Writing a collection of short stories is a demanding and challenging task. On the one hand, an author has to accomplish on a few pages something that a novelist would on a few hundred pages. On the other, an author should create a sophisticated collection of short stories that are perfectly choreographed and at the end gives a reader a feeling of having been looking on a coherent, mature and complete picture.
O ttessa Moshfegh unquestionably has accomplished both of those challenges. With minor differences, all of the stories are beautifully crafted and astonishingly composed. Some of the writers have a tendency to circumlocute and go all around with plenty of words, definitions, descriptions of circumstances, trying to get to the point, yet never really getting there in a way that can nail the reader. Moshfegh writing is rather straightforward and to the point. She doesn’t try to make something ugly sounds different than it should, especially when it comes to her characters. As she once said she didn’t like them, and it seems that neither she expects us to esteem them. However, Moshfegh doesn’t evidently and demonstrably define her characters as villainous. She leaves it to us to make a judgment on, sometimes, very obvious circumstances.
The characters of the stories – men, and women, they are who they are, and don’t pretend to be someone else. They speak plainly for themselves, clearly stating their mind. Let’s, for instance, take the opening story “Bettering Myself”, in a very first sentence a woman who’s a math teacher speaks about her workplace:
My classroom was on the first floor, next to nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings.
Further describing how she sleeps in that classroom and takes cocaine, and how the school principle doesn’t visit her classroom as if he knew that otherwise, he would have to fire her. Or a man in another story “A Dark And Winding Road”, who escapes his home for a weekend to an old cabin:
I loved it, or at least I thought I ought to love it – I’ve never been very clear on that distinction. I retreated to the cabin that weekend in early spring after a fight with my wife. She was pregnant at the time, and I suppose she felt entitled to treat me terribly. So I went up there to spite her, yes, and in hopes that she would come to appreciate me in my absence, but also to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was forever ruined.
The bonding link between all Moshfegh’s characters is the feeling of entrapment and an endeavor to escape it. They are all longing for something, but none of them is capable of identifying what actually would it be. Cornered in their lives, they seem unsatisfied and lost. A protagonist of “No Place For Good People” finds himself in a way relieved when his wife dies. As he sees it, their marriage was an act, a pretense that has nothing to do with either happiness or love.
It went on like that for decades, me twiddling my thumbs behind that desk, my wife at home filling the house with antiques and fake flowers, dipping her fingers into cheesecakes and frostings and hollandaise and gravy.
Lacey and I had never been close. We never bonded. She loved me no more than I’d loved her mother (…)
When he was tired of taking Christmas family pictures, he suggested to his wife that maybe this time she should be taking this picture only with their daughter. She agreed, she said that it even would better without him. This and other stories portray not lives but people who live them oblivious of what they genuinely want and how to get it eventually. We’re acquainted with the characters rather by their dark sides, mistakes, carelessness and sometimes pitiful approach to life.
The whole volume creates a complete and precise picture of people’s characters, faults, and weaknesses. Mentioned earlier man who works in a residential facility after his wife passed away describes his feelings:
… I watched all the regular people mill down the sidewalk. I rarely interacted with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.
In Moshfegh’s volume the ugliness, both emotional and physical, as well as patheticness seem to be ubiquitous. Still, astoundingly the stories are incredibly enjoyable. This debut of Moshfegh’s short stories proves how incredibly talented writer she is. Her unique talent to use repellent emotions and nefarious characters to compose and choreograph such an amazing collection is truly astonishing.