She taught me subtlety, and how to be an actress through voice and harmony
Ottessa Moshfegh, winner of the 2013 Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction, will read along with Carlus Henderson at a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 8 p.m. on Friday, April 5, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).
Ottessa Moshfegh is less than forthcoming about her life and practice as a fiction writer. Although this makes writing about her a bit difficult, it’s refreshing in the Facebook era of hyper-disclosure, in which most individuals succumb to the implicit motivation to share with the world the trivial minutiae of his or her pointless plod toward death.
“I guess I feel that the less someone knows about me, the bigger chance they’ll give my work,” Moshfegh said. “Who cares where I went to school?”
The writer bios at the bottom of her stories and in the backs of journals in which she publishes—such as the Paris Review, Unsaid, NOON, Guernica, Vice, and many others—are borderline cryptic, often reading simply “Ottessa Moshfegh lives in Los Angeles.” Until she was recently compelled to produce a standard, current author photo, most of the images of her one could find online showed Moshfegh as a child, blowing out birthday candles or standing shirtless with a towel on her head. She also seems to resist the impulse some writers have of constantly self-consciously scanning their ongoing existences in order to determine what might make good fodder for fiction. A note at the beginning of “Medicine” tells us: “This is a story that started off as a confessional letter. I lived in China during my early 20s and until now haven’t wanted to write anything about it.”
The current author photo we now have—which reveals that Moshfegh is likely somewhere in her 30s, with large, dark eyes and long brown hair that does not quite conceal her ears—does as little as her name to assist one in pinning down her familial origins. Her first name evokes the Ukrainian port city (or the small town in Texas where Friday Night Lights takes place) and her surname reminds one, perhaps, of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Iranian prime minister who was overthrown in the coup that established the shah. An interviewer recently asked Moshfegh about the sense of “ancient sadness” that her stories evoke, and where that might have come from. Moshfegh simply replied: “I don’t know. It’s in my face, too. You can see it. My family history might have something to do with it.”
This sense of sadness pervades two stories Moshfegh recently published in the Paris Review that earned her this year’s $10,000 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, which she’ll fly to New York to accept after reading in New Orleans at the Press Street HQ on April 5. In those two stories—“Disgust” and “Bettering Myself”—Moshfegh renders decrepitude and isolation in exquisite prose that leaves room for the possibility of beauty—if not by describing it, then by channeling it. She presents her characters’ pitiful hopelessness so artfully a reader can’t help but be filled with gratitude for the small bits of bliss and victory available in a generally demoralizing world.
In “Disgust,” a middle-aged man in suburban China named Mr. Wu pines after a woman who runs the local arcade. His inner monologue is pathetic—and, at times, sadistic—but his outsized sense of triumph makes him remain endearing. Instead of asking the woman for her number, Wu gets it from a flyer advertising a discount at the arcade and, upon receiving this treasure, immediately emails his brother to pronounce that he will likely be married in a year. After pondering what his opening text to her should be—they’ve never spoken beyond stilted pleasantries—he confers with his neighbor, who tells him his wife was made desperate in her search for a mate by her deformed hand, which “reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn … that twisted, thin, limp and red-skinned tentacle.” Mr. Wu’s pick-up texts to the woman at the arcade begin: “How does it feel to be a middle aged divorcee living with your retarded nephew and working in a computer café? Is it everything you ever dreamed?” The final scene includes Mr. Wu shooting off fireworks and “pausing now and then to raise his arms in victory.”
“Sometimes my characters insist on winning,” Moshfegh told an interviewer. “That’s all I can say.”
The thing about writer bios and lists of degrees and publications and author photos and interviews about craft and publishing is that they’re often murderously boring, and seem otherwise only to navel-gazing writers awash in the cults of personality and meritocracy we’ve been trained to worship. This, rather than caginess, seems to compel Moshfegh to forego the standard self-promotion template—although, as she mentioned, keeping your public self murky makes your work shine harder. She is open to describing her influences, for instance, such as being upset after reading Ray Bradbury and Alice Walker and Herman Hesse in 6th grade. “I started writing around that time because I couldn’t handle just sitting there after being so blown away,” she said.
It’s unsurprising, given the musicality of her prose, that she cites a musician as her most profound early source of inspiration: “Valentina Lass was my piano teacher for many years, up until I graduated from high school in Boston in the late nineties,” Moshfegh said. “I saw her twice a week. She was a small, Russian woman who lived alone in an apartment down the street from the conservatory, just past the Museum of Fine Arts. She was an avid traveler. She had a huge bookshelf in her living room piled high with mementos and keepsakes and little trinkets from all over the world. She was obviously very passionate, and yet her passion was contained. I loved her. She was the most generous person I’ve ever known. The way she talked about the compositions I was learning, the characters, the innuendos, the ecstasy, all of that, influenced me profoundly. Seeing the divine order of a piece was heartbreaking and magical. That’s what I want to do in my stories. It was rough with the piano. I didn’t practice enough. But she taught me subtlety, and how to be an actress through voice and harmony and how to dramatize my own experiences. I wasn’t technically talented enough to be a professional pianist, thank god.”
Moshfegh’s reading on April 5 is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as Poets & Writers.