Ottessa Moshfegh read last night at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva, NY) as the last speaker in the 2016-2017 Trias reading series, which I curated as the writer in residence. She was remarkable, doing a sustained reading of her long story “The Weirdos” that transfixed the audience and demonstrated just how much care she takes with her sentences, her characterization, and her performances. The Q&A that followed was so sharp and brilliant I didn’t want it to end. (The video will be posted soon.)
As with the prior two speakers in the series, Dexter Palmer and Amelia Gray, find my introduction to Moshfegh’s reading below.
I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction when I picked up her first novel, McGlue, about a rather dysfunctional sailor’s misadventures…to put it mildly. McGlue pretty much blew me away—it was such an unusual narrative and one of those books where the cliché “take no prisoners” is fully justified as is the overused word “transgressive.” Although when we use such labels we also need to think about why that might be—and who we think part of society and who we don’t, as Moshfegh herself pointed out at her lunch-time discussion with HWS students today. But whatever words you use to describe McGlue, it clearly marked the arrival of a fresh and genuine talent. I remember thinking “this is a no-bullshit writer.” The best kind.
Eileen, Moshfegh’s next novel, which has been optioned for film by Scott Rudin Productions and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, provided readers with yet another deep character study of a loner, but with more dark absurdism and twisted humor. It keenly evoked the 1960s in a small, insular Massachusetts town and the titular character’s attempts to break free of an alcoholic father and a dead-end job. The book can be melancholy and dark, but it is shot through with such vivid and unusual observations, courtesy of the unique narrator, that it achieves the rare distinction of being downbeat but also immensely readable. There are also so many wonderful sections, including parts in which the architecture of the house Eileen lives in is mapped to the emotional resonance of her life and the people in her life—such clarity, in fact, of both description and characterization intertwined that it’s a textbook example of how to make sentences do more than one or two things at once.
If, like me, you are looking for books that don’t go where you expect them to, and which feature characters that feel like real, flawed people—that don’t flinch away from showing us as we are than as we pretend to be, then Eileen was a singular triumph, and it rightly received high critical and reader praise.
Which is all to say that when I heard Moshfegh had a story collection coming out, I begged an advance copy from the publisher as soon as they were available and read it from start to finish in one or two sittings. Homesick For Another World, in addition to having a great title, displays great cohesion in its depiction of a series of misfits and down-and-out characters who are fascinating in part because of Moshfegh’s great eye and ear for the unusual detail. From the mental contortions the title character in “Mr. Wu” puts himself through in his infatuation with a woman at a video arcade to Jeb in “An Honest Woman,” who is grotesque in his interactions with his neighbor but rendered startlingly three-dimensional, Moshfegh displays a gift for interiority that astonishes. By the final story in Homesick for Another World, “A Better Place,” so many unique inner landscapes have been revealed to the reader that the sense of the speculative or surreal seems well-earned not despite the realism of what has come before but because of it. Her work is beautiful because of what it lays bare.
This is all a remarkable gift for the reader, yes, but also for writers, in how Moshfegh makes mundane, in the best possible way, the perverse and the things we try to edit out of the myth of who we are—restoring what was often always there but not put onto the page. This isn’t just a case of having a map showing one way to do deep characterization—it is also about liberating the imagination from the self-editing that can occur, to not say the forbidden thing, to shy away from topics that have been categorized as taboo or have been marginalized and pushed to the edges. I know that just the sheer bravado of Moshfegh’s fiction has had a deep effect on what I feel I can tackle in my own work—similar in a way to how encountering Vladimir Nabokov and Angela Carter’s fiction when I was just starting out put me on a path to becoming a better, more mature writer. Moshfegh’s stories are also for this reason essential reading for beginning writers today, who need the reminder because they exist in the public sphere amid an ever widening maelstrom of reactions.
It’s not a given that writers who take chances get rewarded for it. Thankfully, though, Ottessa Moshfegh has been rewarded for those chances. In addition to wide-spread critical acclaim, Moshfegh has won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, the Believer Book Award, the PEN/Hemmingway Award for debut fiction, the Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, the Plimpton Discovery Prize, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Please join me in welcoming Ottessa Moshfegh to Hobart and William Smith….