“Fungus”
by David Gilbert
from the June 4 & 11, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

The 2018 Fiction Issue of The New Yorker is out, featuring stories by Lu Yang (see here), Karen Russell (see here), and David Gilbert.

It hasn’t been too long since we last saw David Gilbert in The New Yorker. “The Sightseers” was published last November, and the commenters here were very mixed, some finding it just okay, some loving it (see the post here). It doesn’t appear he’s leaving the world of money and commercialism and corporatism in “Fungus.” Here’s how it opens:

The insurance check came in the mail. From Geico. With its big-eyed lizard mascot. A Cockney gecko. As though disaster should appeal to ironic children. There are no geckos in Portland, Oregon—or in East London, for that matter. Not their natural habitat. But there are geckos in South Carolina. Andrew remembered them. In the winter they would sneak indoors and hide near curtains, frozen like novelty rubber until roused, and then such speed. Of course the goal was to catch one, to hold it in your palms, a brief warm home, until boredom set in, after which you’d release it onto the porch. The crueller boys did worse. With tennis racquets. With windups into trees followed by whoops. Geckos lose their tails if captured endwise, probably their most famous trait. Autotomy is the term, Greek for “self-severing,” which Andrew had misread last week as “serving.” Self-serving? No, no, se-ver-ing, as in divide by cutting. Certainly an effective means of survival. To lose what has been caught. But why a gecko should come to represent an insurance company baffled him, beyond the obvious wordplay, which seemed weak even for advertising and was outdone only by the Aflac Duck.

I look forward to your thoughts on this story (and all of the others in the Fiction Issue!). Please share below!

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By |2018-05-28T11:40:05-04:00May 28th, 2018|Categories: David Gilbert, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Larry Bone May 29, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    Trevor:

    Just what you posted makes me want to read Fungus. Gilbert must have a background in advertising with the picture of a lizard handing you that reimbursement check for that unexpected fenderbender. He has an eye for absurdity yet such an affinity with words and wordplay.

    This kind of thing appeals or doesn’t appeal at all. Commercial intention can put curious, delightful, imaginative words into the hard labor of selling an idea or convincing a judge let a criminal go creating a comfortable albeit very false illusion. Gilbert conveys this brilliantly in not too many words.

    Interested to read it and see the comments.

  2. Larry Bone June 9, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    It seems hardly anyone commented on “Fungus.” How can so many people buy Geico insurance and not really like its gecko sales lizard? Or are the people who buy car insurance not the ones who read books or short stories? Is commercialism suspect and unpopular? “Fungus” even sounds like the name of ’80s rock band. And maybe the songs of 80’s rock bands are too happy and too feel good compared to the harsh reality shows of today?

    The best part of this story is the way the car salesmen, Brian, seems to know exactly what Andrew needs for the best life for him and his daughter even though this only Brian’s second job.

    Andrew seems like a dad out of the 80s era so sure of doing well in life and positive everything will turn out alright as long as he weighs everything out and makes the right choices. The commercial styling of Gilbert’s prose is so confident and sure like a father who is well educated, very literate, intellectual and so sure he will be the best parent on the block though a widower father to his daughter. As though he cannot fail to be a good parent.

    If you want to read about dysfunctional fathers or mothers, there is at least one sad story everyday in the morning news. But sucessful parenting, that’s only in the commercials. Car companies that just want to sell you the car and not necessarily help you with parenting other than a parent being able to easily operate the vehicle.

    The beauty of this story is that Andrew kind of decides and makes adjustments in life as he goes along. Products increasing are sold with little room for any kind of change or adjustment so everything is pretty much automatic. Everything sort of severs off participation of individual thought or decision-making for the collective conformity of the mob or the majority placing all faith in management by professional authorities.

    Commercialism is looking at everyone wanting the same thing in any product so that the product breeds conformity in everyone and everything like the most desirable computer kluged up with all manner of bloatware apps to automate all aspects of one’s life.

    Oregon is cheaper and more verdant than San Francisco. And the forest is different. Trees are not all alike even though they are similar. And what dies within them is used to nuture other trees. Not sure what that has to do with parenting but I like the tone of sureness in this story that is so important in selling something or in surviving and possibly in helping to pass along survival to the next generation as fungus passes the deadness of a tree into the creation of a new tree.

  3. Greg June 10, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    Thank you Larry for fully expanding on commercialism / materialism / consumerism. Now I see how insidious they truly are in our lives. And your thoughts on things being made automatic caused me to think of the intense 90s song from Matthew Good titled: “Everything is Automatic”!

