Skip to main content

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. 


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #146: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Issue: May 9, 2016

Story: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Rating: $

Review: I feel like this is a somewhat tired technique, straight out of Creative Writing 101: write a story consisting of three or four different snapshots or snippets out of a character's life at different ages, sort of like a series of written photographs. Fun perhaps, but strikes me as a bit amateurish. However, I also think L'Heureux succeeds here by pushing it a bit further, playing with the character's tentative attempts at something close to faith -- in childish, adult, and mature adult ways -- and tying all three "Short Moments" together in a subtle and readily decipherable way.

L'Heureux's prose and his frank humor and his ability to glorify and find the meaning in the mundane events and thoughts of every day life, and thereby turn the life of an ordinary person into a drama with meaning and significance puts me in mind of John Irving. As well a…

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Water Review: San Pellegrino 250ml Bottle

Damn you, tiny little bottle of San Pellegrino. So little. So cute. But what are you really good for other than to make me wish I had a full bottle of Pellegrino? 
Good as a palate cleanser after a nice double espresso, I will give it that. But little else. The suave yet chaotic burst of Pellegrino bubbliness is still there, but with each sip you feel the tragedy of being that much closer to the end of the bottle, that much faster.

This is a bottle of water made specifically for the frustrated, for the meticulous, for the measurers among us with a penchant for the dainty. This water does not love you in the wild, on a sunny porch or with the raucous laughter of friends. No...much the opposite. Whatever that may be.

Best drunk in tiny, tiny sips, while forcing oneself through an unreadable and depressing Russian novel one does not want to read but feels one should, on a cold, wet day in December that promises four months of gloom and depression...or in pairs or threes and poured over …