Student Picks: Moshfegh and Kuusisto

Homesick.jpg

Terri Alexander-- Ottessa Moshfegh creates characters that make her readers uncomfortable. In the short story collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh’s characters are flawed, broken, even cruel. The stories are littered with illicit drug use, anonymous sex, and a gamut of bodily functions. But Moshfegh pairs low with high; she takes low characters and applies the high of her literary prowess. She’s wickedly smart, and funny too.

The dramatic tension takes place primarily in characters’ minds. Take, for example, the protagonist in “Nothing Ever Happens Here;” a handsome teen leaves his emotionally abusive mother in rural Utah to become an actor in Los Angeles. He develops a close relationship with his elderly landlord. Moshfegh writes, “After our fourth dinner together, I found myself missing her as I lay on my bed, digesting the mound of schnitzel and boxed mashed potatoes and JELL-O she’d prepared herself.” Uncomfortable yet? How about this:  “She made me feel very special. I wasn’t attracted to her the way I’d been to the girls back in Gunnison, of course.” The reader roots for the protagonist to become aware of his blind spots. 

Moshfegh tends to go to those places with her characters that most writers avoid. The result is utterly original work that is both raw and refined. 

Eavesdropping.jpg

Heather Lynn Horvath-- I first heard Stephen Kuusisto's poetic words when he read excerpts from various works at a writers conference this past February. To say I was hooked is an understatement. 

When I began reading Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, I was once again drawn into a poetic space few books possess. A collection of essays, Eavesdropping is more than a simple memoir. Kuusisto's observations and his mastery of both poetry and prose offers the reader a glimpse of how he listens and processes sounds, so much so that I now find myself hearing deeper. He writes of certain music: "The sound has a thickness, like the fatness of certain flowers, and the sadness is redolent, you swear it has a fragrance."

Kuusisto writes of what it's like to be blind and lost in an airport, relying on the whims of generous strangers while feeling stares and hearing no-so-quiet whispers. He writes of traveling to Iceland and Venice to sight-see. The reader is given moments of rawness and vulnerability that offer ways in which to view everyday life differently. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening is a book to savor and reread. 

Fangirling & Fanboying: Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Mogelson, Nuruddin Farah

from the cover of  homesick for another world: stories

from the cover of homesick for another world: stories

Benjamin Nugent -- In his essay "Michael", John Jeremiah Sullivan points out that Michael Jackson’s best songs have the peculiar catchiness of schoolyard chants. You’ve got to be starting something, Hey girl with the high heels on, Billie Jean is not my lover, I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it, etc. One of the reasons I love Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming collection, Homesick for Another World: Stories, out next January, is that she too is a master of the taunting cadence, only Moshfegh’s schoolyard abuts a high school or a liberal arts school: “The deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on earth could be found…”; “But having held my dick in her hand, she seemed to feel she’d earned the right to belittle me as much as possible”; “The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck.” Lesser writers don’t trust the reader to engage with narrators who express contempt, so their narrators are artificially aw-shucks and nonjudgmental. But Moshfegh knows that people make fun of other people to shield themselves from their own self-loathing, fear and loneliness, and she knows how to twist a story at the end so that the mask of disgust falls away and we see the desolation that was always lurking behind.

New American Stories

New American Stories

Daniel Johnson -- Why is it that all the world has yet to acquire a copy of New American Stories (2015), the 750 page anthology edited by Ben Marcus, and gorge themselves on it? Contained therein are over twenty-five pieces of short fiction--including installments by Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Wells Tower, and Kelly Link--that matter now, not only because they're individually outstanding with regard to their contributions to the endurance of the short story form, but also because, collectively, they're a clip of what the American voice sounds like now. It's The Unprofessionals, but more sweeping in scope. And sure, I'm quite aware this is a terrifically cliché way to talk about any book. But what else is there to say about the most quintessential curation of contemporary stories available? Perhaps that Marcus's intro is knockout: "The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling." Perhaps, too, that the book as a physical object is gorgeous (see left), and simply feels like something substantial when you hold it. It's got the weight and paper gradation of a Bible. Just saying.

