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.