Ottessa Moshfegh's "The Beach Boy" was originally published in the January 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

January 4, 2016Welcome to a new year of New Yorker fiction! I want to take a brief moment to thank you who come and add to the discussion here. Sometimes it is a big discussion. Sometimes it is small. Sometimes we applaud the magazine and sometimes we wonder why we bother. But this community is valuable and meaningful, so thank you, and I hope 2016 is a strong year! It’s starting out with a young writer . . .

Indeed, this is Ottessa Moshfegh’s first piece to be published in The New Yorker, though some of her work has already appeared in The Paris Review (six times!) and Granta, and her debut novel, Eileen, came out to positive buzz toward the end of this past summer. I myself am completely unfamiliar with her writing.

I look forward to your thoughts below!

Here are Adrienne’s initial thoughts to get us started:

A couple, steeped in privilege and an elite lifestyle, meet with an untimely death and grief upon returning home from a vacation on an island. The story is meant to explore a man’s experience with a controlling marriage, too-tightly fit career, and the lack of choice and freedom he feels inside his life of privilege and ease.

There were great images in this piece. They juxtaposed each other in a subtle, and quietly jarring way, yet they felt forced. This piece could have been an organic exploration of relationships, emotions, desires. Instead of allowing the reader to watch the story unfold in a natural and life-like flow, Moshfegh tells us what to see and think, and when, in an overt mannerThe characters are well-developed, but they are pushed from scene to scene, moment to moment, by the author. I wonder what John would have thought about the last picture on the roll if particular thoughts were not insisted upon him . . .

I tried to find the criteria used to select fiction for the magazine. I found this response from Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker: “We have no concept of “trademark” New Yorker fiction. It is next to impossible to define one limited category that would contain work by Haruki Murakami and Alice Munro, Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri and David Foster Wallace, William Trevor and Aleksandar Hemon, John Updike and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gabriel García Marquez and Antonya Nelson, to name just a few of the very different writers we’ve published in recent years. What is important for us is that a story succeed on its own terms. If the writer’s goal is to be linguistically inventive, he or she needs to pull that off and do something fresh; if his or her goal is to have an emotional impact, that must come through in some powerful way. The styles and approaches can be as different as is humanly possible, as long as they’re effective.”

“The Beach Boy” feels like it is on its way to “suceed[ing] on its own terms” but is not quite there yet. Such dramatic and sudden shifts in personality do take place in times of grief, in times of great upheaval, and sudden freedom. This transformation is covered in a brief paragraph, but it reads like it’s trying to create effect — make readers see the change — rather than allowing them to discover it on their own, notice it by connecting to their own life experiences while reading. The narrator feels as controlling as Marcia, without being as light-handed and airy.

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By |2015-12-28T20:04:55-04:00December 28th, 2015|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Ottessa Moshfegh|10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Archer December 28, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    I liked this story. I haven’t ready any of Moshfegh’s stories for The Paris Review, but I did read Eileen, and it was one of the more memorable novels of 2015 for me: a dark, nasty pleasure.

    I feel like “The Beach Boy” plays with some of the common traits of NYer stories. On the surface, it’s yet another piece about privileged, disaffected Manhattanites. But Moshfegh captures the dark undertow that exists within these repressed, emotionally stunted lives. Midway though, I didn’t know where the story was going, and that’s to its credit. To quibble, some of the descriptions of the unnamed tropical island were a little overcooked, and the storm at the end was a bit of an obvious device, but all in all, I thought this was a worthy debut in the NYer’s pages.

    Happy New Year, everyone! And happy reading!

  2. pauldepstein December 29, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Great story! I love the way the inane dialogue of the group of friends is subtly exposed, while being fully believable. I liked the line “Are the people Catholic?” To me, that strongly reminded me of the joke “Is the Pope Catholic?” I’m curious as to whether it brought the same memory to other readers, and whether this was a deliberate reference by the author.

    Paul

  3. Roger December 30, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    I enjoyed the way this story overturned my expectations when Marcia abruptly dropped dead. At that point, the story switches from a gentle parody of the quintessential New Yorker Story to a radical parody of one. But it does more than that; it leaves the reader (or at least this reader) wondering whether John has become unhinged by grief, or whether he truly was so badly repressed during his marriage that he is compelled to act out the way he does. Maybe a combination of the two?