John Vercher -- As a new(ish) father, I find that certain books, movies and the like affect me on an emotional level they wouldn’t have pre-rugrats. Marlin finally reunites with Nemo? My chin crinkles. “Cat’s in The Cradle” plays on the radio? The eyes start to burn a bit. And don’t even get me started on that scene from Interstellar when McConaughey watches the video messages from his children back on Earth. So it went for me with Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Lydia Lee, the teenage daughter of James and Marilyn, is missing. Her fate is revealed to readers by the end of the first chapter: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.” Despite the innards-twisting tension that Ng so deftly ratchets before divulging Lydia’s fate, it’s her family’s reactions to their loss and the memories conjured by it that deliver much of the novel’s emotional resonance. Ng writes with the painful beauty of a parent’s perspective as they bear witness to the cruelty of which children are capable. It’s stories like these that stop me cold, make me set the book down long enough to find my sons and hold them, with the hopes of protecting them from the world.

Sarah Eisner -- My mother often writes me lengthy emails about her childhood in Savannah, Georgia, and sometimes asks me questions about the way I remember mine in suburban California. I tend to respond like I’m less interested than I am, like I don’t know that I’m privileged to have a mom who wants to relive my life and share her own, like I don’t realize that someday I’ll wish I asked her everything I could. So when she mentioned that I should read The Rainbow Comes and Goes—a back and forth correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt—I told her it wasn’t my thing, thinking it was another lame celebrity memoir. It arrived on my doorstep on Mother’s Day anyway. I was surprised to find how deeply satisfied I was with the way Rainbow explores motherhood, ambition, identity, aging and grief, framed within a unique narrative of a very particular kind of American privilege and pain. The relationship between Anderson and Gloria illustrates the way families remember through parent and child, and inspired me to ask my mom a few more questions.

from the cover of  bright lights, big city

from the cover of bright lights, big city

Eric Beebe -- After far too long, I finally picked up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and got to making up for the lost time it spent buried in my reading list. It quickly shot into place among my favorite books. The novel gave me the feel of following thoughts rather than plot, but with no lack of an arc to show for it—just gems of true consciousness that seem universal to human experience: “No. Stop this. This is not your better self speaking. This is not how you feel.” The universality of the protagonist’s thoughts is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs; it’s only aided by the way McInerney's style allows us to feel we know the character so well. In a world where we’re constantly pummeled with the differences, assumptions, and enigma surrounding baby boomers, millennials, or whichever generation, it’s an extreme relief to read work which—touted as definitive of one age and place—feels purely, innately relatable in its humanity. Bright Lights, Big City isn’t just a coming-of-age novel, or a New York novel, or an eighties novel. It’s a story about the disillusionment and disappointments that can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, and the fleeting efforts we make to cope. Rumor has it that The Paris Review’s sitting on a forthcoming interview with McInerney, and after this, I’ll be counting down days.

David Moloney -- Luke Mogelson’s first collection of stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead—a title borrowed from the E.E. Cummings poem, “next to of course god america I”—would have you know that when veterans return from war, there’s no glory awaiting them. Rather, what happens is a continuance of trouble and violence. What is especially empathetic about these stories is how Mogelson not only focuses on the veterans, but also the people close to them: mothers, neighbors, and co-workers. In “Visitors,” a mother, Jeanne, loses her son a second time when he returns from war and kills a man in a bar fight. Jeanne is in denial, as she believes her son merely “had to go away again.” But Mogelson doesn’t condemn his characters for feeling wronged. Instead, he allows them to act out their anger and anxiety---as in “Human Cry”---only to find them in a worse way. The protagonist in “Human Cry” explores his own involvement in a man’s death and how he subsequently dealt with it with a self-imposed isolation from the world. But the full extent of the isolation isn’t understood until Mogelson switches point of view in the final page, revealing the protagonist’s bizarre and embarrassing actions to the reader---he’s been living in the man’s home, the man he is responsible for killing. These Heroic, Happy Dead is a book of war stories---perpetual war---and the consequences of sending men to kill and then asking them to return to family, work and normalcy no different.

