July 22, 2013: “From a Farther Room” by David Gilbert
What, then, is this creature Robert finds?
Robert, while his family is away, is out on the town with his unmarried friend—they eat and drink too much, but instead of going on to a strip club, Robert heads home after a nightcap during which the friend unburdens himself about his father’s dire medical condition. Robert, it will be revealed, didn’t have such a great relationship with his own father, and is somewhat uncomfortable with his sons. His wife and kids (two boys and a girl) are currently visiting the wife’s wealthy parents, leaving Robert alone with the dog to fend for himself. He wakes up, hungover, to discover a creature of some kind on the floor, perhaps the product of his nocturnal vomiting. At first his instinct is to get rid of it, but he can’t. As a kid, he was into rescuing wounded birds, at least until the time his father chastised him for wasting his time and killed a bird. One of the story’s great strengths is the acceptance of this thing as real—a surreal situation becomes natural.
During the course of the day caring for the creature, Robert becomes attached, and calls it “You,” because he is speaking directly to it. When the wife returns, the reader is wondering what has become of “You,” but Robert has the thing safely stashed away in the basement. Cheever meets Kafka, as Gilbert suggests in the Q&A with David Gilbert.
So, what is this thing? At one point, it is called a nightmare. But it doesn’t seem as simple as that. It’s a memory, isn’t it? Or a memory of something that didn’t happen? It evokes not only his strained relationship with his father, but his own discomfort with his fatherhood. He addresses the thing as “You,” but it’s really a part of him, isn’t it? (Which is how many second person stories proceed, after all.) And is it a part of him that he’s going to leave in the basement? Or will he be able to call it forth from time to time, and become the father he himself needed?
Gilbert had another story in the New Yorker at the end of last year (see this discussion of “Member/Guest”) but I find this one far more interesting.
One last thing: is the title an allusion that I’m missing? I hope someone will enlighten me. In any case, it does seem to refer to the recesses of Robert’s memory, and of course the word “farther” couldn’t be much closer to “father,” which for me is what the story is all about.
Thrilling. Have I actually found a website where I can talk about New Yorker short stories that I can’t seem to unlock myself? Best, Rochelle
The farther room, seems to me, memory. He found his old stuff, the box, his cards, in his mother’s–was it basement or attic–either of which would be a farther room. At one point the protagonist hints that he had a twin who died at birth. Perhaps this is part of his unhappiness–the psychic longing for the other, the guilt at having been the one to stay alive, and this creature represents it. After he is able to take care of this creature which might be an embodiment of his dead twin, he is able to really see and appreciate his own children.
it seems like we need to bring Frankenstein into this discussion.
I thought that Robert killed the creature at the end. At any rate, he put him down below (as one pushes terrible thoughts out of one’s head) and out of the mainstream business of the house. If he didn’t kill the thing, he may as well have, because he will never put the two elements together: his dysfunctional family and this new thing he produced, a new son, as it were. I think the kid is Robert himself–and that he will never be accepted into mainstream upper middle class or any family–and he knows it.
I can’t mark required field Website as I do not have a website.
That’s not a required field.
I thank you for your comments.
Wonderful insight. So glad I have all of you for a story like this where it’s so subtle. Loved the dialogue he has with his wife. Those short, one-liners compared to the big blocks of text.
Hello. I don’t quite understand the last part. Is it saying that Robert wishes he could take the monster to the woods in Michigan where he could take care of it and see it, if possible, evolve into a viable existence but that he can’t because he has his share of middle aged garbage like his family and his past with injured birds? Thank you in advance.
Rochelle, I liked the short quotes, too, quite often the way people in a marriage speak. The story upset me, and that’s why I wanted to know what others thought of it. Even though I believe it’s an allegory, the nightmarish symbolism is almost too much. Unfortunately this story will stick with me for a while; at least I hope it does. I would not want to vomit it.
Yes, Cliff, this story will stay with me for a long time as well. Hope it makes Best Short Stories.
I thought of the creature as a literal representation of Robert’s “inner child” (get it?). He rides home from the store with windows down and his old favorite music blaring. His wife and 3 kids are out of town, he’s depressed with where his life is, and he’s going just a little bit insane. I think the creature/inner child is just a hallucination , a manifestation of the self he has neglected for too long.
Inner child. That’s a great take!
The title alludes to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I know the voices dying with a dying fall/Beneath the music from a farther room…”). Gilbert mentions in the Q&A that he was trying to capture the feeling of that poem.
Ah, thank you! I googled the phrase but wasn’t successful. I saw his reference to Prufrock in the Q&A but didn’t explore it. I guess I should have. Thanks again.
It seems like we are all fairly confused about the short story’s meaning. Maybe that was the goal of Mr. Gilbert? Possibly, an existentialist type of story?
Rochelle, I believe, is on to something with her focus on twins, both the real twin sons and the “unborn twin.” I see the creature as the protagonist’s unrealized self. At the end of the story, after his wife and children’s return, the creature has replaced his previous, emotionally stunted self. He has a second chance.
Yes, the symbolic creature may be all of the above and, though the creature is in his basement or dead or whatever, he did care for it. It was and will always be part of him – it came form within him. But more important he will endure and perhaps, maybe become more of a father and a husband.