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New Yorker Fiction Review #129: "The Beach Boy" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Issue: Jan. 4, 2016

Story: "The Beach Boy" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Rating: $$$

Review: I don't know whether I actually liked this story or if I just got hooked into it because I fell for the subtle trick -- intended or not -- that the story pulled on me very early into it, that made me read it with rapt attention and wish that there were about three more pages at the end. But the question I always ask myself is: Does it really matter? The story gripped me by the throat and didn't let go until the the last word. Sometimes you do a story or a film a disservice by asking "why" too much and then ruining the experience.

The story starts off as another "ho-hum" kind of story about a well-to-do white couple living in Manhattan. He's a dermatologist, she's a squash-playing busy-body who clearly wears the pants in the relationship. As the tale begins, they are just back from their vacation trip to a (Caribbean? Southeast Asian?) island to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. But, even in the very opening scene, as they regale their friends with their typical upper-middle-class, First World tourist observations about the local culture, we get a sense of impending darkness, of some lurking desire, some discontent between the couple. 

Moshfegh planted that seed early on in the story and delivered the goods about 1/4 of the way in with a prominent death that I believe Moshfegh manipulates so that the reader will wonder, throughout the rest of the story, whether or not was a murder. At least that was my reading in. I might as well tell you the the wife, Marcia, is the one who dies and, based on Moshfegh's description of the death and the eeriness leading up to it, one could easily believe that her husband John, a doctor with access to medications, did the deed.

Turns out...he didn't, and the story turns out to be John's search for an explanation of one suspicious photo in her purse, a photo from their island trip, and his own quest for liberation from what has been a peaceful, successful, but somewhat boring and repressed adult life. As with most things in life, John places a lot of expectation on what he will find when he tries to "unlock" some secrets about his wife and himself, but is ultimately disappointed; Pandora's box turns out to be empty. Nothing could be more fitting, I suppose.

My enjoyment of this story was so closely tied to my interpretation or mis-interpretation of Marcia's death, that I did not care whether or not the author developed John's character very well after the death. Incidentally, she did not; John is a bit of a 2-D character, really. Not all that likable. All the more reason for me to think there was some hidden secret, something he was covering up. I do feel a little let down in that regard, and I wonder if I would have liked this story half as much if I hadn't read any sinister intentions into Marcia's death.

But there was something else I liked about this story; Moshfegh's observations show a keen understanding of the human psyche that is the mark of a great observer of people, and her language demonstrates the marks of a true artist and appreciator of the language and what it can do. Take for example, a few simple lines:

"The streets were nearly empty, late as it was. The whole city felt hushed, focussed, like a young dancer counting her steps."

"John tried for a moment to forget that the city was right there, surrounding them. He'd been disappointed by how quickly his life had returned to normal after the vacation...But gazing out the window of the tour bus on the island, he had felt envious of the locals, of their ability to do whatever was in their nature. His own struggles seemed like petty complications, meaningless snags in the dull iteinerary that was his life. Why couldn't he live by instinct and appetite, be primative and free?"

"John put a hand over his heart, which was now broken by something he found far more interesting than a dead wife."

Ottessa Moshfegh
Perhaps these are not the most remarkable sentences in the English language, and perhaps the final two veer a little too close to the "telling and not showing" category, but...this is a short story after all, and I think this kind of close authorial hand serves to give us a better idea of what's going on inside John, even if that picture still remains a little fuzzy and indistinct when all is said and done. 

Overall, I feel like there were flaws and merits in this story, but the merits vastly outweigh the flaws. Moshfegh is a young writer (late 20s / early 30s, I am assuming) and this story shows some of the unevenness of her youth as a writer. But I see the marks of greatness here. Something about the lens through which Moshfegh sees the world is irresistibly interesting to me for its sort of unrelenting twinges of darkness (at least in this story) and attempts to probe into the deepest reaches of the otherwise "still waters" of a placid character. 

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