"An Honest Woman"
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Originally published in the October 24, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

october-24-2016Otttessa Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, is on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist, and we will learn whether it won next Tuesday. I’m sad to say I still haven’t read it, but I’m very interested in getting to know Moshfegh’s work better. She has a collection of stories coming out next January from Penguin entitled Homesick for Another World. I have a copy of it at home, and “An Honest Woman” is part of it. I have heard from those who know her work better that short stories are her real strength (to date), and early reports are that this is a fantastic collection. Glad we have a chance to preview it together!

Please leave any comments you may have about the story or Moshfegh’s work below! I’ll join in when I’m able with my own thoughts.

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By |2016-10-17T12:44:48-04:00October 17th, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Ottessa Moshfegh|Tags: |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. avataram October 17, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    Just read this, and then read the luminous writing by Donald Hall on Old Age & Solitude. Very grateful that Hall is still around, writing wonderfully – When his last essay in The New Yorker came, in 2012, he was 83, and I thought it could be his last, and read and re-read it. It is wonderful to see him again in TNY.

    This Moshfegh is not a great story, but a very timely one, published when a creep like the old man in this story is trying to be President.

  2. David October 18, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    I first heard of Moshfegh in January when “The Beach Boy” was published. Over the last ten months I have read all (I think) of her published short stories and her novel Eileen. (I still have not read here novella McGlue.) This story is a perfect example of the kind of thing she specializes in. It’s a wonderfully descriptive and detailed character studies. She often describes people who are on the fringes of society or who are ugly in some respect – either physically or in their personalities or both.
    .
    In this story it initially seems like the story might be about Jeb, and there clearly is a lot more about him in the story than about anyone else, but he becomes a rather easy person to figure out fairly quickly. What I found kept my interest in the story of the piece was the question of what the girl is thinking and how she responds to him. We don’t get a lot of her thoughts, but she makes it clear she knows what he’s up to because she tells him so. It’s never clear why she indulges him so much and she has a rather nasty side herself that comes out a couple of times. I find her a fascinating character.
    .
    I would say I look forward to her upcoming book of short stories, but when I checked there seem to be 14 in the book, the same number of published stories by her I have read. So I might already have read them all. Oh well, there still is McGlue waiting for me to get to.

  3. Melinda October 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Jeb misrepresents himself to the young girl living next door because he believes it will shield him, protect his ego. It doesn’t. The girl, who never mentions her name, sees him for what he really is and uses him. Like their houses, they are mirror images, codependent characters aiming for a personal conquest.
    Jeb had probably been driving people away from his “dark corner of the cul-de-sac through seven Presidents.” And his fanciful self-worshiping probably started long before that, when he couldn’t cope with “his father, a dark, mean figure.”
    The girl, whose back yard is “full of dusty bags of fertilizer and tools, haphazardly scattered,” is being neglected by her current boyfriend. She needs Jeb, her rejection of him, to sooth her hurt ego.
    After reading both of Moshfegh’s NYer stories, “An Honest Woman” and “The Beach Boy,” (The doctor’s wife isn’t loyal and pure, but as well, the beach boys are not male prostitutes; they, like the monkeys, are thieves. The beach boy pulls the doctor from the ocean to pick his pockets, not to save his life.) I believe the writer reveals her characters through their misrepresentations. Because these characters try to live their delusions, they misinterpret others’ intentions, which in turn leads to their downfall.
    I very much enjoyed this writer’s two NYer stories.

  4. Roger October 21, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    I can’t fail to enjoy a story with lines like: “The pale, swollen, spotted hand on the girl’s knee was inert, like a fat, sleeping lizard that could at any moment awaken and claw up her soft thigh.” Moshfegh shows herself to be a master of the grotesque with this one. It reminded me of Flannery O’Connor, though I don’t see anyone moving toward a state of grace here.

    A couple of things seemed hard to believe. One, which is pretty important – could Jeb really eavesdrop so well on his neighbor by sitting in a particular spot in his basement? To the point where he even hears her pass gas? Second, and not as important – why would their houses have mirror-image floor plans if the previous owners of the woman’s house had extensively remodeled (they ripped out the walls, we are told early on)?

    Still, it was fascinating watching these two characters interact.

  5. Sean H October 21, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    An interesting dive into contemporary White Trash Land by a talented up-and-comer. I guess I was most impressed by how balanced she kept it. I’m glad she made Jeb just an old lech instead of a killer or a rapist or something similarly over-the-top. She also had to avoid making him a cliche of the lonely old man. I very much liked her satire of the younger generation (her own), the boy with the laughably millennial wussified name of “Trevor,” the woman who is over thirty but is described early on as “the girl.”
    Moshfegh makes Jeb easy to dislike (he’s elderly, physically unattractive, and frugal, and god how America hates those three quantities) but also makes him the more self-aware character. To him this is cheap (like his whiskey) fun, a way to pass the time, living vicariously through his nephew and watching his neighbor’s yard like a TV set (instead of watching “Reality TV” like the members of her generation). So despite his broken-ness and strangeness, he is at least partially redeemed and three-dimensionalized. The girl is a dullard, and Jeb’s description of her is quite accurate: “A plain Jane. No substance, no depth. Full of herself for no good reason.” But because she’s a woman and not patently ugly, she’s been pursued and desired and objectified her whole life and has a weary knowledge of the game that is sad and plangent in its own way. Of course she takes Trevor back. Of course they have meaningless sex. Of course he rides a motorcycle. Of course she listens to radio pop and pseudo-folk and wears heart-shaped earrings and a cheap dress. It’s difficult to write an unexceptional character and Moshfegh succeeds here with both genders.
    The scene at Jeb’s house and the failed seduction is post-Carver and theatrical, reminiscent of Neil LaBute’s battles of the sexes. It’s poor white everyman vs. poor white everywoman, evoking something of Harmony Korine’s filmic worlds as well, particularly Gummo. The ending also succeeds, as Moshfegh subtly comments on how everything is contingent on time and place, lamenting and satirizing American dreamerism, our undying hope (even into our 60s, as the elderly are often the ones who populate casinos and buy a lot of lottery tickets) for a better world where we’re feted and worshipped (echoes of the Palahniuk of Fight Club here as well). And while this isn’t a remarkable story or a work of sustained genius, it certainly confirms my pretty high opinion of Moshfegh’s skills as I am an appreciator and fan of her book McGlue.

