Nostalgie de la ewwwwww: Ottessa Moshfegh’s attention to the body

In her electrifying debut novel Eileen (shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award), Ottessa Moshfegh pays a great deal of attention to people’s bodies. The title character dislikes her own: “I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointed and hesitant, my posture stiff.” Her father’s is falling apart: “His hands shook all the time no matter how much he drank.” The boys at the juvenile detention center where she works? They’re pimply and sweaty. There’s more, much more, and it’s sordid.

But it’s the kind of sordid that comes when you’ve looked straight at hell and refused to look away, refused to say “I can’t take it” or “That doesn’t exist.” Moshfegh’s gaze acknowledges evil, will not let it hide, even when its presence makes us want to rinse out our brains with bleach.

It’s so much easier when evil and infection and corruption can be handled with kid gloves, euphemism spread as thin as a baby goat’s skin in a tannery. “That child was interfered with,” whisper the ghosts of glove-wearing ladies past. “Something happened in that house.” Perhaps that’s why Moshfegh chose to set her novel in the early 1960s, so she could hone her linguistic knives on that era’s old-fashioned feelings.

The stories that make up “Homesick for Another World” are set in contemporary America—and perhaps that’s why they are best read singly, and even better out of order. There’s no resolution to be had, no escape, and no consolation. Hell isn’t other people, it’s one’s own body. Characters have moles and rashes and pimples and enlarged genitals and bad odors and bad habits and bad karma. As one reviewer remarked, “Mold grows best in the dark,” and the self-containment of Moshfegh’s prose in this collection seems designed for that truth. The same reviewer (Kate Clanchy, in The Guardian) chided the author (and maybe us all): “Epiphanies are never arrived at, self-knowledge never attained, because these are contemporary stories and closure is old hat.”

Is Ottessa Moshfegh creating bad, unsatisfying fiction?

I don’t think so. She’s certainly creating intensely claustrophobic, uncomfortable fiction. It isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t have neat finishes. However, I think she’s writing about a different kind of self-knowledge, the kind that isn’t intellectual, but visceral. Her characters know they are flawed, inside and out.

Take, for example, “Slumming,” in which a divorced, middleaged teacher plays out life as a single slattern at a cheap summer house in Alna, Maine. The teacher, whose ex-husband Clark remains back home in Pittville, likes visiting the “full of cobwebs and tacky wallpaper” house and indulging in the “sub sandwich diet” (meaning she eats half of a foot-long for lunch, the other half for dinner). Everything she does, from taking a local to bed, to visiting the Chinese buffet, seems designed to shrink her into some slimier, nastier miniature of herself. She buys a sunlamp from a garage sale and judges the women holding it mercilessly, noting the purported matriarch’s “lone row of bottom teeth, rotted down to stubs, like a baby’s teeth.”

Yet she dislikes and is glad to have a break from her sister: “She only wanted to discuss things and name things for what they were. That was her thing.” Right there, there’s your authorial intrusion to let you know what’s at play in “Homesick.” The reviewer for The Irish Times, Houman Bareket, was scathing about the book, writing that “the dominant motif in these pages is poverty and squalor, and a general sense of moral revulsion at how the American underclass live.”

I think Bareket—and other reviewers—miss the point, perhaps because Moshfegh’s voices are so authentic that it’s sometimes tough to remember that they are just that: Voices. Ottessa Moshfegh is not running around in real life condemning the American underclass. She is using the way that some people see and discuss and name that class to show us how inaccurate that way can be. Do we know someone by their teeth? Hardly. If we judge someone by their teeth, perhaps we miss something else.

Homesick for Another World takes the visceral and ugly and names it for what it is. That is Moshfegh’s practice, noticing scars and blood and halitosis, and her characters discuss them. But the author is not noticing these specifics simply to cast aspersions on any class. She is noticing them because this kind of corporeality is what other writers refuse to acknowledge, even though they’re real. Will the receding hairlines and enlarged pores be all you notice? Or will you look beyond them?

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