All that Dissipates Must Descend

All that Dissipates Must Descend

In her short stories, Ottessa Moshfegh chronicles downward mobility on the part of the privileged—and in so doing exposes their unfitness to rule, if not to exist.

Ottessa Moshfegh (Krystal Griffiths / the Clegg Agency)

Unlike many of his Yale friends, who have quit smoking, lost their hair, gotten married, and bought “a brownstone in a part of Brooklyn they wouldn’t have set foot in five years earlier,” Nick Darby-Stern, the lovesick dope who narrates Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story “Dancing in the Moonlight,” has failed to convert his social capital into personal wealth. Nick is thirty-three and white (half-Jewish, half-WASP), a part-time graphic designer who receives occasional infusions of capital from his wealthy father. He pays $350 a month to occupy a tiny corner of a Hasidic-owned Brooklyn flophouse and empties his bank account purchasing expensive clothes. He prefers to remain a disreputable latter-day dandy. He envisions himself as an exemplar of refinement amidst squalor. The precise term for him, since the setting is New York City circa 2006, is “hipster.”

Nick is in love with an antique furniture seller, Britt Wendt, but his passion is unrequited, its expression limited to narcissistic fantasies: “Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as midcareer Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” In classic New York fashion, nothing turns out as he imagines. Having lied, in an email, about having an ottoman to sell Britt, his frantic need to buy one upon her curt response (“what are dimensions”) leads him to Providence, where the seller, “K Mendez,” witnessing his evident desperation, fleeces him—literally. He trades his double-breasted peacoat (worth $1,200), two-ply cashmere turtleneck, hat from Japan, silk scarf, rabbit-fur-lined gloves, $55 in cash, and a Burger King voucher for an ottoman he describes as “a piece of shit.” While he’s out, his space heater incinerates the rest of his wardrobe, his computer, and the entire flophouse. With everything he owned and longed for burned away, Nick ends the story as nothing more than “the dumb man I had become.”

Nick is far from the only dumb man in Homesick for Another World, the collection in which his story appears. Neither is he a representative character, but then again no one is: one of the remarkable aspects of the cast of characters is that they resist reduction to a single class, gender, national, or racial perspective. There is no typical Moshfegh protagonist and no typical Moshfegh place; consequently, the careful reader is compelled to develop the social equivalent of depth perception. The reader of “Dancing in the Moonlight” learns to judge both Nick and the milieu in which he operates. We see him through his own eyes, but also through his father’s (“There are plenty of girls who would be interested in you. You’re a long-term investment, they’ll think [ . . . ] I’ll mail you a check when I get back from Tahoe.”), his Yale friend Mark’s (“You look like a fucking bartender. Also, your scarf is gay”), a disdainful Polish bartender (“This woman could see I wanted to be ruined”), and, somewhere behind them all, Moshfegh’s. Within and between stories, one is never allowed to settle on a firm perspective. Even when themes are revisited (singlehood, sterility, methamphetamines, hard-eyed working-class women), they are approached in a spirit of correction and challenge instead of retracing to confirm.

Taken as standalones, Moshfegh’s stories constitute impeccably well-executed images of individual delusion and degradation. However caked with grime and waste, they can nonetheless be recognized as the exquisite miniatures that creative writing programs and major literary publications alike have trained their readers to appreciate. Seven of the stories were published in the Paris Review, as well as two in the New Yorker. But read together, the stories in Homesick constitute a global and acute exposure of class relations, a decadent group portrait where the dominant strata (whether American, white, male, or college-educated) are exposed as too self-involved, desperate, credulous, and paralyzed to remain dominant for long.

Investigations into class dynamics are hardly new in American short fiction, whose tradition counts the Melville of “Bartleby,” the Poe of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, and David Foster Wallace among its luminaries. Moshfegh bears some resemblance to all of these authors, but her work also departs from them as her era departs from their own. Immigration, globalization, the slow decay of white supremacy, and the full-scale entry of women into the capitalist workforce have altered the potential range of a short-story form traditionally defined as the outline of an individual’s limitations.

As the range of “individuals” grows and the landscape in which they operate shifts, the art of the story mutates and develops in its turn. Moshfegh separates herself from more traditional immigrant fiction by narrating from above, rather than below: instead of crafting narratives of deserving uplift on the part of formerly excluded populations, she elaborates narratives of downward mobility on the part of the already privileged, and in so doing exposes the roots of their unfitness to rule, if not to exist.

