“The Sightseers”
by David Gilbert
from the November 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

The last time David Gilbert published a story in The New Yorker (“Underground,” which we posted on here), he pleased many regular commenters here but disappointed others, who said the topic was well-worn, but who nevertheless admired the skill behind the story. In “The Sightseers” Gilbert goes to New York and the haves and have-nots again, threatening to disappoint those who want him to push the boundaries a bit.

I haven’t read this one yet, so I don’t know any more how it does or does not relate to “Underground,” and I don’t have any thoughts on whether he is doing something “new” here. That said, I find Gilbert’s talent undeniable, and sometimes that’s enough to satisfy me, even if I would prefer the talent combined with some particularly fresh take on material (which Gilbert has offered before).

I look forward to seeing what you all think of this one!

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By | 2017-11-13T15:04:43+00:00 November 13th, 2017|Categories: David Gilbert, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. David November 15, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    This story was ok, but nothing too special. As I read it I was reminded of a story by Charles Yu called “Standard Loneliness Package” (A version of the story can be read here: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/standard-loneliness-package/ It’s also included in his recent book, Sorry, Please, Thank You) That story is about a world where rich people can pay to “offload” unpleasant emotional experiences that are experienced for them by employees at a call center. The story is told from the point of view of one of the employees. I like Yu’s story more than Gilbert’s and when I started to think about why I realized that this story might have been much more interesting if it were told from the point of view of the Heron family. Here is how that might look:
    .
    The mother is very excited about the trip and very grateful to Robert and Paulette for paying for it and always concerned to make sure they get good footage for them to watch. The son is resentful of the arrangement and feels like he is being used by Robert and Paulette. The daughter doesn’t think at all about their sponsors and is just having a lot of fun on the trip. And the father is trying to keep the son’s complaints from ruining the trip and generally just trying to keep things moving. The end could be the family arriving to the theater to see Wicked and while they are waiting to go in the father’s eye is caught by a couple he notices who seem to be looking at his family. He wonders if these people might be Robert and Paulette coming to check up on them, but before he can find out or say anything to them the family goes in to the theater.
    .
    Reversing the family that is the primary focus still allows him to explore the same idea, but it seem to me that the Heron’s are the more interesting family. What the story as written is mostly is a description of rich people oblivious to the extent of their privilege with only Robert seeming to have some realization of the impact of what they are doing when, at the end, he imagines the Heron’s might actually want to seek him out and harm him. That’s ok, but a bit meh.

  2. Paul November 15, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    I loved this story. David Gilbert is a consistently phenomenal writer–always happy to see a story from him. This one feels especially relevant in today’s political climate

  3. Dennis Lang November 18, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    A devastating perspective on the lives of the self-aggrandizing filthy rich, driven by social status and recognition, the lives of the “philistines” beneath them nothing but playthings. For Robert there is the creeping anxiety, a resistance, searching for clarity, something permanent has been lost in fulfilling the vacuous societal role imposed upon him by his economic good fortune. In the end the dog disappears. I thought of the sled in “Citizen Kane”.

  4. Roger November 18, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    This is one of those stories that fails because the writer has almost no compassion for his characters. With very little exception, he devotes himself to holding them up to ridicule. If the writer doesn’t much care about his characters, why would the reader? There is very little heart here, although there are plenty of stylistic pyrotechnics.

  5. Ken November 22, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Are there gatherings of wealthy people in life or in literature that are not all about one-upping each other and proving one’s social capital? I was wondering because I don’t know people like this, but in books these gatherings are always parades of trendiness and competitive behavior with everyone trying to top each other in terms of their vacations, possessions, jobs, social position etc. Maybe the less-competitive and more secure rich people gather to each other and leave the more competitive ones to have parties like this? Anyway–I found this VERY familiar stuff–mocking the fads and lifestyle of the wealthy: their diets, their exercise regimes, their gurus and shrinks etc. And I agree with Roger, there is so little compassion that finishing this became a bit of a chore as I didn’t care about anyone here or what happened to them except I did understand the main characters desire to see everyone pulled into hell. I particularly liked his fantasy of snapping Flip’s neck. The final passage is a change yet equally cliched–the man of the city who has carefully controlled everything in his life (down to posted dinner menus in his home) is confronted with “nature” as his dog runs into the underbrush of Central Park. At least, Gilbert took a break from mocking everyone. The story was less of a chore because he is a very good writer and quite a stylist. Yet this too can become tiresome. Take this sentence (please!): “Buildings with their steadying lordship receded beneath this sudden presence of nature.”