    I enjoyed this story as I do all David Gilbert stories – I believe he’s one of the most talented American writers today at constructing sentences. He deals with unfathomable loss with such grace here. The following are my favourite lines:

    “Brown was Andrew’s favorite. From amber to coffee to tweed. Baseball mitts. Panelled libraries. Hazel eyes and chestnut hair and quick-to-tan skin. A short suède skirt. This color preference was controversial among the followers of pink and yellow, almost disqualifying because of poop, which only gave Andrew more enthusiasm for the shade. Firewood and bourbon. A cabin in the woods.”

    “Did she recognize the gracefulness of her flight, the confident leaping through the brush, the lightness of her touch? She was all the beauty the world needed.”

    Finally, the author interview was very good. Here is what stood out to me:

    “I wanted Willa’s eating of dirt at the end of the story to reflect this idea—she’s ingesting the facts of the loss and creating a new landscape for them to exist.”

    “Well, songs can give you that peculiar emotional relief, where you’re crying and you don’t know why you’re crying, which was the effect I wanted from this story.”

    “…she went on to discuss the ways in which trees communicated in the forest, how they had this active social network via fungi. All that sharing beneath the surface. Unseen. Strange and mysterious and more complicated than we can imagine. The same way a good short story operates, deep down in the dirt.”

  4. Larry Bone June 17, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Greg:
    I agree that Gilbert’s precise and near perfect sentence construction is pretty amazing. It is rare to see such care taken in sentence construction in most short stories or novels these days. It makes me think of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen as far as special precision of expression. In general that is not a key characteristic of this writing era. It conveys a certain sort of comprehensive character personality and how he may address what occurs in his life. Gilbert’s use of fungus is a very inventive way to explain how the surface outward details of father and daughter continuing to survive amid the loss of the mother contrasts with underneath how death takes away but how the remnants after death form a sort of fertile fungus can emerge in their progeny. And it exists mostly unrecognized underneath the ordinary uniform details of life. Maybe no matter how superficially commercial or mundane or the same the average life seems, the mostly unseen much more compelling profound workings of a person’s existence continue always underneath like fungus. It makes me wonder what sort of person the daughter became if this were the beginning of a longer novel mostly about her. An excellent short story serves as the possible opening genesis towards an even larger further personality development of one of the characters which would seem like a good first chapter.

  5. Larry Bone June 17, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    Greg,
    One more thing about Fungus as Gilbert spoke about it “operating” in a good short story. Maybe that is part of what we look for in short stories. We might look for the “fungus” of the story. It might be like the MacGuffin, defined as an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance. The fungus “event” could be the loss of the mother although it doesn’t lack in importance yet gives context to the plot point of the picking out of the Subaru. It could be a kind of “undertoad” as John Irving terms it in “The World According to Garp,” the unspoken tragic circumstance. Just sort of ironic that the chosen Subaru is automatic. Drivers state that having 5 gears puts them more in touch with the road giving them more control of the auto/vehicle/life. The daughter’s loss of her Mom probably puts her less in control of her road/life. Yet Gilbert’s allusion to the “fungus” of the event of loss passes on the unseen unexpressed underneath carry forwards of the event. The father exerts decisional certainties he makes in life such as his preference for the color brown. He sort of unconditionally sets a good example in his actions which don’t make up for the loss but augur for control rather than a chaos of indecision. The tight precise sentences show a dad gracefully trying to control the uncontrollability of time marching forward after a loss. There really is more to it than there initially seems to be if I am not reading too much into it. But it works in a neat kind of way.

  6. Greg June 18, 2018 at 5:14 am

    Thank you Larry for elaborating more on this story! Your following two points particularly hit home with me:

    “Maybe no matter how superficially commercial or mundane or the same the average life seems, the mostly unseen much more compelling profound workings of a person’s existence continue always underneath like fungus.”

    “The fungus “event” could be the loss of the mother although it doesn’t lack in importance yet gives context to the plot point of the picking out of the Subaru. It could be a kind of “undertoad” as John Irving terms it in “The World According to Garp,” the unspoken tragic circumstance.”

  7. Ken June 19, 2018 at 2:03 am

    I think Gilbert is a tremendous writer and this is impressive. The mixture of the linguistic play and the wit of the sentences with a tragic story is impressive. Even in grief, those of us who relish words and ideas will still find things to think about, ideas to consider, and some pleasure in life from that.

