The New Yorker doesn’t often publish speculative fiction, so when it does it’s an event. David Gilbert’s short story, “From a Farther Room” falls into that category, but unfortunately the story suffers from a failure of nerve and backs off from a great premise to provide instead a pretty lame metaphor for suburbia and the wasting power of a stale marriage.
Oh, how the ghost of John Updike still haunts the editorial sensibilities of New Yorker fiction editors!
The story: Robert, temporarily a bachelor because his wife and kids have gone to visit her parents, goes on a bender with Stearns. When he makes it home, he pukes up a baby. Well, sort of a baby — it’s definitely sentient. Anyway, he does the sensible thing — he buries the puke-baby alive. Then he digs it up and most of the story is a hilarious exercise in caring for the puke baby. He buys diapers, formula, baby food, etc. He’s good at parenthood — he has kids. He can do this thing.
Me to husband: OMG! I’m reading a story about a man who pukes up a sentient puke baby! And then takes care of it!”
So what happens? Well, David Gilbert gets scared by his own fantastic setup. He Updikes out, opting instead to bring in a tired metaphor of a broken-winged bird to reflect on the staleness of his protagonist’s life and the paths not taken and the tired suburban marriage with a competent and loving wife. You know, people complain that science fiction is “literature” for stunted men-children who can’t handle reality, but isn’t it time for so-called mainstream literature to hold up its collective hand and say, “Enough! Enough bad marriage stories! Enough of the sad middle-aged old-young man who is in a marriage that doesn’t thrill him anymore? Enough of the ‘woe is me’ of the white guy who doesn’t like his wife or his life or his kids.” Lay John Updike to rest, for God’s sake!
I wanted to shake Gilbert by the lapels. “Dude, remember what your AP English teacher told you? Ask the question: ‘And then what happens? And then?’ ” Keep asking the question and you’ll find your ending.
So, as if anyone cares what I say in my quiet little backwater of the Internet. And I know all about failure of nerve, because I have committed it in plenty of my stories. If anything, “From a Farther Room” reminds me of what happens when writers let their fears get the best of them. Gilbert opened up an intriguing can of worms with this story; if he had only looked all the way into the bottom. Instead, he looked away, went for the comfortable. Basically, he choked. And that was a shame — up until the last 250 words, it was a great story.