Em­pa­thy and bru­tal­ity in a squalid world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

We’re foul and fallen beasts, bro­ken in body and brain, and the fic­tion of Ottessa Mosh­fegh pro­vides our age with a defin­ing act of por­trai­ture. Her writ­ing blooms with phys­i­cal de­for­mity — foul scents, rot­ting teeth, mis­shapen bod­ies — and the kind of delu­sions and day­dreams that con­spire to keep the heart a lonely hunter.

But what in lesser hands may op­er­ate as a gawk­ing cru­elty reg­is­ters here as em­pa­thy: a doc­tor telling no lies to a sick pa­tient who has con­vinced them­selves of health. As one of the nar­ra­tors puts it, judg­ing a sim­i­larly ad­dled fam­ily mem­ber: “I’m not say­ing he was an id­iot. He was just like me: any­thing good made him want to die. That’s a char­ac­ter­is­tic some smart peo­ple have.”

That com­bi­na­tion of self-loathing and sel­f­re­gard is the Amer­i­can writer’s reg­is­ter. Of the 14 sto­ries in Homesick for An­other World, 11 em­ploy a vari­a­tion of the same voice: call it the first-per­son blus­tery melan­cholic. While some fic­tion writ­ers use the short form as a kind of lab­o­ra­tory for experiments in per­spec­tive and tone, Mosh­fegh nar­rows her fo­cus, seek­ing nu- an­ces within es­tab­lished forms. While re­serv­ing the free­dom of the third per­son for cer­tain sto­ries — tellingly, all in­volv­ing older men hor­rif­i­cally mis­judg­ing women — the dom­i­nant style here is in­ti­mate and slightly bro­ken.

The tone is set im­me­di­ately in the out­stand­ing first story, Bet­ter­ing My­self. De­tail­ing the daily rou­tine of a di­vorced al­co­holic high school teacher, it’s a show­case for many of Mosh­fegh’s tics and tropes: the near-epiphany end­ing, the ca­sual vul­gar­ity, the strate­gi­cally tamped-down sor­row.

The voice aims to shock, hop­ing to avoid de­spair. (“Most peo­ple have had anal sex,” I told them. “Don’t look so sur­prised.”) The ten­sion be­tween the vis­i­ble ruin of a pro­tag­o­nist’s life and the non­cha­lance they feign in de­scrib­ing that life is the real drama, and a po­ten­tially un­re­solv­able one.

Sim­i­lar woes be­set the fig­ures in Slum­ming and A Dark and Wind­ing Road. On first glance the kind of com­pactly anomic sto­ries of­ten fea­tured in The New Yorker (a reg­u­lar pub­lisher of Mosh­fegh’s work), they quickly darken be­yond ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions.

In the first, an ed­u­cated mid­dle-aged woman spends her hol­i­days among the hope­lessly poor and drug ad­dicted. Self-aware enough to con­sider her­self alien in th­ese sur­round­ings, yet lack­ing the re­solve to shape this knowl­edge into a bet­ter life, she shares a fa­tal flaw of many in this col­lec­tion: clar­ity of vi­sion doesn’t save them but al­lows them only a more ex­act­ing anatomy of their fail­ures.

Ottessa Mosh­fegh’s pro­tag­o­nists view them­selves and the world with dis­pas­sion

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