from the cover of  maps

from the cover of maps

Nadia Owusu -- In Nuruddin Farah’s rich and lyrical novel Maps, a young boy by the name of Askar bears witness to the violent redrawing of Farah’s native Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia post-colonialism. At the same time, he must make decisions about who he wants to be and what he is willing to fight for. Although the political and geographical context of this novel is specific, there are many parallels between Askar’s wars (internal and external) and the wars that are currently being waged, from the Sudans to Syria. Examining themes like religion, class, and community, Maps reminds us that identities and borders (particularly, perhaps, in Africa) are fluid and rarely easily defined.

Ted Flanagan -- The recent paperback reissue of Richard Price’s The Whites drops the hardcover’s unfortunate author attribution of “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” in favor of simply his name, which any devotee of Price would have known by the end of paragraph one. Consider the opening lines: “ ... a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws.” The book has all the Price-ian staples. Its protagonist, Billy Graves, is a conflicted veteran police detective, now working a kind of overnight bunco-cum-broken-windows squad in NYC, all the while stewing about a case from his past involving a triple-murder suspect Graves could never pin with the crime. And then there’s the mysterious stalker, intent on destroying the Graves family. The change on the paperback cover just goes to show that a Price novel, even one intentioned to be a simple whodunit penned under a pseudonym, will always be a Price novel. If there’s a writer living today with a better ear for honest, human dialogue, or a more pathological inability to see every character in anything but full 360-degree, four dimensional view, who illuminates the wider world around us by focusing on the narrow world within his characters, and turns up the heat slowly, so you don’t realize you’re in hot water until it’s too late, I don’t know who they are.  

Fangirling & Fanboying: This Week's Recs from Assignment

Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Benjamin Nugent -- I’ve used a metal detector to extract a lead .59 miniball from the dirt near Manassas. I’ve sipped whiskey from a party cup at the site of one of the last charges of the Army of the Potomac. I’ve been to the Chancellorsville gift shop and seen the bookshelf that’s divided into three sections: Northern, Southern and neutral. But until recently I was fairly ignorant about what came after the Civil War. So I picked up Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. Du Bois is interested in the masses: why, he asks, did five million poor whites support a war on behalf of eight thousand rich whites to keep four million blacks enslaved? It’s required reading for the Summer of Trump. Menand is interested is the intellectual foment that attended and followed the war. His book is set in the salons of Cambridge, Baltimore and Chicago. There are characters like Zina Peirce, who believed that adultery should be punished by execution or life imprisonment, and her philosopher husband, Charles, who cheated on her a lot. It serves as a reminder of how hard it is to find role models in the nineteenth century; even the most ardent abolitionists espoused some pretty appalling views. Their heroism resides in what they did, not in what they said. Sort of like Facebook activists, but the opposite.

Eric Beebe -- Ever since reading “The Weirdos,” I’ve grabbed any piece of Ottessa Moshfegh’s work I can. Her short stories fit my tendency to read in twentyish-minute bursts, but when I heard about her novel, McGlue, I had to see what she did with the extra length. The book follows the title character’s inner monologue, picking up where he’s accused of murdering his shipmate and best friend, Johnson. McGlue’s constant state of impairment by both alcohol and head injury keeps clarity to a foggy minimum, and that was perhaps my favorite aspect of the whole story. Being tied to his altered reality, I learned to stop trying to distinguish the corporeal from hallucination and simply accept what he saw in front of him. The dichotomy between these two forces becomes integral to the plot as the weight of events leads McGlue to seek escape by any means necessary, even if it kills him. The resulting feel falls somewhere between reading The Things They Carried and watching Reservoir Dogs while our narrator teeters back and forth between blacking out and drying out. Moshfegh doesn’t hand us just any drunken sailor; she gives us a man floating between two worlds, battling with himself over which to choose, if he can at all.

