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Essay Discussion: The Smoker by Ottessa Moshfegh
A close reading of that essay you loved/hated/thought was just okay.
Ottessa Moshfegh published an essay in The Paris Review recently called “The Smoker.” