David Gilbert: “Member/Guest” from The New Yorker, 11/12/12

New Yorker art by Karine Laval

New Yorker art by Karine Laval

Back on the terrace, the man in the Adirondack chair presided over the scene, his eyes remaining within the ropes that boxed in this orbit of sand and stretched a hundred yards into the ocean, toward white barrels that marked the civilized limit, the parameters of the all-seeing club, beyond which, it was silently agreed, the world became unruly.

People need to belong to groups – families, tribes, communities. Maslow put “belonging” below “self-esteem” on his famous pyramid, indicating we can’t develop self-esteem, no matter what our accomplishments, unless we belong. A necessary element of the need to belong is the need to exclude, to keep out those who don’t belong. But it isn’t all that simple: the need to belong competes with a need to be distinct, an individual. It’s even more specific than that, according to Dr. Russell Spears of Cardiff University: people want to be part of a majority when it comes to their opinions, but part of a minority when it comes to their tastes.

All that, and adolescence, too.

I was a reluctant reader at the beginning of this story. I’m not even sure why; I was pretty sure this story about Beckett, a teenage girl at a Hamptons beach club with her parents wasn’t going to be a tribute (ironically, given the publication) to the Real Housewives of the Hamptons – and indeed, it wasn’t. But it seemed a little too glib, a little too “written.” Examples: Beckett’s thoughts when friend Natalie shows her a condom: “…a Trojan, Beckett noticed, which brought to mind a horse loaded with 19-year-old boys.” And there’s her evaluation of another friend: “Clio, poor thing, lived in Westchester and had none of the native New York City smarts the rest of the girls claimed by way of zip code.” Clio is also fond of classifying things as toxic: “Everything that summer was toxic.” Then the Lyntons, her parents’ lunch partners, give her some vacation advice: “In five years, Cambodia will be totally spoiled. It almost already is. Go to Cambodia and Vietnam before they’re wrecked.”

All of this is really good, sharply honed satire. A little too good, maybe, for an intelligent but unsure fourteen-year-old? In his Page-Turner interview Gilbert says he started with the man on the terrace, a figure he remembered from his own childhood, but he decided to make it a story about a teenager: “The beautiful part about adolescence is that you can swing between satire and earnestness, sweetness and nastiness, without jeopardizing the overall tone.” I was dubious – I think I wanted the narrator more separated from the POV character – but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. That turned out to be a good move.

Beckett’s parents are probably unaware they’re modeling adult behavior for her when they gossip cruelly about acquaintances walking by and take only-half-joking swipes at each other, such as Mom hazing Dad about calling her “Toots” (“Who are you – Frank Sinatra?”):

Her parents often had this kind of exchange in public. It was a trick of their marriage that baffled Beckett. Day after day, they sawed each other in half, yet they always managed to emerge whole at the end of the evening, nineteen years of semi-miraculous ta-dah. What was the illusion, Becket wondered, the love or the hate?

They’re also probably unaware of the effect of their snide remarks towards Beckett herself: Mom compares her study of Latin to “being fluent in Braille,” and she developed her conviction that a teenage girl eating ice cream alone in public was “a pitiful sight” from somewhere.

So just go home and read “Middlemarch”….Nowhere in “Middlemarch” was there a chapter on blow jobs, which, in this living Long Island novel, was the giddy subject of many a clueless conversation. “Middlemarch” was a breeze compared with the whys of what boys want in their sweaty little man dreams.

Beckett enjoys a conversation with the man on the terrace (“our homeland security,” her father calls him) though tinged with the omnipresent anxiety of adolescence. But he appreciates the Latin she quotes and translates, a piece of a poem by Tibullus: “May I gaze upon you when my last hour has come, and, dying, may I hold you with my weakening hand.” Enter girlcrush, alongside all the insecurity of the blossoming fourteen-year-old girl dealing with her own hormones and those of every boy whose gaze, accepting or rejecting, passes over her.

She goes back to her friends – she has to, of course; whatever the restrictions, belonging is a powerful drive, especially at fourteen – to Josephine and to Clio of the wrong Zip code and to Natalie, especially Natalie:

Natalie, the prettiest of the group, the girl who, unlike the three other girls, had those cool older siblings, Natalie, who had a super-rich financier father and a writer stepmother, a funky mother and stepfather involved in the arts, Natalie, with her angular face and gazelle legs and size-B boobs that shot perky parallel lines into the sunglasses of men and women who muttered, “Here comes trouble,” in differing tones, Natalie – there must be a Natalie in every group, Beckett figured, even ugly girls must have their Natalie, a Natalie upon whom you wish a little hardship and maybe, on sleepless nights, a full-blown tragedy, a Natalie who elicits the worst in you and confirms your own petty sense of self, that goddamn bitch – leveled her privet-green gaze on Becket and said,

It isn’t until the last page that things get really interesting, until the group starts to cannibalize itself in a sort of Hamptons version of Lord of the Flies, because, well, if you’re afraid of not belonging, the best way to belong is to rearrange the group dynamic and designate someone else as the odd man out in the group, as the focus of all that not-belonging energy in a game of humiliation called “horny shark.”