  6. Sean H November 28, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Nice work here, for the most part. Great details to open. I love the smartphone conscientiously placed face down to open the piece. Imagery of inversion is scattered across the story and is often quite tasty. Robert, the self-punisher, the guilty rich man, training with a Navy SEAL for the Ironman triathalon, how he restrains from checking his phone, how he can’t touch the ornate doorknob for fear of leaving fingerprints, his fear as a 10-year-old boy in Susquehanna, worried about intruders and home invasions. Not to mention the aptly named Flip (whose very gender is a reveal), or “the old switcheroo,” or the persistent shadows of the buildings on the park, or the hated food (Brussels sprouts) that becomes the loved food, or the conversion of Saul into Paul, or the tropes of expectations-vs.-realities, or instinctive mothering vs. parenting by textbook, or cops who become chauffeurs, or a Barney’s that becomes a museum, and lastly a trained pedigree dog that relinquishes its expensive training and become just a simple, undisciplined animal chasing something into the underbrush.

    The surveillance of the Herons is creepy, but feels a bit derivative of George Saunders. I did quite love the line about “No screens after eight-thirty unless they’re watching a movie made before 1990” and the various Tecumseh references. The meiosis pun and Dr. Gottman (god-man) and Robert’s inability to remember the translation of the “Om Namah Shivaya” he is trying to appropriate clearly indicate that this story is intended to be taken as satire. Co-opting is a subtle theme throughout, particularly the very dark Rothko references about how artists essentially die making humanity into artworks that are then acquired by the ultra-rich. See DeLillo’s Cosmopolis or Dar Williams’s “Mark Rothko Song” as others who have commented upon the uglier manifestations of the re-purposing of Rothko’s art. The rich people co-opting the proletariat’s sexting is also unsettling, although, hey, the proletariat break the rules, and keep the rich on their toes. I love how Robert’s ilk are so uptight that they could not possibly be seen going to watch Wicked!

    In the end, it all comes back to Fitzgerald vs. Whitman. “They were trying. He was trying. But above him there was just sky, and trees in all directions.” The inauthenticity of the American dream, of the try-hards, vs. the somehow still-persistent real of the transcendental, the priceless. One might be reminded of Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe,” or Gilbert phrases it quite well in his interview with where he states “The striver is striving for consciousness, which is one of those few things that money can’t buy.”

    And just to respond to one of the commenters above, Roger, who stated that they disliked Gilbert’s piece because he consistently held his characters up to ridicule — that is one of the functions of the satire! Satire, as a genre, does not “have much heart.” I’m not saying Gilbert is Voltaire or Wilde or Thackeray or Nabokov, but they certainly don’t view their characters sympathetically (especially rich people, who those authors consistently hold up to be mocked). Ken’s negative take is a more fair-minded and even-handed one, and he provides a well-chosen overwritten sentence (although, in general, Gilbert’s prose is quite deft, particularly compared to some of the dreck the New Yorker publishes these days).

  7. Greg December 2, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you Sean for spending the time and effort to recount all of the great things in this story….many went over my head! And I loved your Fitzgerald vs. Whitman and Springsteen comparisons!

    Speaking of the genius Fitzgerald, these following passages showed the current author’s remarkable talent:

    “Lana and Friedrich looked at Robert as though he were an embedded commercial in one of their on-demand shows, their eyes trying to click thirty seconds ahead.”

    “His future success played like an amusing secret across his face. As though he were walking with “Enter Sandman” in his headphones while everyone else was listening to NPR.”

    “They approached Robert’s first proper apartment: an unloftlike loft across the street from the old Barneys department store, where he had been introduced to clothes on a whole new level. The strutting delight of that place, even when he was browsing alone, invisible women hanging on his arm. He had often paid in cash just so he could peel the bills from his roll of hundreds. Robert still had a few suits from those days, suits he never wore, yet which retained their spark of joy.”

    “There was a cynical naïveté to her attitude. Robert still found this incredible sexy. The idea that she had picked him, eighteen years ago, when making a million dollars a year seemed like a big deal. Almost storybook, he thought on the good days. “I never imagined I’d be richer than my parents,” she had once told him. “A lot richer,” he said. “Yes, I never imagined that.” In this way, she was modest.”

    “Like those rare times when Paulette would get stoned with him and within the haze would slough her adult layer and reveal the unbridled sweetness underneath, the goofy charm – remember this, Robert always urged himself, remember this person here. How she obviously struggled.”

    And maybe going to far with this:

    “…Stan pretending to be an airplane in front of the 9/11 Memorial, Ron horrified and chasing after him, briefly resembling the second airplane…”

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