Book Review: Beach Story by Brian Warfield
Beach Story, the first novel by Brian Warfield, is an unsettling pleasure to read. Rife with symbolism, it reads like a classic novella — not quite short story, not quite full-blown novel. Focused more on imagery and sensation than on traditional plot, climax, and resolution, this book fits well in the new tradition of modern writing that shrugs off convention to seek something deeper, and more real.
Anyone who has been to the New Jersey shore will recognize the brutal parody of this summer pastime that Warfield creates. The beach in Beach Story is real, yet an essentially artificial, manmade construct, evocative of the candy-coated boardwalk culture seen on many of the sandy beaches of America’s East Coast. But the story transcends the obvious critiques of this shallow cultural phenomenon for a far deeper dig at what makes humanity behave the way it does. In a frequently disconcerting text that feels all too real in its surrealism, Warfield has created a tale that explores what makes us who we are: life, birth, sex, death. This is human nature at its core.
For a story about people, there is surprisingly limited dialogue and interaction, and what little there is is fraught with tension. Instead, the characters must confront their internal selves in order to interact with the world around them, in which reminders of their own shortcomings and mortality are unavoidable. Eggs serve as a frequent symbol of the delicate interaction between birth and death, whether as literal eggs being consumed or as metaphors: “The ball was larger than Daniel and when he stood next to it he thought he could feel some kind of energy coming from it, like an egg or a meteor” (pg. 21). Similarly, reminders of the fragile nature of existence are never far from the characters, in the form of allusions to gore, illness, and death. The novel’s plot centers around the discovery of a severed foot on the beach: “The foot stopped approximately at the ankle and a ragged tangle of flesh, a pool of blood had mostly dried out in the sand” (pg. 26). However, this plot is delicate as a spiderweb and serves more as a place to hang the characters’ introspections and world of symbolism than as a plotline in the traditional sense.
This is where Warfield’s unique approach to the written word shines. Beach Story never hits readers over the head with the suspense, excitement, and predictable climax and denouement many readers have come to expect in modern fiction. These things may make popular books fly off grocery-store shelves, but they can also cheapen them as works of literature. Some readers might find space to criticize Beach Story for shrugging off conventional notions of plot (it does have a climax, but without the conclusive resolution that many readers seek), but lovers of less-accessible literary works will find value in the story’s refusal to offer the simple pleasure of a clean storyline and clear ending.
Instead, Beach Story offers layers of veiled meaning that beg to be picked apart. When, midway through the book, the story shifts from third person to first, the sense of disorientation seems no doubt deliberate. In a book that previously gave a distant perspective of third-person characters in a strange yet recognizable landscape, there suddenly is an “I”. This jolt into a more-real reality feels almost like a breaking of the fourth wall. The “I”, after all, is a writer. Yet he fits well in the cast of disparate third-person characters—not in that he has anything particularly in common with them, but in that Warfield seems to be giving readers a host of characters in the hopes that, in at least one of them, the reader will see theirself.
Surprisingly, some of the most relatable characters in the story are the two police officers that search for the owner of the severed foot. Well within the modern narrative of questionable police behavior, they are hapless and care more about the appearance of doing their jobs than about the actual work of “protecting and serving.” However, we also get a deeper inner view of Officers Petty and Encore than we do of many other characters, so we are forced to perhaps find ourselves in these characters we find most despicable. In one of the book’s most compelling moments, an increasingly unstable Officer Petty reads his notebook while reflecting on the fact that he should be searching for the perpetrator of the crime, but is in fact looking for the victim.
“33 year old male, foot severed at ankle.
Life in the force not what was expected.
When you started training you were 19 yrs old.
Wasting life away.” (pg. 61)
In the midst of a deliberately confusing narrative, filled with incredible interactions and unbelievable scenarios, it is these quintessentially human moments that ground Beach Story in reality.
Much like Officer Petty’s perpetual mystified reading of his notebook, the characters of Beach Story often must confront words on paper, the ability of the written word to compel and confuse. The book or paper as object is as important as, or more than, the words themselves in many scenes: “He pulled out a small green book and he turned it over in his hands thinking something like, what is this doing in there, or, how did it get there” (pg. 105). These characters frequently receive mystic notes and letters, or discover books with covers of varying colors that seem to hold information they can’t quite decipher.
In this way, Beach Story is ultimately a deeply self-aware piece of writing. The book holds more questions than answers about human nature, and refuses to answer even the reader’s most basic questions about its plot: where does reality end and imagination begin? Are these events real or the products of the imaginations of several unreliable characters? But these are not the questions that Beach Story wants you to ask. By refusing to answer them, the book instead guides readers toward a deeper reflection. What is “real” and what isn’t matters less than the questions that truly plague us, as characters in our own stories, humans in our own world. Who are we, and how do we know what we really are? Why do we act the way we do? What do other people mean to us? As the book ends, that last question seems to be given an answer: Everything.