Everything in the story that has gone before, all the stuff I waded through, uncertain what Gilbert was doing, if it was going to be a descriptive piece, maybe another expository chapter from a novel (and having those kinds of metaquestions, as opposed to questions about the characters and motivations and possible forthcoming actions, is never a good sign), all that was put to good use as the theme of belonging and exclusion, in marriage and in adolescence, all the sexual bewilderment of fourteen, came together sharply on that last page, in those last paragraphs, when Beckett sacrifices Clio to cement her own shaky place in the group, and, as she checks hopefully to see if the man on the terrace is watching, considers more Latin: Absens haeres non erit. “The one who is absent will not be an heir.” Or, as sometimes colloquialized: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

She was right; compared to adolescence, Middlemarch is a breeze.

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7 responses to “David Gilbert: “Member/Guest” from The New Yorker, 11/12/12

  1. I actually enjoyed it more than I guess it came across as — we’re of like minds about this piece, though we’ve focused on slightly different parts as the keys that unlock the story for us, that make it more than just words. (“Hamptonian Lord of the Flies” is a hilarious premise, by the way.) Glad you delved into the Latin; I only looked up the first few bits, so as to better understand Natalie’s dressing down of Beckett.

    But yeah, belonging is what it all boils down to, and the things we do (or have others do) to carve out that niche and maintain it. If we sacrifice all that we are to become, however, what exactly are we, really? Not what I thought I’d get after reading those first few pages, and I think that speaks to the nature of a good story itself. If a story *isn’t* able to sacrifice all that it is to become whatever it is that it needs to, it isn’t much of a story after all, is it?

    • One of my (sadly neglected) quotes:

      The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.Charles Du Bos, 1882-1939. French literary and art critic, atheist turned Catholic, Notre Dame professor, author of What is Literature?

      But the idea is to better onesself in such sacrifice. It’s been a kind of tradition among girls – one I thought had petered out in this Age of Geek Ascendency – to dull one’s shine to fit in.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Edith Pearlman, “Honeydew” from Orion Sept/Oct 2011 | A Just Recompense

  3. I found this story incredible. Yes, as others have noted, I was initially put off by the story’s ending, which seemed abrupt (shouldn’t the relationship between Beckett and the unnamed attendant be further developed?), but then I realized that the story wouldn’t leave me, and I also realized that what I read as abruptness was really my desire for Gilbert’s story to have a more conventional narrative development. Shame on me.

    In some ways, “Member/Guest” feels like a very long poem, at least in terms of its restraint (this issue of the New Yorker also included a piece on Louise Gluck’s collected poems). The key, for me, begins with the story’s title. The division between “member” and “guest” resonates in obvious ways (who is a member of this society and who is not) but also in less obvious ways (the story is filled with boundary images: adolescence/adulthood, safe swimming territory/non-safe swimming territory, sea/sky, etc. Note, too, that the title of the story is “Member/Guest,” not “Member/Non-Member.” What is a “guest” but a complication of easy contrast? A guest is, after all, a temporary member, a member through invite, a member who is not really a member but enjoys the benefits of that title. The story is filled with such murky divisions. The barrels and rope that mark “safe” and “dangerous” swimming areas is arbitrary (the ocean cannot really be so neatly divided; and the ocean can only be divided for a certain length (this, too, is suggested in Beckett’s viewing the world in terms of what can fit between her thumb and index finger)). The murkiness of boundaries extends to larger thematic issues as well. What is adolescence but a murky boundary between childhood and adulthood? Beckett herself at times seems very intelligent and mature; other times, she is a child. The adults are, in theory, mature but often like children. The unnamed attendant, of course, most closely mirrors the spirit of the story title’s complicating of neat divisions. He is not a member, but Beckett has always assumed that he must be one. The attendant has the patience and–one guesses–the wisdom and scope (literally and intellectually)–of a sage. The reader imagines that the attendant would understand the member/guest non-dichotomy in ways that the other characters in the story could not.

    All this analysis would leave the reader cold if the story didn’t communicate these ideas organically. As a writer of fiction, I can honestly say that all the interesting shit that appears in my stories never occurs by design. Sure, after the fact, I read my work and think, “Holy crap, there’s some interesting stuff here.” The beauty of Gilbert’s story is how much power it packs (and how much there is to unpack) without ever feeling intellectually forced or emotionally insincere.

    I could go on. There’s a wonderful metafictional section on language, where Beckett associates death with poetry and life with prose, but where does Gilbert’s story–in spirit, poetry; in appearance, prose–fall then? There’s also a terrific scene where Beckett struggles with language (note, too, the character’s name: Beckett). At fourteen, and possessing a sharp mind to boot, Beckett cannot express herself (one of the frustrating aspects of language), trying to speak to the attendant in Latin but feeling frustrated that she can only mimic others’ centuries-old words instead of using that language to express herself and the words around her. When she does speak in her native tongue, she tends to parrot the empty words of the adults around her (Beckett wants to go to Cambodia before it is “ruined”). These struggles–with language, with entering adulthood, with her own self-image–are fascinating and well-executed.

    The ending is striking because Beckett is clearly standing at the border, murky though it might be, but instead of taking a step toward the maturity that we like to think that the attendant possesses, she instead leaps forward into the choppy waters of the dog-eats-dog (or, more fittingly, shark-eats-dog) world of the larger society around her. The sad thing is that she hopes that the attendant is watching her; maybe he’ll be impressed. Alas!

    • Hi David – great comments. I kind of swept the whole “guest” contrast to the side; thanks for highlighting it. And I so agree with the “interesting” stuff showing up without trying.

  4. Pingback: David Gilbert–”Member/Guest” (New Yorker, November 12, 2012) « I Just Read About That…

  5. Pingback: David Gilbert: “From a Farther Room” from TNY, 7/22/13 | A Just Recompense

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