“Underground”
by David Gilbert
from the February 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

David Gilbert is the author of two novels — 2004’s The Normals and 2014’s & Sons — and a collection of short stories. Over the past few years he’s also published a few stories in The New Yorker, which is where I’ve come to know his work, which I admire quite a bit, especially when he went Lynchian in his 2013 story “From a Farther Room.”

It seems that in “Underground” Gilbert is examining ground he’s covered before — that time when we look around and realize we have not become the person we hoped we were becoming — though I don’t consider this bad at all. It’s an important, always fascinating topic that rings true for a variety of people in a variety of situations.

I look forward to your thoughts below!

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By | 2017-05-25T16:36:59+00:00 January 30th, 2017|Categories: David Gilbert, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Chad Thomas January 31, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Enjoyed this, mainly for the melancholy and details of New York life. As a resident of the city, albeit a recent transplant here, I found seemingly mundane details like subway positioning and surprise wi-fi charming (though “they” have recently made wi-fi available at every station…sweeeeet).

    I found it mildly unrealistic, just given the characterization of his mother and the fact that he was raised in New York, that Michael had only recently emerged from the closet, but then again, everyone has their reasons for how they present themselves. Perhaps if we knew more about his brother and circle, we could understand his motives more. I sense his brother’s a real ass.

    The story picked up pace their at the end as the train drew near, and I liked that it ended on a high note. As a reader, I don’t mind it if I’m ridden hard and put up wet.

    This is the first piece I’ve read by David Gilbert. Considering giving his most recent novel, & Sons, a try. If anybody has read that, let me know what you thought.

  2. Chad Thomas January 31, 2017 at 10:36 am

    picked up pace there* yikes! :)

  3. Dennis Lang January 31, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Oh heck Chad, the occasional typo humanizes us! (With me it’s “your/you’re” and “form/from”.)

    Just received my issue. Looking forward to the story and the usual round of comments at the Mooks

  4. Sean H February 2, 2017 at 12:26 am

    So efficient in the early going, just draws you in with the confidence of a real writer who knows he has ability and is deploying it to build something, to create, to edify. “Those amateurs.” Find a way to say more with less. Impressive.
    In dialogue with James Salter, Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Palahniuk from the outset, throw in a little Barry Gifford meets Ronnie Harwood with a twist of Bret Ellis (and of course Cheever) in a bleak piece of fiction that is unafraid to be about the contemporary moment and take big swings – “There are no more strangers,” another just about perfect sentence with less than six words btw. And Michael is dead right about the Freedom Tower too.
    A work about maleness and gayness that is also universal and imaginative. The NYC presented rings true (the early N & R train passage even evokes DeLillo, as does the story’s title) though the concern with “the passing of time” as a theme is a little lacking in originality. The mother was also a tad too central casting for my liking.
    Fear of death suffuses the mise en scene and the upper crust characters here, and the refinement with which Gilbert writes, remind me also of Donna Tartt, about whom Barry Hannah once wrote that the thing that made her writing stand out was that most of her contemporaries “have got really bad ears and minds, completely messed over by MTV. There’s this generic tone. They forget what language can do. They need to find their own personal music.” Here we have a writer who uses language musically even as Gilbert’s characters discuss trivialities and are, essentially, dismissible blue bloods, but their concerns are timeless and human. The dread march of technology as it tramples the better angels of our nature is well-chronicled as well. Garth Risk Hallberg tried to get to this level and to deal with this city and this social class in his book City on Fire and was mostly unsuccessful.
    Gilbert’s characters also have the right names. Just such great choices all around. You can almost always tell a writer’s ability by how well they name their characters. He even smuggles in an actual plot by the end. Strong fiction here.

  5. Eric February 2, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Sean is certainly right about the story being “strong”–this is writerly craft on steroids. But I am so tired of reading about urban(e) existential angst and the standard symptoms (substance dependency, empty sex, sketchy employment, etc.) that I found the story dull anyway. I would be interested in reading more of Gilbert’s work, but on a less shopworn topic.

  6. David February 2, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Eric, I agree with you that the story was dull. The first 80% seemed to be an exercise motivated solely as an excuse for Gilbert to deliver a bunch of “clever” metaphors and similes he had come up with and was dying to use, especially regarding phones. We have:
    .
    -“his right hand stretching up and rotating as though changing a hard-to-reach light bulb”
    -“Jeremy picked up his phone and began knitting the screen.”
    -“She was sitting alone, hunting and pecking on her phone, her index finger bouncing as though on a small black trampoline.”
    -“armed with phones, which they shunned but continued to worry with their fingers, like large river stones.”
    -“focussed on screens, as if reading Scripture.”
    .
    And those are just the ones about phones. It was only after compiling this list that I read the author interview where he is asked about writing about people using their phones all the time and he says, “it’s pretty good fodder for writers, whether actual or metaphorical.” So I’ll take that as confirmation that my assessment is right. But the result is that by the time something does start happening in the story, about 90% of the way through, I was barely interested at all. Michael is just not a very interesting person to spend the day with.

