November 12, 2012

"Member / Guest"

By David Gilbert
~7400 words

Under the half-attentive gaze of a beach club attendant, four snarky girls poke at the topics of sex and death while vying with one another for prominence in their group.

Given the summary in the sentence above, a reader might be forgiven for pressing for more information: “Yes, but what actually happens in the story?” The answer: precious little. And yet a lot.

Let me explain. In “Member / Guest” we traipse beside fourteen-year-old Beckett during a day at the beach. She and most of her friends were born into the uppermost crust of New York (though poor Clio is a clinger-on from Westchester), and their families spend some weeks during the summer languishing on members-only beachfront. Protecting the privacy of these of one-percenters is the job of an unnamed attendant who rises from his Adirondack chair only to ask middle-class interlopers to kindly leave the premises.

There would be much to despise in the micro-society of “Member / Guest,” except that the characters are so human. While the adults are afflicted with an affable cluelessness reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, Beckett has not yet learned to be blind. On the cusp in many ways—physically, socially, intellectually—she studies social dynamics at the same time she participates in them. As the girls in her group test one another with sexual knowledge or physical strength, the group of four reproduces in miniature the exclusive society in which they live. Is it Clio who should be excluded, or is it Beckett herself? They are all desperate to be members—a point made with some poignancy when Beckett engages in conversation with the one person who is neither a member nor a guest—the beach attendant. There we see her testing the limits:
“How can you tell who’s a member and who’s not a member?”
“I get to know their faces,” he said.
“But I mean, like, with guests.”
“It’s not that hard,” he said.
“You ever make a mistake?”
“Sometimes people pretend to be guests, and that can be awkward.”
“Jesus, how desperate.”
The man tilted his head.
Beckett feared she had said a snobby thing.
The great strength in “Member / Guest” lies in the subtle intimacy of the point of view. We bob along with all the ripples of Beckett’s emotions—about her parents, her brother, herself. Even her hesitation about whether to fetch an ice cream cone smacks of poignancy.

In the end, while we’re made to worry for Beckett’s safety as the girls swim to and from a buoy, a deeper fear gnaws at us: by this time next year, Beckett will have outgrown her adolescent questions, and will be well on her way to becoming her mother.

Delicate yet powerful, “Member / Guest” is an extraordinary exercise. One might quibble with details (I could do without the obscure Latin in the penultimate line), but it is by and large,

Outstanding. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Member / Guest" to be __.


  1. Hmm, this one felt incomplete to me, like one of those novel excerpts TNY loves to foist on us. I thought the teenage snark was pitch perfect, but it felt like a background out of which I kept waiting for something else to emerge. Absens haeres non erit, indeed.

  2. My feeling: anti-climatic, however the life lessons including class struggle, friendship, and coming of age move the story along. I get the feeling that a lot of New Yorker fiction pieces are incomplete. I'm not sure if they are to symbolize something, explain an abstract social idea, or if they are to have surprise ending.