“Nobody ever gave me the answer I wanted. Nobody ever said, ‘Oh, so beautiful.’” ––Ottessa Moshfegh “Malibu”
In the last few months, I’ve read Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? and three stories by Ottessa Moshfegh. Each amazed and left me a little terrified. No one, I think, will ever accuse Moshfegh’s or Heti’s work of being merely pretty––a criticism I sometimes level at my own prose.
Moshfegh’s short stories challenge because her characters display an incapacity for human connection and inability to treat others kindly. Heti, on the other hand, exposes a sense of writerly ambition so naked I cringe even as her willingness to express it openly delights the ambitious writer within me.
Both women appear to write fearlessly, and no delicate sensibilities will remain un-stung by their stories. Is this a generational shift? Have all the old questions about what is and what is not possible for “lady writers” suddenly been resolved?
When I read Moshfegh’s short stories “Malibu,” “BetteringMyself,” and “Disgust,” or Heti’s novel, I sense an entire generation of women writers no longer stuck pondering: Will the boys like us? Is this something I’m allowed to say? Is this or that narrative point-of-view one from which I’ve been rightfully denied?
For example, the male protagonist of “Malibu” picks his pimples, sticks his fingers down his throat to vomit, and describes his uncle with a fixed and brutal gaze: “[H]e had a colostomy bag he didn’t care for properly. He used a lot of peach-scented air freshener around the home to cover the smell.”
For me, such images lend Moshfegh’s work an outsize authority. But why? Are ugly images naturally more serious? Do they imply greater truth than mere beauty? In Moshfegh’s case, the force and precision in her work, in part created through its coldness, lends the work an appearance of brutal, even courageous, honesty.
In “Disgust,” for example there is Mr. Wu. He is perhaps an unexpected protagonist for a woman writing in the Unites States as he lives in rural China. In order to prepare himself for a meeting with a woman he claims to love, he treats a teenage prostitute roughly by shoving his shit-smelling fingers in her mouth. Even so, I held a terrible empathy for Mr. Wu as well as a sense of awe for the places Moshfegh is willing to take her stories.
How different than your “average lady writers” of days gone by––Virginia Woolf, for example, with her bouquets of fresh flowers, light-filled canvases, sun dappled coast lines, and death. Of course, it would be impossible not to appreciate Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but I sometimes experience Woolf’s work as taking permission for its existence and ambitions through its loveliness and restraint.
On the other hand, is Moshfegh’s colostomy bag more “true” than Woolf’s roses?
Is Heti’s character “Sheila” inherently compelling because she displays all her ambitions and shame? For example when fictional Sheila says, “Now that I had no hope of finding my soul by staying where I was, I wanted to take a different route to the one thing that would justify the ugliness inside me: I would become Important.” For me, such sentiments gain extra-literary force because we, especially we women, are taught to hide our craving and ambition.
I once read in a philosophical text that the problem with language is we use the same grammar to say true as well as untrue things. Nothing in the arrangement of our words reveals falsity.
Does that mean if we replaced Moshfegh’s colostomy bags, pimples, and shit-smelling fingers rammed in the mouths of prostitutes with roses, sunshine, and moonlit landscapes her sentences would reveal a structure as beautiful and precious as more familiar literary work? If Heti’s fictional Sheila were more decorous in expressing her aesthetic ambitions, would the prose be more or less dynamic?
Is a sentence more or less literary because it contains beauty? For me the ugly is much more surprising, especially when it arises from women.
For eons, women have been taught to contain themselves. It seems these writers refuse that mandate. Are they not then radicals, radicals of unkind prose, a prose that stabs at self and other with equal strength?
How lucky I am to live and write during a time when such questions are being generated by work this loud and masterful.