From the cover of  Bright, Dead Things

From the cover of Bright, Dead Things

Lisa Janicki -- My favorite poem in Ada Limón’s collection, Bright Dead Things, is “Downhearted,” which begins, “Six horses died in a trailer fire. / There. That’s the hard part. I wanted / to tell you straight away so that we could / grieve together.” She’s a city girl who moved for love to the south, where even the tragedies are foreign. She bumps up against new idioms and “tornado talk”— the subtle stuff that’s peculiar to regions and can be so disorienting to transplants (“All the new bugs.”). And from these small moments, she elaborates larger impressions of her existence. She had imagined herself differently in this new life—more agreeable, more open to its magic, more like a child. But when our grown-up selves allow us to become children again, it’s often in a way that’s less magical and more sullen: in “The Last Move,” she writes, “This is Kentucky, not New York, and I am not important.” I root for Limón as she cleans her big new house and tries to like gardening, though it seems clear she’d rather be in her Brooklyn apartment. I root for her because she threw it all in for love, because she moved to Kentucky for it, because she had no Plan B. And mostly I root for her because I get the sense that she’s resurrected herself before, and she’s about to do it again: “What the heart wants? The heart wants / her horses back.”

David Moloney -- You’d think Olive Kitteridge would be the focus of Elizabeth Strout’s novel in stories titled in her name. But we’re instead given thirteen stories that concern themselves more with the residents of the small, coastal New England town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a math teacher there, and she seems to have had all the book’s characters in class at one point; she always finds herself crossing paths with them when they’re stalled in a threshold of self-destruction. It’s these characters that are most central to the novel. Whether it’s a former student who contemplates suicide on a beach, an anorexic teen, or even her own husband falling in love with a much younger employee, Olive---through her staunch and sometimes misplaced contemptibility for weak people---says what we’d only wished to have the courage to say. She tells the anorexic girl in “Starving,” after giving sound advice about never giving up, “I know you’ve heard all this before, so you just lie there and don’t answer. Well, answer this: Do you hate your mother?” Olive isn’t always right (sometimes far from it); that’s when the book is at its best. The stories are so human, so New England, and in the closing moments, we know Olive did her best, and we know she never gave up—and isn’t that all we can do? 

Nadia Owusu -- I first encountered Lydia Davis two years ago. I was thoroughly confused. What was I reading? Were these monologues? Prose poems? Scenes? “She is the master of the short story,” declared the instructor of my workshop as she assigned three of Davis’s stories to me. “But, where are the stories?” I fretted to myself as I diligently did my assigned reading, certain that I had made some sort of mistake. Don’t get me wrong: I liked what I was reading. I just couldn’t easily categorize it. Later, once my obsessive, ‘I need to make sure I’m doing the assignment right’ voice was quieted by a glass of red wine, I was able to admire the way that Davis was able to imbue such brief moments, untethered by much context or character development or setting or structure, with such feeling and meaning. This month, I worked on my upper body strength by carrying around her Collected Stories. In making my way through it, I tried to give some thought as to how she does what she does and why it works. I found myself particularly admiring how she takes her characters’ specific circumstances and in a matter of a few pages, or in some cases even just a few sentences (Davis’s stories are known for being minimalistic and very brief), makes them universal, raising and exploring difficult questions about the things in people’s hearts and heads that are often heartbreakingly left unsaid.

