Art

Meet the Desperate Characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Short Stories

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Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories present cleanly, no matter how unclean the subject. A high school English teacher keeps a summer house in a depressed town because nobody knows her and the drug dealers at the bus station are reliable. A man in an unnamed Chinese city visits prostitutes and fantasizes about a woman he can’t find the courage to speak to. A married man ends up having an unexpected sexual encounter because he lied about where his brother was, and, well, the dildo was already there. Within each story, the logic of each situation is a given, valid as any other. Look to this distillation, from “The Weirdos,” the most concentrated story in the Homesick for Another World collection:

I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.

Moshfegh’s characters have a tendency to break laws, but authority figures never appear. Consequences are determined and administered on a case-by-case basis. Feeling guilty about a pregnant girl you didn’t help? Holding a shotgun, and anyone from a crow to your terrible boyfriend could be the target? There will be no retribution from on high. If there are moral parameters, they are drawn by the characters. Belief systems are created anew with each story. Agency is the point, and Moshfegh’s focus.

Moshfegh grew up in Boston, the daughter of an Iranian father and a Croatian mother. After studying the piano for a decade, she abandoned playing seriously in her teens and concentrated on writing. Her settings tend toward a vague New England or an unidentified California, with brief stops in China and New York. The power of her stories rests partly in how many settings she can use while achieving roughly similar ends. Moshfegh’s brand of conflict is agnostic to gender, nationality, and age. In her stories, we are all freighted with impulses that can undo us unless we engage them, bear down on them, and accept what they bring.

In “The Weirdos,” a woman is stuck with a boyfriend who can’t seem to be anything more than an agitated companion, though he’s not dull:

“But I love you so much,” he confirmed, stretching his arms demonstratively above his head. I watched the plastic yellow button on the blazer strain and pop. He gasped, went on a mad search for the button on his knees, smashing his face against the base of the couch while he grasped blindly with his short arms under it. When he stood up, his face was bright red, his jaw was clenched. The look of sincere frustration was refreshing. I watched as he sewed the button back on with blue thread, grinding his teeth, breathing hard. Then I heard him in the bathroom screaming into a towel. I wondered who had taught him to do that. I was slightly impressed.

One of several stories originally published in the Paris Review, “Mr. Wu,” was originally called “Disgust,” a feeling central to many of these works. Mr. Wu visits an internet café and falls in love, based only on fantasy, with the woman at the counter. While he visits brothels, he tries to come up with a plan to meet up with her. He tries new things with a sex worker and wonders if disgusting himself is the point of having sex at all. He sets up a weirdly secretive rendezvous with the woman from the café, so tentative that the two only see each other, never talking, both walking away. (Mr. Wu exults in his failure to connect, and sets off fireworks in a ravine after his non-date.) The reader could be disgusted by any number of things here, and maybe the characters are, too. But the writing gives no pointers as to who should be pitied or rejected, or if that’s even the right response.

Then Moshfegh turns that neutrality upside down and leans into bad feelings. In “An Honest Woman,” disgust is embraced like a principle, as if to test the idea of empathy. A woman gets stuck dealing with a neighbor twice her age, a man who has fooled himself into thinking he can seduce her. The story of their brief struggle is fused with the story of their bodies and doesn’t hesitate to create a hierarchy:

He was only sixty but looked far older. Vitiligo had stripped his brittle hair of its color, made his face appear to be riddled with fat freckles. The girl was pretty, sturdy, in her early thirties. She had been living next door to the man for two months already. He had only been waiting for the proper moment to introduce himself.

This introduction turns out to be a bad idea, although, like Mr. Wu, the neighbor convinces himself his rejection is some kind of validation. He thinks his vitiligo — like his cockeyed view of social interactions — might be seen elsewhere as a sign of divine selection.

Jeb whistled and laughed through the warm evening streets, imagining this wonderful new place and all the stupid people who would gasp and fall to their knees in ecstasy every time he shuffled past.

Even in Jeb’s final fantasy, Moshfegh returns the physical verdict: He will be shuffling, not marching, through his unnamed new kingdom.

On second and third reading, these stories reveal coils of plain language and quick narratives tight as songs. What is at first urgent and disorienting becomes a hymn, improving with repetition, all of it worth memorizing. Since all of this activity, Moshfegh has concentrated on novels. Last year’s brutal Eileen was widely celebrated, and she is currently finishing her second full-length, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a woman living in New York right before 9-11. “She has attempted to hibernate for a year in an effort to erase the memory of her traumatic past,” Moshfegh wrote via email. “She uses loads of pharmaceuticals.”

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