There’s a point where literary fiction is pushed too far and a narrative become a boring collection of words in which an author tries to dazzle fellow writers with his or her vocabulary. When that happens, elements like pacing, plot, and characterization are thrown aside in favor of a bizarre sort of empty, pointless beauty. Frank Cassese’s Ocean Beach is the first novel I’ve read that walks to the edge of that cliff and then pulls back at the last second by taking its dazzling discourse into incredibly dark places and deconstructing itself while critiquing both academia and parents who emphasize scholastic intelligence while neglecting everything else, including how to coexist with fellow humans.
Peter Niletti is only 25 years old, but his life is one of perpetual sadness, obsession, and seclusion. He lives in his parents’ suburban Long Island home, sleeps through the day, has no job, friends, or significant other, and rarely leaves his room. Trapped inside those four walks and wallowing in the gloom of self-imposed isolation, Peter spends his time thinking about his younger sister Severine. As children, Severine and Peter were extremely close. They were raised in a very demanding intellectual environment where poetry and things like classical music and French literature mattered much more than camaraderie or the accruement of life experiences and social skills. Confined to their home and subjected to the same demands, the siblings were pushed together for comfort, and that relationship slowly morphed into something strange and dark. Unfortunately, the cocoon they build for themselves crumbles with time, and Peter is ill equipped to deal with the resulting space between himself and his sister, who stands at the center of his small universe. What follows is a sad narrative about obsession, lust, desperation, and death that balances the highest echelons of intellectual prowess with the basest human desires and the worst that can happen when those desires take control.
The first thing that should be said about Cassese is that he’s a writer of considerable talent. From bizarre interactions with an angry prostitute to references to the work of Jean Baudrillard, Cassese seems comfortable with a wide variety of subjects and possesses a knack for smart dialogue and outstanding descriptions that make his prose a pleasure to read. Furthermore, reading Ocean Beach never turns into a boring experience despite its density and its slightly bloated finale. The reasons for that is, simply put, superb writing:
“It is amazing how quickly the presence of absence steadily diminishes until it, too, fades into something resembling normality, as if nothing is absent at all, as if there had never been anything there in the first place, and so now there is nothing missing, nothing gone, because implicit in absence is an initial presence, and as the remnants of this initial presence erode with time, so does its palpable absence, until all that remains is a wraith, an impression, vague and nebulous, a hot spot where something once was, though you’re no longer sure exactly what, as if it were never real, as if it were all some oneiric experience that has itself become blurry and indistinct and elusive.”
The most interesting thing about Ocean Beach is that it clearly belongs to the gritty arm of literary fiction that unflinchingly explores desire, pain, and obsession, but it does so while simultaneously containing, and pretty much revolving around, elements that it shares with the hardest side of the hardcore horror and crime spectrums. For example, rape, suicide, incest, and misogyny are all cohesive elements that keep the narrative together. They’re also elements that make Peter a very unlikeable main character. That being said, Cassese carefully allows social and familial context to become silent but crucial players in the construction of Peter. Ultimately, the horrible things Peter does are his fault as much as they are his intellectually obsessed father’s and his eternally silent mother’s fault.
Great literature should make the reader feel something, and this novel achieves that on multiple levels. The main character’s primary preoccupation is his sister, but that obsession translates into unexpected violence, a seemingly incurable misogyny, and a self-hatred that dances between common depression and the modern psychosocial malady that Japan’s media calls sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome.”
“Her hair tickles the back of my neck, and her small chest presses lightly against me. I feel myself harden. How I hate this tormenting and spiteful thing between my legs that feels as though it has been continuously hard since age thirteen.”
Ocean Beach is a long, beautifully written ode to irony and an exploration of how a small fixation, if unchecked, can turn into something infinitely darker and far more dangerous. Cassese has delved deep into uncomfortable territory to prove that academic brilliance can morph into its own antithesis when it takes precedence over everything. With echoes of both Nabokov’s Lolita and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this is a thoughtful narrative that serves as a loud warning to those who eschew the mundane in favor of the highbrow. The fact that it comes from the inside only makes it that much powerful.
About the reviewer:
My reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Verbicide, Marginalia, Entropy, 3AM Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Word Riot, Spinetingler Magazine, Crimespree, and other print and online venues.