To borrow the title of one story, her social aesthetic is one of “slumming”: Moshfegh seeks out situations where an increased interaction between central and peripheral classes (whether economic, social, or cultural) generates narrative heat and tension. The schoolteacher narrator in “Slumming” details her summers spent upstate in a town ravaged by addiction and obesity. She dates a local man who manages her house there, and does drugs with and without him. She pays a poor pregnant woman $10 to clean her house despite the woman’s evident discomfort. A bloody accident takes place, and the woman’s neighbors rush to get the poor woman some help; the schoolteacher tries to give her another $20 while she screams in pain. The schoolteacher then returns to her routine, buying drugs from the “zombies” at the train station. “I got what I wanted. I walked back home.” Her work, at least, is done.

Ottessa Moshfegh was born in 1981 to a Croatian mother and an Iranian father who met while attending music school in Belgium and had planned to live in Iran until the 1979 revolution closed off the possibility of repatriation. Raised by her father after her parents divorced, she grew up in the prosperous Boston suburb of Newton, though her family was not well-off. After Newton, she conducted a grand tour of elite universities: undergraduate studies at Barnard (2002) succeeded by a MFA from Brown’s experimental fiction program (2011) and a Stegner fellowship at Stanford (2013–2015). She has published McGlue (2014), a novel centered on a lone male sailor stricken with amnesia and a hangover, as well as Eileen (2015), a novel about a seething, isolated young woman in postwar, pre-sixties Massachusetts. Together with a boyfriend, at some point she operated a bar for several years in the industrial Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. She has experience with alcoholism and an eating disorder.

Moshfegh’s experience with abjection seems to have granted her the insight to engage with her characters with neither mercy nor squeamishness. Her extensive experience with foreignness (parents from the Second and Third Worlds, raised in the First, years spent in a China rapidly ascending from the Third to the First) seems to have endowed her, like more recognizably “immigrant” writers such as Junot Díaz or Jenny Zhang, with the talent of observing American society at once as a native and as a stranger. As with Flannery O’Connor, her fiction courts accusations of grotesquerie as it dispels conceptions of normality. The rootlessness of Homesick for Another World’s title testifies to a life and art spent outside of any certainty or fixed abode.

While Díaz, Zhang, or O’Connor viewed themselves as outsiders, they were nonetheless rooted in a distinct cultural community, be it Dominican, mainland Chinese, or white Southern Catholic. Lacking even that sense of marginal grounding, Moshfegh focuses on rootlessness. She locates her characters in their inability to locate themselves. A handsome young white man moves to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he lodges with a Holocaust survivor turned gossip columnist and fails to find work; a woman dates a meth-addicted actor (“the man of my dreams”) who manages the apartment complex where they live; a bulimic white man on food stamps makes a rendezvous with a Native American girl to shove his hand down her throat; an old white middle-class widower tends to mentally defective scions of rich families at a care facility.

The nation, for Moshfegh, is not a home, and no one can be said to be in charge. Her varied choice of protagonists reflects an implicit knowledge that America has no representative class. Six of its fourteen protagonists belong to the middle class, and the remaining eight are split evenly between figures whose class status is liminal (two students, two actors) and those who are outright unemployed. Eight protagonists are male, six female; nine are middle-aged, three are elderly, one is a teenager, and one is a child; nine are single, two have been widowed, two have boyfriends, and one is a child. Twelve protagonists can be identified as white; none are black (not out of indifference to race, but because she prefers to narrate from a position of declining privilege); one is Chinese; the race of one is indeterminate. Her choice of settings is varied. New York City and Southern California serve as backdrops for four stories apiece; anonymous not-quite-rural settings (suburban, exurban, small town) encase four others; the backwater Chinese city of “Mr. Wu” and the fantastic Central European town of “A Better Place” frame these American locations with otherhood.

This variety seems to have gone largely unnoticed by reviewers. Uniformly blunt, precise, and penetrating, Moshfegh’s style is the only thing that unites the stories in the collection; such is its power that it can seem like the only remarkable thing about the stories altogether. Sentences are curt, descriptions are pitiless, metaphors are rare, and florid language is missing entirely. The brilliance with which facts, material objects, and a sour-sweet mood are rendered can eclipse more intricate considerations of social phenomena. The narrator of “The Locked Room” says, describing her first boyfriend:

Takashi’s taste in classical music was just like mine: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel. He was talented on the violin. He said his instrument was worth more than his father’s car. He chewed licorice gum sometimes, his favorite flavor, but his mouth still tasted like excrement when we kissed each other.

