David Gilbert: “Member/Guest”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  David Gilbert’s “Member/Guest” was originally published in the November 12, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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When David Gilbert published The Normals in 2004, I read mostly bad reviews. Consequently, I have never read a word by him, and I’m not terribly excited to read this one — but I will soon. In the meantime, feel free to leave your thoughts below.

3 thoughts on “David Gilbert: “Member/Guest””

  1. Ken says:

    This is not reinventing the wheel but it’s a very subtle, nuanced little observational story about upper-class 14 year old girls at an exclusive Hamptons beach club on a summer afternoon who are just beginning to explore sexuality and transition into adulthood. The main character is not particularly likeable but she is well-drawn and the dialogue and observations are sharp.

  2. Aaron says:

    I’m with Ken on this one, and you can read a more thought out response from me here: http://bit.ly/RPEaw4

    Like you, I know little of the author, and this story isn’t particularly deep — but it’s certainly not nearly as shallow as it threatens to be, and I don’t think you should dread reading this. There’s some nice craft from the author, too, in the way he ties themes together and connects the three pivotal plot points … and unlike Ken, I actually found myself liking the protagonist, appropriately named Beckett, quite a lot.

  3. Betsy says:

    David Gilbert’s “Member/Guest” treads the territory of Fitzgerald and Cheever: the old-rich, the super-rich, the new-rich, and the wannabe rich. But wealth is a tricky terrain – we can easily sink to enjoying a shallow take on it. A serious writer needs to consider why he’s using wealth as a backdrop. Gilbert rises to that occasion and gives the story the scope and depth that establish his ambition. The story is highly cinematic, provocative, fascinating, dense, and bleak, and part of the ambition lies in Gilbert’s ability to make the story seem as much national as it does domestic.

    The story relies upon a density of classical allusion to give the story weight and to establish a resonance between the setting, a country club, and the idea of nation. That density, however, almost sinks the story, something that makes me wonder if this story is actually the first chapter of a novel. If that were the case, then the many threads set up in the story could be given play. As it is, the story finishes with many unanswered questions. Even so, I was fascinated by “Member/Guest”. I read it several times and recommend it.

    Set entirely within one summer afternoon at an exclusive Long Island country club (which attempts to project itself as a kingdom of calm), the story reveals the chaotic inner life of a sensitive fourteen year old girl. Talented, precocious, and complicated, Beckett thinks that “life is prose and death is poetry”. Her family life is marked by verbal abuse and casual neglect, and with a little trepidation, we see her approach a 42 year old security guard and enjoy an apparently harmless conversation. The way she opens up to him, however, indicates a yearning for an opportunity, almost any opportunity, to try out being herself. But as the story unfolds, she appears to be slowly drowning.

    The country club has defined edges and arbiters, such as the man-on-the-terrace/bouncer, whose job it is to determine who’s in, who’s out, and who’s okay for the day. The characters, including the children, seem pre-occupied by how to keep people at bay. The narrator comments that the people in this club “thought the kingdom was theirs.” Regardless, the kingdom, as represented by this country-club, is under almost continual threat. People waft in who look as if they shouldn’t be here, and yet it turns out they’ve been invited. Children swim in water that’s prudently marked off from the “unruly” sea with ropes and barrels, and yet the heavy seas could care less, and at least one of the children is scared by the high waves. A father remarks that what will follow 9-11 will be “bigger and more awful”, but, regardless, this knowledge doesn’t persuade him to stop to treasure what he has now – a brilliant daughter and a beautiful son.

    In light of the mythical frame, the title “Member/Guest” takes on a weighted irony. In Greek mythology, humans were always to treat a stranger with hospitality, because a stranger could always turn out to be a god in human guise. In the case of this ‘country’ club, strangers are to be turned away.

    The mythic world is throughout an ambitious backdrop for this ‘country’ club. References to gods and goddesses, Latin aphorisms, Pyrrhic victory, Aeneas, Oedipus, and the riddle of the Sphinx remind us that while empires can come and go, the real constants are selfishness, blindness, and the arc of fate.