  8. Eric June 20, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Not really my cup of tea. I admire the author’s ambitions, as detailed in the interview, and am impressed with his prose stylings, but I ultimately didn’t get a lot from reading the story itself. The whole story seems to be not about Andrew dealing with grief, but thinking about how to deal with grief, which I did not find that interesting–I have to think that anyone who is really struggling with this kind of tragedy would be thinking at least sometimes about what his wife and daughter were actually like, but we don’t get that at all. I guess his dealings with the car salesman, his hanging out with Ingrid and Ron, and his ruminations about the gecko and the rock music he grew up with are supposed to be somehow redolent of his feelings for his dead wife and daughter, but I just didn’t get that feeling.
    .
    I also found the story’s cleverness, which other commenters seem to have enjoyed, to more often be precious (that is, annoying), especially on first reading–eventually I figured out that “In the darkness before the dawn, the dawn” didn’t mean anything, but I don’t know how I could have ever guessed that it wasn’t supposed to mean anything, without reading the interview. Maybe stories like this should come with a disclaimer at the top saying something like “please don’t read this story without reading the interview first, otherwise you’ll think it’s crap.”

  9. Larry Bone June 21, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Readers never know what sort of characters they will encounter in a New Yorker short story. Then there the author’s idea about his or her character versus the reader’s unexpected reaction to that character. What seems like obnoxious self regard after grief could seem just trash arrogant or may just be how someone deals with grief. When I read a New Yorker short story, just before reading the first word I realize I might hate the story or love it or I’ll feel indifferent or feel nothing much towards it. Sometimes one feels engaged or totally alienated from a story. I would tend to except any character’s behavior more easily if they have experienced a loss or have a difficult challenge. If there is no plausible reason for how they act in the story, I lose any interest quickly and hold out hope next week, the New Yorker author for that week will provide a more satisfying (in any way) reading experience.

  10. Greg June 22, 2018 at 4:59 am

    This statement Ken from you has made me reflect:

    “Even in grief, those of us who relish words and ideas will still find things to think about, ideas to consider, and some pleasure in life from that.”

  11. mehbe June 22, 2018 at 8:19 am

    I enjoyed reading this one, but it left me less satisfied than the other two in this issue. For the sort of story it seemed to want to be, it felt too distant and inauthentic to me. Too self-consciously artful. Grieving is intensely personal, of course, and can take many varied forms, but I didn’t believe the main character here as a person grieving at all. Also, thinking back on it, the theme of “brown” was handled in a way that seemed heavy-handed – the author could (and maybe should) have called the story “Brown Study”.

    One thing did strike me as good observational writing. That was how the child had completely moved out of her car-choosing ecstatic mode by the time the car was picked up. Nicely done. And Brian, the car salesman, was also a generally good job of description, I thought.

    Something odd – in the interview, the author made a reference to “Subarus like white elephants”, but I don’t think that is what he meant. “White elephant” is very different from “elephant in the room”, which is probably what he meant. If it were a casual conversation, that sort of slip might not be worth mentioning, but this is a literary interview, after all.

  12. David June 22, 2018 at 11:11 am

    Mehbe, I was underwhelmed by the story as well, but I do agree with you about both the girl’s change in interest in the car and the salesman himself. I liked both too. As for the “Subarus like white elephants” remark, he was alluding to the Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants”. The context for Gilbert is talking about a draft he wrote of the story where the death of the wife/mother is never mentioned, just as the specific nature of the “operation” the man wants the woman to get in the Hemingway story is never specified.

  13. Greg June 25, 2018 at 12:04 am

    Thanks Mehbe for pointing out the great observational writing by the author – it’s not to be taken for granted.

    And David, I appreciate you clarifying the Hemingway short story reference. Also, since I really value your opinion, what is your all-time favourite story by Hemingway?

    (Mine is “Big Two-Hearted River”)

  14. David June 25, 2018 at 7:03 am

    Greg, I probably have not read Hemingway for a few decades now, but the In Our Time collection contains what I think of as his best work. “Big Two-Hearted River” is my second favourite, if you allow me to count “Chapter V” as a story on its own. If not, then “Big Two-Hearted River” would be my favourite as well.
    .
    “Chapter V” is so short I’m going to take this opportunity to append the entire thing to this message. Here it is:
    .
    .
    Chapter V
    .
    They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.

  15. Greg June 26, 2018 at 1:19 am

    It’s neat David that we have the same taste in Hemingway! Also, Harold Bloom agrees with you about “In Our Time” – He thinks Hemingway’s best short stories will far outlast his novels.

    Lastly, thank you for inserting “Chapter V”…I can see why you adore it! This is the searing line for me:

    “Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up.”

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