From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

Ted Flanagan -- Reading Frank Bill’s gut-punch collection of loosely-linked stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, is to bear witness to a nihilistic muscularity of prose one might expect of the love child of Jim Thompson and Donald Ray Pollock, if such a thing were possible. Bill’s slim collection packs a weight far beyond its pages, delivered at a high-velocity. His characters hint that their squalid, violent lives are the result of choices, often (as in drugs or alcohol or regret) the righteous reward for their own. But also, as in poor teenaged Josephine, who’s own grandfather, Able Kirby, sold her into sex slavery to a local gang—some pay debts incurred by someone else. The opening story, Hill Clan Cross, follows two drug dealers avenging their losses against two associates who got all entrepreneurial with the gang’s drugs, a big no-no in a desolate landscape where the only thing thicker than blood are dollar bills. From there, the book accelerates through the bleakness and darkness until the titular story, the collection’s last, in which Mitchell, a local police detective, attempts to help Crazy, a member of the notorious gang MS-13, which has populated the ranks of workers in a chicken processing factory. For me, that’s the brilliance of the collection. Crimes in Southern Indiana, as it insinuates itself, whispers amongst the brawling, crashing, and exploding backdrop that this isn’t just Indiana. It’s the 21st century Animal Farm, decrying not Fascism, but a distant offspring of it.

John Vercher -- Addiction has a name, and that name is “Scotty.” He’s an incubus and succubus for men and women alike, dangerous in his charm and seduction, fulfilling all cravings while reaping wanton destruction. Scotty is, literally, crack cocaine. He is funny, repulsive and impossible to ignore. In his PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Delicious Foods, James Hannaham tells the story of Eddie, his mother Darlene, and her relationship with Scotty. It is a story of tragic loss and horrific violence infused with irreverent humor. The novel explores the depths of maternal love pitted against chemical dependence in the shadow of the titular farm where both Eddie and Darlene find themselves held captive. Hannaham’s stark and concise prose is instantly engaging, and doesn’t shy away from the horror of the subject matter while avoiding the melodrama that could easily overcome it. In between the braided flashbacks of Darlene’s youth and the tragic events that lead to her eventual addiction, we’re treated to Scotty’s dark humor and cruel charisma. He’s a twisted conscience in a novel of painful truths about desperate acts and the systematic racism that lead to them. Delicious Foods is at once heartbreaking and breathtaking with richly textured characters that has stayed with me long after the final page.

From the cover of  Vitals .

From the cover of Vitals.

Daniel Johnson -- You've got enough to read (and if you're really interested in what I'd recommend, check out my weekly selections at The Paris Review Daily's "Staff Picks"). Meanwhile, let's talk obscure music. Like many of their fans, I discovered MuteMath when they debuted their first single, “Typical,” on Letterman’s Late Show in the summer of 2007. The band’s performance—and particularly that of drummer Darren King—stunned Ed Sullivan theater such that once the music stopped, all Dave could say was, “How bout that drummer!” Eight years later, in the Fall of 2015—one guitarist, a Transformer’s theme and two underappreciated records since Letterman—MuteMath started its own label, Wojtek Records, and released their first self-produced studio album: Vitals. King’s percussive energy and Roy Mitchell-Cardeńas’ critically acclaimed bass-playing have been at the forefront of most of their music; Vitals, however, is unquestionably frontman Paul Meany’s opus. It’s all vocals, all keys. The result is something like a contemporary eighties record, if only, say, Earth, Wind and Fire had grown up in bluesy New Orleans, where Meany and the rest hail from. Both the album’s single, “Monument,” and “Light Up” share the insane vocal range of “September”; both have that same wedding-reception-banger vibe. And though the album feels at times like a throwback or an homage to Meany's influences (The Police being a big one), it's actually a welcome step into the future for the band: Vitals is heady and joyous and wonderfully hypnotic in a way that most MuteMath is not. Meany has said himself that, when composing a work, he wants the end product to be “a picture of something dark, but it should be framed in light.” This is their first album that’s more frame than picture--just listen to "Stratosphere," my favorite of all eleven tracks: "The sun has lost its gravity / and severed my connection to the starlight. / I never meant to have to start all over / without you."