The Beach Boy by Ottessa Moshfegh, 2016
The magic trick:
Obfuscating the sympathies surrounding the protagonist, mirroring his own inability to commit to his own character
It’s hard to know how much sympathy Moshfegh has for her characters here. On the surface, it would seem to not much. The story begins as a kind of satire. Maybe it winds up a satire too. Dinner among friends in the Upper East Side, where vacation is hard work and the stories they tell about vacation are far from witty but still muster laughter at the table. John, the sudden and surprising midstory widower, isn’t played as a monster, though. He’s conflicted, dissatisfied.
The story then is about his quest for something akin to redemption; some kind of second act; a reprieve of sorts. So you definitely see that Moshfegh isn’t simply mocking him. Not at all. But neither does she fully cast him as a hero. The story never commits one way or the other to John. Which is perfect, because, ultimately, this is a story about a man who can’t commit one way or the other to his own life. And that’s quite a trick on Moshfegh’s part.
Eduardo leaned on his little podium, propped his chin in his hand. “How was the vacation?” he asked.
“Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful. Everything. I mean, the seafood was just beyond compare! The ocean was like bathwater,” Marcia answered. “And now we’re utterly exhausted.”
“Jet-lagged,” John said.
Eduardo tapped his pen on the podium. “When I go home to my country, it’s the same. I don’t sleep.”
“Yes, it’s rough. Well, good night,” Marcia sang.
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