THE WASHINGTON POST – In 2007, Stewart O’Nan accomplished something impossible: In a novel called Last Night at the Lobster, he made the closing of a Red Lobster restaurant as compelling as a murder mystery.
He has now done the opposite: His new novel, Ocean State, makes a murder mystery as compelling as the closing of a Red Lobster restaurant. It’s a curious but apparently intentional achievement in a book that feels allergic to its own suspense.
Ocean State opens with this line: “When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.”
Even with the killer’s identity revealed, much remains tantalisingly hidden but only for a few pages. The full horror of the crime is soon revealed: The victim was a popular high school student. The two girls were fighting over a boy.
Disclosing these material details before the crime is re-enacted in the novel, before the police investigation uncovers the truth and before the trial produces a verdict, O’Nan has purposefully drained the tension from this tragedy. What’s left for us in Ocean State are doleful reflections on various characters’ motives and reactions. It’s a gamble.
The novel’s first narrator, Marie, introduces us to her poor family in Rhode Island. Her pretty sister, the teenage murderer, goes by the exceedingly ironic name ‘Angel’. Their mother is a nurse’s aide with one talent: “finding new boyfriends.” That ensures a precarious life for the family. “My mother’s boyfriends tried to be sweet, but they were strangers,” Marie said in her poignant, retrospective voice. “Sometimes they paid our rent and sometimes we split it. When they broke up with my mother – suddenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep – we would have to move again. Like her, we were always rooting for things to work out, far beyond where we should have.”
As usual, O’Nan wrote about financially stressed people with a clear and empathetic sense of the constant pressures they endure. Their plight is well represented by Marie and Angel’s 42-year-old mother. When she discovers that the latest man she’s dating lives in “an active adult community” – that is, a retirement home – she feels humiliated but also excited by the chance for stability. “Is it wrong to want something better than where they are?” she wonders. “It’s not like she could ever afford it herself. How many chances like this will she get?”
Perhaps if she hadn’t been so focussed on manufacturing a romance with her geriatric beau, she might have noticed what her daughter Angel was up to. But maybe not. As Marie noted, “My sister seemed to move through an underworld of secrets, the hidden currents of desire.”
Indeed, that underworld of clandestine teenage desire is the ostensible subject of Ocean State. O’Nan spends much of the novel shuttling between Angel and her nemesis, Birdy Alves. They’re both sleeping with Myles, a good-looking senior from a wealthy family. He’s savvy enough to try to keep his relationship with Birdy on the down-low, but when photos of them sneaking around slip out on social media, their classmates turn sharply against her. And then Angel lashes out.
High school girls fighting over and even killing for the affections of a boy make this an inherently gripping plot. But O’Nan’s approach is – pardon the word – deadly. Two-thirds of the novel are spent chronicling teenage angst and school-hall drama without the verve necessary to make this story pump with authentic adolescent energy. O’Nan’s careful, sepia-toned observations offer no satirical wit on the machinations of teenagers nor any chilling insight on the horrors that desire can activate.
Instead, we get a lot of passages like this: “Myles hangs out front between the pillars with Ryan and his crew. Birdy knows his schedule by heart, smiles to herself each time she passes his locker. All morning, sitting in class, watching the rain fall on the tennis courts and the soccer field, she pictures their room at the beach, but then, after lunch, he texts to let her know he has to cancel. No explanation, just “sry”.”
Such generalised prose relies on us already knowing how Ryan and his cocky crew pose with studied nonchalance, how pandemonium breaks out in the hall of lockers between classes, and especially how a savvy girl suspends the knowledge that the object of her devotion is a cad. At this late date, after so many comedies, dramas, mysteries and thrillers about high school romances, double-dealing jocks, vicious mean girls and toxic social media platforms, we’re deeply familiar with the tropes of the genre. But for that very reason, we don’t particularly need a novel that feels so unwilling to tell us something we haven’t already heard. Even the act of murder itself is politely obscured in these pages, and the trial that takes place late in the story does so largely offstage.
More than a decade ago, O’Nan published Songs for the Missing, a devastating story about parents crushed by the endless search for their 18-year-old daughter. No one who read that relentlessly static tragedy will ever forget it. But this new novel, about the loss of another teenage girl under circumstances that are so much more dramatic, leaves little impact at all. Sry.