David Gilbert: “Member/Guest”
11/12/2012 § 1 Comment
Originally published in The New Yorker, November 12, 2012.
As one might expect from a story that takes place at an upscale country club and is titled “Member/Guest,” this story is about belonging (and to a slight degree, the class that is associated with that). But the trick is that it’s less about occupying a physical place and more about the way one’s coming-of-age causes a bit of a re-placement of one’s mental self. The not-randomly titled main character, Beckett, is a fourteen-year-old girl, and she’s finding that she may have outgrown her “best summer friends”: “They were like a favorite TV show that had gone all ridiculous, yet you stayed tuned, hoping that the silly plots would get better.” They’re all talking about blow jobs and dildos (cluelessly, though, and with visual aids in Barbie dolls and sandcastles, so their youth is ever present), but Beckett quotes from mythology and classic literature — Aeneas, to be precise. Unlike her queen bee friend, Natalie, who has “size-B boobs that shot perky parallel lines into the sunglasses of men and women who muttered ‘Here comes trouble,'” she can’t (or doesn’t yet have the ability to) straddle the two worlds of scholarship and sexiness that she’s torn between, and so she’s in a mood. “She wanted, more than anything, a reason for her rotten feelings.”
Gilbert doesn’t always capture this feeling; some of his prose is overwritten, with metaphors that are too cute by half, in the sense that they call attention to themselves. (There’s an extended metaphor that relates her parents to bickering magicians who “sawed each other in half, yet they always managed to emerge whole” while she stands there “arms shackled around her waist, like a picture of Houdini.” One would be fine; both is perhaps a little much, although I confess that I go for such stylistic indulgences in my own work.) I’m also not sure what to make of a sequence in which Beckett finds her attention drawn from a pile of shoes on the terrace to an image of the Holocaust museum. She may be in a dark funk, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary to evoke the Holocaust, even if children have a tendency to exaggerate their woe-is-me feelings. That said, the central moment of this piece comes in an exchange between Beckett and the club’s glorified bouncer, a man who has been in the background her whole life but whom she is now noticing as, well . . . a man. The dialogue perfectly captures her attempts to wriggle into an older, more impressive skin, particularly as she regurgitates meaningless information about Cambodia that she’d just overheard her parents talking about. There’s a nice transition in the section, too: she goes from nervously repeating “like” and then self-deprecatingly moaning about her age (“I might as well be twelve”) to quoting from a Latin poet, Tibullus. She may not connect entirely with the language, she confesses, but the translation is everything to her: “‘Really lovely to look at,’ she said, ‘and lovely to read aloud, and then you get to the meaning, what’s underneath those words, and it’s even lovelier, because you’ve made it your own, if that makes sense.'” This is how we make sense of the world, how we read, how we filter, how we define, and how we ultimately find our place in relation to everything else.
The final sequence, then, has Beckett reuniting with her friends in a ritualistic swim against the hard currents of the ocean out to some barrels. Two of her friends, Clio and Josephine, are giving her grief, and Beckett finally makes the decision to stand up and declare herself. She uses her intelligence to do so, and then her working knowledge of sex, resurrecting a game called “horny shark” that they’d once played. She’s feeling a new affinity and connection to Natalie, and with every stroke back to shore, she’s more assured, more herself. And as she swims, what is she looking at? The man, the bouncer, sitting there, representing something she doesn’t quite know yet, but is rapidly nearing. I’d say that’s nicely done and connected, especially for a story as light as this one.