    Indeed, the true blindness in this country club appears located in the family itself, as typified by Mom and Dad, fourteen year old daughter Beckett, and younger son Harry. The kids listen to Mom and Dad hack “each other in half every day”. Mom, who was once “almost a beauty” but now is heavy, makes a habit of ill-willed back-biting, such that her daughter thinks of her as “toxic upon toxic”. Beckett thinks that younger brother Harry, who is charming, beautiful, and reckless, will surely self-destruct before he’s 21. Dad lets it all happen, including being “forced into another drink”, even though that means he will not keep a promised afternoon date with his daughter – part of the croquet “death match” which Beckett enjoys so much.

    Dad does not ‘hear’ Mom or stop her, and Mom does not appear to actually ‘see’ her daughter. Beckett loves Latin, and would secretly love to go to Rome, but for some peculiar reason, Mom wants her daughter to go to Cambodia the following summer, and it is not at all clear who will go with her. Beckett loves Latin, and is good at it, but her mother indulges herself in the callous quip that it is like “being fluent in Braille”, as if neither Latin nor Braille could be of any use to anyone. Perhaps blind people are not welcome in her club. The blindness in the story, however, is primarily located in Mom herself, who is unable to read her own children, particularly her own daughter.

    Central to the story is the quality of Beckett’s “summer” friendship with three other fourteen year old girls. Their conversation is filled with jabs and jibes. Beckett, particularly, feels vulnerable, and allows herself to taunt another girl about living in “the suburbs”. The girls are awash in sexual pressures they do not understand – but while their fears are evident, they do not dare own up to being afraid. They end up turning on the girl from the suburbs – one of their own – hazing her with the threat that if they are able to catch her underwater, they will rip off her bikini top.

    Suddenly, the story has taken a turn from being just a slice of a society at a particular moment to being a story about two particular girls: one who must come to terms with her own very real aggression, and one who must come to terms with being assaulted.

    But it is the kind of situation that can engulf an entire community, not just the girls involved. The whole country club is going to witness what happens: parents, the man on the terrace, other kids, and, of course, the people who work there. How will they react? This is a story which is very current. In real life, on January 14, 2010, after suffering months of bullying from fellow teenagers, fifteen year old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in her family’s South Hadley, Massachusetts, home. Six teenagers were charged, and more charges were considered, but not levied, against the numerous school officials who had been aware of the bullying. Books are being written about the way in which the community responded, and just a few months after Phoebe’s death, the Massachusetts legislature passed an anti-bullying statute.

    We do not know where the physical hazing that Beckett and her friends embark upon at the very end of the story will lead. What we do know is that it feels more like the beginning of a story than the end. Of course, we readers like stories that allow us to do some of the writing, but the elaborate set-up that Gilbert has given this story suggests that even he himself has imagined more.

    Should Gilbert actually be considering a novel, one structural problem with characterization nags at me. While fourteen year old Beckett is clearly intelligent, it feels impossible that she is studying Virgil, Tibullus and George Eliot as a freshman. I need more set-up about this precocity if I am not going to doubt the author. In addition, there are places where I hear Beckett thinking the thoughts of a much older girl, making me wonder if there was a version of the story where Beckett was, in fact, older.

    A second structural problem is that the sheer weight of the allusions and quotations threaten to sink the story. There are several Latin quotations which appear in the story, but let’s look at the freighted manner in which the one that ends the story works. The most faithful translation, “The one who is absent will not be the heir”, plays into the idea of national collapse, while another, “Absence does not make the heart grow fonder”, resonates with the idea of parental absence. The third, “Out of sight, out of mind” appears just when Beckett is underwater, out of sight, and in particular, out of sight of the guard. The actual meaning is unclear, and that is underscored by the fact that very few readers would be familiar with the Latin original.

    What makes “Member/Guest” so bleak is that Gilbert has constructed the story so as to suggest the ‘country’ club as a stand-in for the nation. What is masterful in the story is that Gilbert gives this vision life. With the mythical backdrop, especially with the allusions to Virgil and thus to nation building, we have a vision of a national responsibility that is first of all a responsibility for the defense of children, a responsibility which is here completely lacking.

    In this story, we see no support for Beckett’s transcendent abilities, we see no evidence that she is aware of her own cruelty or aware of her guilt, we see no one truly watching her, and we slowly sense that it is she, not her brother, who might be headed for an early death. In addition, we see that the girls’ intended mark is entirely alone. So instead of being in a nation that is able to guard and guide its children, we are in Columbine country. That, at this point in history, is an almost intolerable place to be.

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