  4. Sunny December 31, 2015 at 2:39 am

    This story left me feeling a bit dead inside, like the characters! I was wishing for some spark of originality from the main character, like: he might have surprised himself by a sense of joy that his wife squeezed out some illicit pleasure on their vacation. His anger and his trip back there really felt forced beyond all measure. I both wished that the characters had been a little more unusual or interesting, or that the writer had shown more sympathy for them. I have noticed a coldness in contemporary literature that to me shows a pervasive lack of something…wisdom, perspective, even empathy?

  5. Who Knows? January 2, 2016 at 1:57 am

    This story’s a dud. Unconvincing, full of contradictions, overblown similes, etc. By the way, did Adrienne and I read the same one? I don’t see any evidence at all of a man steeped in privilege and an elite lifestyle, a controlling marriage, or a “too-tightly fit career.” Would be interested to hear Adrienne’s elaboration. Ditto Archer: I don’t see what you mean about a “dark undertow” to these character’s lives, or the bit about being emotionally stunted. What are you referring to exactly? Deb T’s interview questions hint at the story’s weaknesses, but she doesn’t press the issue, which is disappointing.

  6. Adrienne January 2, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    Who Knows? – I thought the interview questions were trying to sell the story – trying to push that this was a story of privilege and the desire for freedom! How funny we can see different things from the same words!

    These are what I saw in the first half of the tale:
    John and Marcia are a wealthy couple (he’s a dermatologist) from the Upper East Side. They took a vacation for their 29th anniversary, which is something they do yearly. She thinks too much about her expensive scarf bought at the duty-free and its implications. She plays squash – or at least has the trappings of the game, just in case.

    In the conversation with friends, Marcia does all the talking and he only occasions one difference of opinion. John participates only when his wife cues him. He has all the physical stage directions (unrolling antacids, scrolling through the phone) while his wife does most of the informing and play-acting. He embarrasses her with his monkey impression.

    “And then he felt ashamed of his privilege and his discontentedness… But Marcia had shushed him, taken his hand, and plodded down the beach with her eyes fixed on the blank sand.” He’s feeling shame about his life and she shushes him like a child. He apologizes when a woman hits on him without his encouragement. “All of John and Marcia’s friends were really friends of hers. John sometimes felt as if he were just a strange appendage to his wife.”

    There’s more… But I hate being the spoiler of twists!

    I believe the interview with the editor intimated about their privilege: “education isn’t the cure for élitism. One might say that New Yorkers like the folks in “The Beach Boy” are especially susceptible to the kind of stupidity I love to write about—the stupidity of entitlement. John and Marcia do, after all, live in the bubble at the center of the universe.”

    The editor asks: “Do you think his midlife crisis, for lack of a better term, was inevitable, after thirty years of dutiful, subservient marriage, or is this something psychologically stranger?” And Moshfegh replies: “I don’t think John is suffering from anything unnatural. He’s a human being, and perhaps he’s just discovering that for the first time in this story. I consider him lucky. He gets to experience more than he ever would otherwise.”

    So these are the places that led me to see the story as I did.

  7. Ken January 4, 2016 at 5:10 am

    I found this compelling and highly readable but rather cold and nihilistic. It doesn’t read to me like John discovers anything. Not that I need a cheesy epiphany exactly but something about him drunk, naked, near-drowned and then of no interest to the parasitic local prostitutes because he’s got no money just seems a bit too harsh. The point here seems that there isn’t one and that nothing is particularly unusual. But…I did like that this was never predictable and it kept me engaged.

  8. Greg January 6, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks everybody for your thoughts!

    The story has its flaws, but the subject of repression is very well played out here!

  9. pauldepstein January 7, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Does anyone want to tackle my question about whether the line of dialogue “Are the people Catholic?” is an intentional echo (intended by the author, not the character) of the joke/question “Is the Pope Catholic?” Thank You.

  10. Greg January 7, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Good question Paul!

    My first thought while reading this line was that the author was trying to make the point that the people were typically living the religion which was ‘brought over to them’ from the Europeans.

    But now I see your interpretation…hmm……….

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