The emphasis falls so squarely on the foul and gustatory that the relative prosperity of Takashi’s family tends to go unnoticed. Yet the narrator’s eventual breakup with Takashi is inexplicable without considering their disparity in family wealth (not every household can afford a car, let alone a violin that costs as much as a car), a disparity manifesting as a difference in their commitment to escaping the music school storeroom in which the two have inadvertently been locked. For all his willingness to scandalize (“Sometimes he vomited in public just to make a scene”), Takashi is conservative in essence. To him, the world as it stands is the sole true experience: “We’re in a vortex. We’re in a black hole. Nothing we’ve ever seen has been real. Only this room is real.” Hearing the narrator’s suggestion that “if you believe something, really and truly, it becomes reality,” he answers, “I believe in death.” When she attempts to descend a makeshift rope she’s tied together to escape, he, the heavier man, refuses to test its strength by descending ahead of her; in fact, he refuses to descend at all. By the time of their eventual rescue by a janitor and her subsequent return home (via public transit, not car) to a mother who serves her a spartan meal, she has broken with him. The story ends with a declaration of unnerving, borderline fanatical self-belief: “Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.”

A deep skepticism of the upper-middle class pervades the stories in which its members, of which Takashi is the least deluded and most openly nihilist, appear. Fantasies of dissolution often seize them. “I pictured my old body rotting in my coffin. I pictured my skin wrinkling and turning black and falling off my bones. I pictured my rotting genitals. I pictured my pubic hair filling with larvae,” Charles, the narrator of “A Dark and Winding Road,” recounts. A young, well-bred real-estate lawyer who lives with his wife in Manhattan, Charles has retreated to his parents’ upstate cabin to be alone and binge on gourmet snack foods. His wife’s first pregnancy has left him dreading assimilation into a normality he imagines to be lethal.

Charles soon encounters Michelle, a stranger who has come to smoke meth and have sex with his delinquent brother MJ. “I was familiar with girls like her—tough, blue-collar teenagers. They were around when I was an undergrad, off campus. There was one like Michelle who worked as a bartender in a small pool hall my friends and I went to because we thought it was quaint. That girl was beautiful, could have been a movie star if she’d wanted to, but she just chewed gum and had dead eyes and seemed immune to all manner of flattery and abuse. That’s what Michelle was like. She seemed immune. And for that reason, I felt impelled to hurt her.”

Charles lies to Michelle. Putting on stereotypical gay urbanite airs, he informs her that he is a homosexual partner of MJ, and she believes him. Once it becomes clear that MJ isn’t coming, amphetamines are shared between them and the Chekhov’s dildo, discovered earlier in the story, comes into play. “I let her do whatever she wanted to do to me that day in the cabin. It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it to be.” There’s a hole inside Moshfegh’s upper-middle-class men. Despite their membership of the dominant class of the dominant nation, they still feel that “the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to somebody else.” The various underclasses, from Charles’s dead-eyed townie girls to Polish bartenders to black male prostitutes in the Caribbean, sense their lack of integrity and face them with indifferent disdain. In other news, stagnant fantasies, lodged halfway between predatory and impotent, prevail in the countryside and Los Angeles, which Moshfegh rightly views as the countryside’s culmination, at once the outcome of all westbound fantasies and, through film and television, their origin.

Flannery O’Connor’s final short story collection was titled Everything That Rises Must Converge; Moshfegh suggests that, nationally and personally, everything that dissipates must descend. Regarding both form and content, her realism is economic: what emerges from Homesick is a portrait of a nation universally addicted to consumption, in which jobs are either demeaning or absent, and the educated class is hopelessly insecure and ineffectual. Members of the capitalist class prove themselves no more discerning and self-controlled than the classes upon which they prey. Like their cultural counterpart Nick Darby-Stern, they’re too eager to close deals to care much if they’re bad. The narrator of “The Surrogate,” a kind and beautiful white woman who suffers from demonic possession and enormous labia, is the only successful actor in the book. Hired by a businessman named Lao Ting to serve as a representative named Stephanie, her presence ensures that the American corporate apparatchiks she meets with sign all the contracts they’re asked to without asking any questions.

In a collection where downward mobility, stasis, and a ludicrous fastidiousness prevail, it’s striking how the immigrant characters, particularly the often recurring Chinese, possess a level of enterprise and confidence related to their willingness to see the positive potential in baseness, in prostituted life. Like her husband and her children, Lao Ting’s wife Gigi treats the surrogate with unfailing kindness. After Lao Ting’s accidental death, Gigi confides that she was once a teenage prostitute. “When Lao Ting first saw me on the street, I was just a skinny Chinese tramp in a bikini top—can you imagine? All my dreams were nightmares back then. Nothing good.” Implied here as elsewhere, compassion is incompatible with classism and the squeamishness on which classism depends. Despite a candor that often verges on cruelty, the power of Moshfegh’s fiction is ultimately founded in a generosity of spirit that refuses to distinguish between the admirable and the base: socially or morally, her willingness to treat the base as equal enables her to grasp the world anew. Her writing isn’t revolutionary—fiction interrogates ideologies and documents social conditions far better than it advocates for politics—but without the will to descend into wasted lives, there can be nothing, and no one, with which to rise up.

Frank Guan is a writer living in New York.