  6. Dan October 22, 2016 at 7:08 am

    My only exposure to Moshfegh has been this story and Eileen. In both, she displays a remarkable ability to portray unlikable people. But in Eileen, Mosfegh provides enough background to elicit understanding, and perhaps even slivers of sympathy, for Eileen’s nastiness. Not so in An Honest Woman, in which all three characters are unrelentingly distasteful. I admire Moshfegh for writing so well about thoroughly unpleasant characters, but I may lose interest in reading about them in the future.

  7. Greg November 2, 2016 at 1:02 am

    Avataram – Nice link to Donald Trump!

    Melinda – Thank you for emphasizing the theme of misrepresentation…. and now I have learned what tragically results from doing that.

    Sean – You have helped me appreciate what the author did well here, and you also let me fully grasp the meaning of the ending…..and I can’t resist asking this: Could you please elaborate on why you think “Trevor” is a wussy millennial name?

  8. Trevor Berrett November 2, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Could you please elaborate on why you think “Trevor” is a wussy millennial name?

    I’ve been waiting for that elaboration as well! :-)

    I’ll just take solace in the fact that I’m a few generations older than millennials, back before the name was wussified, when it still stood for strength and gravity.

  9. David November 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Trevor, if you have not yet heard Moshfegh reading the story, you should give it a listen just to hear her say, in the voice of the female character, the name “Trevor”. It’s quite the moment.

  10. Greg November 2, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks David for this tip!

  11. Ahmad January 28, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    While some might use the short story’s references to certain events, such as the protests in Egypt, which are almost certainly related to the outbreak of Arab Spring, as means to cement the when, I feel as though story is appealing to us on an even more humanistic level. Jeb’s condition, Vitiligo is a terrible disease, which makes suffers difficult to look at. This is the beginning of the erasure of identity, as this is revealed early on. Due to this we see signs that Jeb has become increasingly isolated, he mentions at one point, how the children can be cruel. Enter his new neighbor, with her relative youth, and good looks, most of what we know about the girl is entirely based on her appearance

    When Jeb and the girl exchange an E.T. like handshake through the fence, it’s a form of acknowledgement, Jeb feels like there is finally someone who can see past his Vitiligo, and see him for the person he is. The next major theme, which is closely tied to identity is our inability to accept what we have become, be that either through age or disease. Jeb is very proud for example of being from Alabama, and his red hair, long before his disease and age had crept up on him. The rest of the story, at least in how I interpreted it was Jeb longing for the smallest form of companionship, having a friend that you can spend time with, and sharing things about yourself. Jeb even worries that he usually lets a lot slip when he’s in the company of new people, a symptom of his isolation.

    What happens next might be read many different ways. However I feel that the warm environment, especially during the storm outside, forces the girl to confront a lot of her feelings, those that she might have covered with the excessive housework and the radio blaring. The girl now, with her introspection complete, imagines Jeb just like her Trevor, Jeb doesn’t help the issue by bring up the lingerie that his wife left. The girl now strips Jeb of all sympathy that she originally had for him, she looks at him with the same prism of the nephew that stood her up. Jeb wants to get with her, she decides, and then any contact that Jeb makes becomes proof of this. Finally, telling Jeb what she thinks about him, and how he’s just another old perv, she simultaneously inflicts a blow to Jeb’s entire identity. She goes on to say that she doesn’t even believe he ever had a wife. The conclusion of the story furthers a newer development, that I feel is the hallmark of being infatuated with someone. When the boyfriend returns Jeb had to go to the city, and he can’t bear hearing those sounds, which usually bother someone who’s fond of the other person. What I take away from the story is simple, don’t ever judge someone by their looks, or your concept of who they should be, Jeb should be a sweet old for example, then why is he interesting in her? The reason that our primary identity, that which held onto in our youth never goes away, we are never too old to have a crush, and hence we are never too old to self-loath and endure the pain of rejection, even though our outward appearance has little to do with who we are, or even once were. In short, Otessa has reminded me that people are more than their disease or some short coming that might be visible to us. It’s also a stark view of how the internet centric world has stripped a small part of our humanity from us.

  12. Greg January 28, 2017 at 9:41 pm

    Thanks Ahmad for sharing your takeaways….these will stay with me.

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