Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ottessa Moshfegh, “Jailbait” (nonfiction) from Granta #144

The day before I left home for college, I made a phone call to the publishing house of a writer I’ll call Rupert Dicks. Dicks had a reputation as one of the most audacious and brilliant minds in literature in the last century, and his work represented everything I held as sacred at the time – he was innovative, unapologetic and dedicated to the craft of honest prose. At seventeen, I knew I was a writer, and I wanted to know what Rupert Dicks knew. I was determined to get him to tell me.

Complete story available online at Granta

The stress of recent events must be getting to me: this is the second Pushcart piece I have a strong urge to push back on, despite finding several points of agreement.

Moshfegh tells the story of how she entranced a high-end writer she calls Rupert Dicks (the literaria probably know who he is, but I don’t) into reviewing her writing and giving her solid notes. She never promised him sex; she just let the implication hang in the air until, after what must’ve been a few months of meetings (and one touch, and an insipid kiss, both of which came as a surprise to her), she got the detailed analysis she wanted. Then she breezed off.

Part of me admires a 17-year-old who can pull that off. Twenty years later, in a terrific interview with Alex Clark for The Guardian, she’s impressed, too, “that I had so much gall.” Given all the ways this could’ve gone wrong – from blacklisting to rape – she was also lucky that the writer was basically law abiding, if lecherous.

Did she, in fact, do anything untoward at all? There was no promise. Dicks (I love the use of that name) could’ve told her to buzz off at any time. I have a feeling that the idea that a young writer-to-be wanted his guidance was as much of a draw as the anticipated sex.

Where I start wanting to push back is when Moshfegh pats herself on the back a little too proudly in the interview: “It gave me some insight into my own strengths and, like, arrogance, which has been an asset. My arrogance as a writer has been really important [laughs].” And in the memoir itself:

At thirty-six, I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism. My assumption that people are ultimately self-serving lowers my expectations and allows me to forgive. More importantly, it empowers me to be selfish, and to cast off the delusion that I’ll get what I want just by ‘being nice’. We are all unruly and selfish sometimes…. One has to be somewhat badly behaved to write above the fray in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity. One has to be willing to upset the apple cart. Apples go flying, people trip and fall, yelp, grab for one another. A street corner is transformed into a tragic circus. And everybody gets an apple, each one bruised and broken in a special way. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be, a troublemaker. I can’t fault Dicks or anyone else for wanting the same.

Again, I have to agree with so much. Moshfegh has received a great deal of recognition for her work; obviously she’s doing something right. Reviewers love to use phrases like “brutal honesty” and “disruptive”, and they use them a lot with her. I’ve only read one of her stories; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m the first to admit that isn’t really a problem. I seem to have trouble with the contemporary version of honesty.

Where I want to push back is first of all the idea that a woman using sex to get what she wants is a good thing since men have used sex to dominate women and have used women in general to get what they want forever. While it’s cute that Dicks is hung by his own petard, his own desire, I don’t see all of us getting down into the mud as a forward step. Possibly a necessary one: when men are used by women in the same ways women have been used by men, maybe they’ll realize how scuzzy their own behavior has been. I doubt it, but I allow for the possibility. It seems to me it’s more likely we’re going the route of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The second thing that bothers me is the value-laden language that declares this kind of writing, this kind of writer, this kind of person, to be superior “in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity.” I think there are other ways to speak, to be, to write, that are not mediocre, and that palatable is not automatically bad. I continue to worry that the loud voices, the “at least I’m honest” crowd, are simply uninterested in others and don’t want to be bothered with subtlety and tact, let alone contemplation or reason. I worry that it’s not by accident that we ended up with the current national administration at this moment.

Maybe I’m just one of those quiet voices too mediocre for this moment, and jealous of the arrogant who get their way by demanding it. You have to be super-confident to pull that sort of thing off. When I get assertive, I get squashed, and then I obsess about it. Really, I still worry about the stupid things I said and did in high school, and they weren’t really all that stupid.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy from current circumstances. It really is a fun essay to read, with that pulsing thread of danger lurking underneath. Sort of like real life these days.

Pushcart 2015: Ottessa Moshfegh, “The Weirdos” from Paris Review, #206

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.

I’ve been staring at this story for about a week now, hoping I’d either gain some insight, or it’d go away. Not that it’s a bad story, it’s just a story that I don’t “get.” Moshfegh has been on a roll with prize after prize rolling in, but I just don’t seem to be on the right wavelength for this story. Fortunately, this one is available online (thank you, Paris Review) so I’m not in the way of those who can get on the right wavelength.

It is indeed a story about weirdos. And there’s a moment I recognize. But beyond that, I got nothin’.

A quick google proved that others saw more than I did. In Bustle, Joanna Novak praised how ” the first line introduces the narrator’s droll sense of humor”. Maybe that’s the problem; I don’t seem to have the right sense of humor for the 21st century, a failing that began with the Seinfeld years. One blogger felt “[t]his character’s emptiness and aimlessness really got to me.” Being pretty aimless myself, I seem to have problems with stories that highlight aimlessness. But I’m not sure the characters are all that aimless, I just think they’re aimed at things I don’t understand.

The story is indeed about weirdos. The boyfriend is weird, obviously, but the narrator is just as weird because she seems to understand that he’s weird – she even despises him – but she’s still there.

I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever.

Part of my disorientation is that I don’t believe anything the boyfriend says. Is he really an actor, or is he just pretending/imagining a telemarketer is his agent calling and he’s going on auditions the way he imagines the plastic skull on his night table is sending him messages? Is the girlfriend (neither of them have names in the story) playing along? Why?

The new tenants show up, bearing lots of cash and bad teeth, a combination I associate with meth. At the end of the story, the boyfriend is doing meth, so maybe they’re all methheads all along, though the boyfriend’s muscles don’t fit with that, do they? I don’t know enough about them. Maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I went back to the basics: what’s the movement in the story, the narrative? The new tenants. The classic “new kid comes to town” story. Nothing changes, but in giving advice to the narrator, one of the new tenants forces a moment of clarity I found quite powerful:

“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She disappeared into the bedroom, where we’d piled all the garbage bags full of stuff. She came out with a black feather.
“Is that from the crows?” I asked.
“Sleep with this under your pillow,” she said, rubbing her third eye. “And as you drift off think of everyone you know. Start off easy, like with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your best friends, and picture each person in your mind. Really try to picture them. Try to think of all your classmates, your neighbors, people you met on the street, on the bus, the girl from the coffee shop, your dentist, everybody from over the years. And then I want you to imagine your boyfriend. When you imagine him, imagine he’s on one side and everybody else is on the other side.”
“Then what?” I asked her.
“Then see which side you like better.”

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to leave. It’s not even a matter of not having somewhere better to go; it’s more about not having anything better to compare to “now”. Maybe this is how life is for everyone. Maybe there’s nothing better out there for her. Maybe it’s her fault, it’s all she gets, all she deserves. So she stays.

I hope I can catch on to Moshfegh’s style. She seems to be quite a powerhouse, and I expect to be seeing more from her.