“Bettering Myself” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Greetings, Story366! I hope you’re having a wonderful Saturday of President’s Day weekend. I remember during the actual Story366 two years, ago, me scouring through collections to uncover a story that had something to do with presidents, finding “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” by Jerry Gabriel, a story that really had nothing to do with President’s Day, but hey, it felt festive, anyway. This weekend, I’m with the oldest boy at Camp Arrowhead, roughing it, sort of, in a cabin for the weekend with five other adults and fourteen boys, all of them eating chips and playing Risk or their video games because it’s cold and rainy out and this is their “relaxation campout” because they worked hard at the Christmas tree lot late last year and that’s how Boy Scouts get rewarded, by having a game-filled, tentless campout. It’s how they unwind. How they get silly.

In between a couple of wet hikes, I got the chance to read a few stories from Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World, out last year from Penguin. I’ve been seeing people talk about Moshfegh’s work for a while, both this new collection and her novel, Eileen, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Today was the first day I have ever actually read her work, which was foolish, taking way too long for someone who’s made such a mark, who has the kind of word-of-mouth that she’s generated. I’m supposed to be on top of this shit.

I read the first three stories from Homesick for Another World, in order, and loved all of them equally, more or less, but am going to backtrack and write about the lead piece, “Bettering Myself,” because it’s the story that seems most representative of what Moshfegh seems to be doing in this collection, at least in this first hunk. “Bettering Myself “is about a thirty-year-old woman named Miss Mooney, an SAT math prep specialist working at a Catholic high school in New York. The story starts with her declaring that her classroom is on the first floor, near the nuns’ lounge, and that she uses the nuns’ bathroom to puke. A Catholic school-educated boy like me was hooked right off the bat, anything that includes nuns and the defamation of them or their properties. Anyway, Moshfegh also leads us further into the story, because we’re wondering if our hero is puking because she’s got the flu, because she’s got morning sickness, maybe because she’s on chemo, or because she’s been on a bender. It’s a couple of pages before we find out it’s the latter, that Miss Mooney is a boozehound of the highest order, an apt first character for what I know about this collection.

Drinking is just part of Miss Mooney repertoire, as she’s more or less an all-around self-destructive person, someone out to win a medal in self-destructing. On top of her drinking, she engages in random drug use, snorting a friend’s cheap cocaine even though she’s convinced it’s cut with laundry detergent. She engages in random unprotected sex with people she runs into here and there, then discusses it with her students, who never really asked. Miss Mooney isn’t only hurting herself, either. She’s also a terrible teacher, her students painfully inept at math; in order to cover herself, she has, for years, changed their standard test answers to the correct ones, just to keep her job, hundreds of kids looking like they’re better at math than they are. Miss Mooney is on a mission of total self-annihilation, easing the journey with substances. It seems it’ll be a matter of time before Miss Mooney either harms herself irrevocably, or simply loses her job at the Ukrainian Catholic school.

The title to this story, “Bettering Myself,” seems like it’s going to be ironic, but then Miss Mooney hears from her ex-husband, who’s coming to town and wants to meet for dinner and drinks. Our hero sees this as an opportunity. Despite her husband having moved away and moved on—he’s remarried with kids—Miss Mooney goes on a journey of self-improvement. Maybe she wants to reignite the spark. Maybe she’s looking for a one-night stand. Or maybe she just wants her ex to see her in her best state. She quits drinking, firstly, which immediately improves every aspect of her life.  She starts to try at her job. She’s less angry. She even eats a salad.

What happens when Miss Mooney meets her ex for dinner, I won’t reveal here, just to give you something to read. I will say the story surprised me, gave me a satisfying resolution, yet kept up with what I saw as a pattern for these first three stories. Moshfegh writes about fringe people, to say the least, characters who don’t necessarily subscribe to the values that most people subscribe to, nor do they apologize. The second story, “Mr. Wu,” chronicles the courtship between the titular character and a woman who works at the video arcade he frequents. Between attempts to muster the courage to talk to her, Mr. Wu visits a brothel uptown and mistreats prostitutes, having a proclivity for “the dumbest one you have.” In the next story, “Malibu,” a man sets up a date with a stranger by chance. Upon meeting her at her house for dinner, he declares, “Better do it before we eat,” hurrying her into sex, demeaning her before, during, and after. In short, the three protagonists I encountered are self-serving assholes, each more of an asshole than the one before.

What makes Moshfegh so good, so popular, as far as I can figure, is how well she handles voice, her characters not only uncaring and unrelenting, but completely oblivious to just how horrible of people they are. The guy in “Malibu” clearly cannot stand the woman who’s invited him into her home, yet he fucks her, insults her, then stays to eat her dinner (insulting her again), before leaving abruptly and never speaking to her again. Not once does he show a shimmer of regret, mostly because he’s not aware of there being anything to regret, anything to apologize for. He’s just wired that way. Mr. Wu can’t understand why the arcade woman isn’t attracted to him. And Miss Mooney doesn’t once wonder what will happen to her students when they move on, dumber than when they met her.

Several images and themes reoccur in the stories, a couple of characters suffering from bad acne, a couple of them favoring anal sex, two more with inexplicable rashes, the sort of overlap that helps connect these stories on a visceral level. Yet, even with all the ugliness, the stories have a free-wheeling, fun pace to them, precisely because the protagonists don’t give a shit, move from vice to vice without batting an eye. It’s entertaining, I surmise, to watch people in short stories destroy their lives, take others down with them, because they’re not real people, just characters in stories. Are there people like this in the real world? Sure. I don’t want to meet them. Or be in their wake.

But I’d love to hear about it, especially if Ottessa Moshfegh is the one doing the telling.

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