Better Places

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before.  Shame on me, I know.  As a wannabe writer, I feel compelled to know other writers’ names.  Hang in literary circles.  Etc.  The good news is, however, that I found Homesick for Another World in an indie bookstore.  I’d gone in for something else that they didn’t have, but I don’t like walking out with nothing, especially when it’s a small store.  Besides, I trust the taste of most independent store owners. 

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories all the way through.  As with most writers some work appeals to you more than others.  In my mind the first and last stories stick the firmest.  The latter, “A Better Place,” is haunting, almost Shirley Jacksonesque.  Others make you uncomfortable in your own skin.  This is a rare talent.

Finding a writer who, using simple words and expressions, takes you to another place is a rare gift.  The short story (the only kind of fiction I’ve actually published) is a versatile and engaging form of literature.  Books collecting them are often good for picking up when you have a little time and putting down for a while again.  I felt compelled to go through this whole work, being drawn into the weird and somehow familiar worlds of characters who seem to have no purpose, no goals.  It’s almost as refreshing as Kafka or Camus.  To be a writer who requires only one name to evoke a genre must be glorious.  These stories are strange without recourse to the supernatural, and they defy easy genre assignment.  (This makes publishers crazy.)

There’s an earnestness and a longing in this collection.  A kind of nihilistic spiritualism.  A wanting with no particular object in mind.  I read a lot of fiction, some of it very good.  The kind that leaves you a little stunned and questioning what reality is.  This is that kind of book.  Had I not gone into that indie shop that Saturday morning I never would have found it.  I certainly didn’t know to look for Ottessa Moshfegh.  Here again I’m reminded of the value of the bookstore experience.  The ability to browse without clicking or scrolling feels like a luxury to me now.  I may have to pay more than Amazon’s competitive pricing, but then this is like a finder’s fee for being in the real world.  Even if the book makes you question that reality when you’re done.

Stranger Things

Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.

Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.

I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.