  7. Dennis Lang February 2, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    The condition of Michael’s life and his awareness of its superficiality was I thought wonderfully expressed. The lunch with Mom and his brother a hoot. As mentioned above I was also reminded of Bret Easton Ellis–and those long recitations from fashion catalogues and travelogues, menus from expensive restaurants, the style and objects that define the characters of “American Psycho” (maybe that’s a stretch), the dependence on social media to connect with the world. and establish a personal identity, a self-promotion.
    Then Michael is given a chance, And I’m reminded of the Borges story, “The South”: “As he crossed the threshold he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky would have been a liberation and a joy….”
    Michael chose his knife fight.

  8. Roger February 2, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    I enjoyed this so much until I didn’t – right at the end. This character intrigued me, his selfishness and foolishness mixed with his desire to be better. And those wonderful sentences bounce along and give the story a heartbeat that reinforces the one emerging from the characters and plot. That ending, though. It seemed both pat and unbelievable. Pat, because of course the character who wants to be a better man must decide to save the vagrant who tumbles into the path of the train. Unbelievable because he drops onto the tracks leaving his two young daughters (upon whom he seems to dote) alone on a New York subway platform. Come on.

  9. Parker February 2, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    Great comments by everyone.

    “Rags to riches” stories are always fun. And “riches to rags” stories aren’t bad either. I consider this one of the latter– the story opening with vain, rich, homoerotic, and insecure Michael preening in his three-piece Saxony– and ends with him astride an obviously deranged homeless person lying in the “muck and puddles” of a subway track, with the train bearing down on them, his Saxony suit and himself facing “utter destruction.” That they aren’t destroyed (the author lets the train stop eight feet short)– a “happy ending” touch that, alas, seems more the result of authorial whim than anything that arises inevitably from the story. Like most, I was caught up in the story right away by the crisp writing, colorful characters– despite subsequently finding much of the detail superfluous and/or puzzling. What for, example, is the significance of that bit about the Latin teacher showing Michael how to tie a bow tie? And that “boner-size bruise on Michael’s backside.” What was that all about? And what ever became of Michael’s “most serious” boyfriend, Jeremy, about whose foibles the author spent a lot of the early part of the story delineating, but (by story’s end) seems to have been lost in the shuffle– or, rather, in the folds Michael’s couch with his cellphone partaking of “selfies” and, maybe, Cheerios. Too many questions. A character introduced with much ado at the beginning of a story shouldn’t just disappear– or so this benighted reader once thought, led astray perhaps by an “old school” prof who used to say that fiction should be a tissue of significance, some great some small, but all of it, finally, part of the significance of the piece. Lacking that, a story may be fun to read, as I found this one to be, but certainly not one exhibiting the coherence and structure that marks it as art.

  10. David February 3, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Parker, the mention of the bruise is another attempt by Gilbert to be “clever” that doesn’t work. Michael’s sexuality is one of the aspects of his character under examination. He is 47, but has only been “out” as gay for two years. He was married previously to a woman and has twin daughters with her, but we are not told if his sexuality had anything to do with the divorce, at least not that I recall. He talks about using Grindr and implies that he was using it before he was “out”, but we are not told how long he has identified as gay. Maybe it’s just recent or maybe it goes back to childhood.
    .
    The only thing we are told that that really says anything about his sexuality when he was younger is the story about learning to tie a bow tie. The teacher who showed him how to tie it would have, presumably, stood directly behind him to do up the tie while Michael was wearing it. So the idea is that the teacher was sexually aroused and pressing himself against Michael with some force to leave the bruise mark. The fact that this could not plausibly result in a physical bruise suggests (I think) a some sort of metaphorical mark being left on him by this experience. That it is called a bruise certainly suggests it was experienced negatively, but who knows what it is supposed to mean (if anything) about Michael’s sexual development.
    .
    That’s the most sense I can make of it. Like the rest of Michael’s character, the issue of his sexuality seems badly underdrawn and not particularly interesting.

  11. Dennis Lang February 3, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting. Do you folks think the rather perfunctory treatment of Michall’s sexuality–lack of more complete backstory–is a deficiency in the narrative approach or by design. And, if by design, what might have been the author’s intent?

  12. Eric February 3, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    I thought the gay sex thing was one of the more interesting elements of the story, and pretty well handled. The story arc, as I read it, is about how Michael starts off as a driven, focused, responsible young man, determined to achieve not only worldly success and respect but more emotional closeness and satisfaction than his family had. For a while, he seems to be getting there, but then he faces an existential midlife crisis that he is never able to resolve. Instead he slides into irresponsible, narcissistic decadence, while trying everything he can think of to get out of his existential rut. Most of the elements of the story seem like logical attempts to add “tissues of significance” to that narrative, although I agree that some of them (the boner-sized bruise, the ending) don’t really work, coming across as forced and/or gratuitous.

