July 22, 2013

"From a Farther Room"

By David Gilbert
~7600 words

With his wife and kids away for the weekend, a man stays out late drinking with an old friend and finds a strange visitor awaiting him the following morning.

Robert Childress wakes up with a blinding hangover and finds, in the spot by the side of the bed where he threw up in the middle of the night, an object
about the size of an eggplant, though in color more reddish brown, its body a mishmash of textures and lumps, a goulash molded into a ghoul. There was a shape that resembled a head, plus four distinct parts that roughly corresponded with two arms and two legs, further articulated by an assumption of ten fingers and ten toes, presently wriggling.
The rest of the story follows how Robert deals with this "creature," from initially trying to bury it in his backyard to eventually outfitting it in diapers and feeding it sweet potato baby food, until Becka and the kids return at the end of the story. By that point it has become reasonably clear that the creature is some sort of projection of Robert, filtered through bruised memories of childhood and reflections on a marriage that seems to be in deep trouble.

This story has many fine qualities. The plot is unusual but never strains credibility, nor does it try to pull off an O. Henry ending; at bottom it is a universal tale of a man struggling desperately for redemption. A keen grasp of human nature comes across in the complexity of the main character, who is deeply flawed but also deeply aware of his flaws:
Robert wondered if he was simply good at lying, or withholding, or whatever it was that he often did, or if Becka was too trusting and a savvier wife would have seen through him.
This type of self-reflection, as long as it doesn't cross the line into self-pity (and it doesn't in this case), makes for an ultimately sympathetic character.

Finally, Gilbert's language is beautiful. He has a knack for walking a nearly impossible line between the absurd and the heartbreaking, a talent that seeps into the story's imagery, from a turkey baster that sits "like a rogue exclamation mark" in Robert's hand to the muffled sounds coming from the creature's makeshift grave, "as if the earth were a heartbroken pillow."

My only objection to "From a Farther Room" is the ick factor. Yes, I know that's part of the point, but the descriptions of the creature are just a little too disgusting for me to say I really loved the story. But it's a powerful piece of fiction any way you measure it.


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