this one — this is heartening!

  4. Roger says:

    Marsha – what a perfect name under the circumstances!

    Trevor, you have to try to use a mind-eraser to forget what’s been said about the story’s subject matter!

  5. lucieee says:

    the first ten paragraphs were so awfully boring, but reading these positive comments is making me give it a 2nd try

  6. The post has been updated to include Betsy’s thoughts!

  7. Ken says:

    Betsy, Kudos to you for not revealing the spoiler ending. Rarely do I care if I know what’s going to happen in a film or story. I find today’s fanaticism about not revealing spoilers to be kind of besides the point. After all, don’t we enjoy movies or books the most when we’ve already seen or read them a few times? Oedipus has sex with his mother. Hamlet kills the king. Knowing these things doesn’t matter. Only with genre writing or a film like The Sixth Sense is the issue even germane. But…this story has a definite spoiler ending and one that I agree with Roger about is gasp-inducing. Re-reading it with the twist in mind was really fun. I had been feeling that the story was a bit schematic and I was really hoping there wasn’t going to be a fatal plane crash but then when the “twist” as revealed everything made sense even Davy Jones.

  8. Betsy says:

    Hi Ken. Well, thanks! That was really subdued!

    My posts are often about the entire story. I usually try to warn people that they should read the story first, and this time I forgot. To be truthful, I couldn’t sleep last night, and decided to write the post. Maybe writing the post in the middle of night has its drawbacks. I really liked this story, and wish that I had put out my usual warning – Read the story before you read our discussion!

  9. Kenneth Windrum says:

    I wasn’t being sarcastic. I sincerely was thanking you for not revealing the big twist.

  10. Betsy says:

    Hi Ken – thanks for that. I meant to thank you more directly and then got tangled up in the idea that maybe I did reveal the ending! I agree with your comparison of this story to “The Sixth Sense.” It seemed wrong to let on. I liked the rest of your discussion, re Hamlet, re Oedipus, re re-reading. Isn’t re-reading the best?

    I’m kind of sensitive about the fact that I often talk about a story’s ending. An author’s plot is only one of his devices, but still – it’s his creation. But I like to think people come to us for conversation about the story they’ve just read.

    We always talk about the entire Alice Munro story, when we do one. That’s because she just invites the reader to make sense of all the strands she twists together. What is the meaning of one of her stories? One of the reasons to write about one of her stories is to sort it out. I think that’s what she’s hoping we’ll do. But I would hate it if anybody thought we thought ours was the only take. When Alice Munro is really cooking, as in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, a real take is going to depend on who you are – a guy, a philandering guy, a loyal guy, a guy who married “up”, or a guy who married “down”, a woman who thinks she has the upper hand in a marriage and then suddenly she doesn’t, a student who fell in love with her professor, a student fell in love with his professor – and on and on. For that reason, an Alice Munro story almost necessitates you treat the whole. That way, someone else has enough of our take to take us on.

    I know that some people, perhaps high school students, are using our Alice Munro essays as a trot. That is too bad. We intend them as more than that, more open-ended than that.

    Sometimes I talk about some aspect of the current New Yorker story in the post, and then deliberately choose to discuss the ending in a follow-up post.

    The thing I wish someone would comment on in the David Gilbert story is the legal idea of the “necessary witness”. I get the feeling that Gilbert sees the writer as the necessary witness – that he must reveal things to us that we ought to see. But the concept was new to me. I wonder if I understood it – both the legal term and the way it works in the story, or in fact, the way it works as an ars poetica.

    Anyway, thank you, Ken. I actually did try to make the post work without revealing the twist.

  11. Ken says:

    Good! I do feel in general that people who read this have read the stories and I would NEVER read the column before reading and so I have no problem with discussing the ending. The idea is to discuss, as you mentioned, the entire structure. But…with this story the twist is so delicious it’s best to err on the side of caution. I wouldn’t feel the same way about the wonderful Murakami story which does have some suspense yet I’d hardly care if I knew what happened.

  12. Larry Bach says:

    I shared Roger’s experience, and am so glad that I am not alone. I felt a little silly upon second reading: how did I miss every single reference/clue, so that the last paragraph caught me completely by surprise? It was a fun read, twice!

  13. Greg says:

    “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” – Nabakov

  14. mehbe says:

    Betsy, I think “necessary witness” is a legal term that is unusually straightforward, for a legal term. It basically means what it says, which that a witness is necessary for the case, and the reason for the necessity is that the witness and no one else can possibly provide the testimony/evidence/information.

    If googling produces results that generally follow a pattern of frequency of use, then “necessary witness” is a concept most often used when determining whether lawyers can be a witness in a case in which they also are advocates. It seems that normally they won’t be a witness in a case they are handling, but if they are “necessary” and various factors taken into consideration allow it, they can be.

    I don’t quite see how the author’s usage of the term fits the actual meaning – maybe he didn’t quite understand it himself and just assumed some things that weren’t true. Or, then again, maybe I am the one who is off-base. I’m not a lawyer, but do have a fair amount of work-based experience with that legal stuff.

    On a different subject – I thought the opening of the story had a peculiar tone that strongly set up and hinted at what would happen at the end, so the ending came as no surprise. What I didn’t know was the Brady Bunch connection, since I’ve never seen that show. So it was interesting to read the author’s interview about that aspect of the story.

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