    The gay relationship, though, did seem to me to work. The perfunctory nature of the relationship, and Michael’s willingness to sustain one with someone who is obviously interested primarily in his money, suggests to me that this is mostly just another failed strategy for dealing with his midlife crisis. He thought that coming out of the closet would solve many of his problems, but it didn’t–he’s still the same superficial, narcissistic, emotionally empty man that he was before he realized/decided that he was gay.

  13. Dennis Lang February 3, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks Eric. I do wonder again why a couple readers felt the ending failed, rather than the spontaneous reaction–unburdening– to the existential angst (for lack of a better word) of this meandering character who had lost his purpose. Why not his one grand gesture? And how appropriate this isn’t a damsel in distress sprawled on the tracks, it’s someone who couldn’t have come across as more detestable. Might this “homeless” fellow who resists being saved be the distorted mirror in which Michael sees himself?

  14. David February 3, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Dennis, I had mostly lost interest by the end, so I didn’t think about it too much, but from the author interview and his discussion of Hemingway it seems the idea he had in mind was that Michael tries to break free from who he is and do a great thing and he fails miserable. Then when the train stops short he does not even get the release from dealing with his own humiliation that death would have brought. But I did not get this from reading the story itself. I thought maybe the belligerent man would pose a threat to Michael’s daughters and he might be forced to confront the man to protect them, but no. The ending as written just seemed odd to me and entirely unmotivated.

  15. Eric February 3, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    I didn’t bother with the author interview, but that’s what I thought the ending was about as well. In theory, it’s a logical ending. But I just didn’t buy it–it didn’t work dramatically, because I simply didn’t believe that this man would do such a thing at that moment. Also, once he was down on the tracks with the homeless guy he seemed like a totally different person, someone who talked and acted differently. It almost seemed like the ending was lifted from some other story, where the protagonist was having similar problems but had a different personality.

  16. Dennis Lang February 3, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for the conversation David and Eric! We’ve probably beat this one into the ground, but I wonder if coming out of the closet in his mid-forties doesn’t represent an act of courage and desire for authenticity that somehow prefigures this last dramatic (hyperbolic!) act, that remains an heroic gesture–also in the eyes of his daughters– even as both men are spared in the end.

  17. Parker February 3, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    So many fine comments.

    David, thanks for the close reading. You have, I think, taken literary explication to a new level. :) At least in my experience. Your analysis most certainly is the correct one. Having never had to be shown how to tie a bow tie, that bit of “cleverness” by the author went right over my head.

    Eric, I admire your effort to fill in the story’s obvious gaps regarding Michael’s background and how he became the person he is. Gives the story a more verisimilitude, at least in my mind. That you feel compelled to do this shows a shortcoming on the part of the author, I suppose, though all New Yorker writers no doubt have to work through word and space contraints that limit what they can do.

    Dennis, good points. Whether one finds the ending credible or not depends a lot, I suppose, on what we’d do in similar circumstances as Michael’s. The problem is we’ll probably never know until we find ourselves in that circumstance.

  18. Peggy February 5, 2017 at 11:18 pm

    Not sure if the story met the conventional standards of good writing as expressed by the previous readers’ comments, but I liked the concept that a person who seems down on himself, in a spontaneous moment, shows himself to have good character which would get him out of the morass previously described.
    Peggy

  19. Dennis Lang February 6, 2017 at 12:16 am

    I think this is a great comment Peggy. and raises a cool question that has occurred to me as I’ve followed along with various comments on this and other stories. Especially those that begin categorically with “this is bad fiction”, or declaring the “story doesn’t rise to the level of art”. That sort of thing. By what standard?

    The point is the story moved you, triggered an intellectual and emotional response however it was achieved. See if you disagree that what matters is the control, the pitch of the author’s voice and not necessarily plot, character or setting. The “conventions” and idea of narrative can unfold in many creative ways. This is the beauty of it and never easily achieved. I don’t know if they’re teaching some “formula” for good fiction in the creative writing programs of grad schools these days but I can’t imagine they are. Then the take on “good fiction” risks becoming simply dogmatic.

    These short stories in particular (because they’re short and we can get our hands around them) lend themselves to an examination of what the author may have set out to accomplish then we can subjectively contemplate if it worked to that end.

    Anyway, that’s just my personal tic. Fun blog!!

  20. Greg February 11, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Dennis – Thank you for all of your posts on this well written story. Your passion jumps out and makes me feel energized. Especially directly above when you wrote, “What matters is the control, the pitch of the author’s voice and not necessarily plot, character or setting.”….Flaubert believed the same thing!

    Sean – I loved your review! My favourite part was how you chose to describe the author’s mastery at the sentence level: “The refinement with which Gilbert writes, remind me also of Donna Tartt, about whom Barry Hannah once wrote that the thing that made her writing stand out was that most of her contemporaries “have got really bad ears and minds, completely messed over by MTV. There’s this generic tone. They forget what language can do. They need to find their own personal music.””…..however, you broke my heart by saying you were disappointed with, “City on Fire”…..I liked this 900 page novel so much that I read it twice!

  21. Dennis Lang February 11, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    Kind words. Thank you Greg.

    I’m enjoying the enthusiasm of you and all the contributors to dig into these stories!

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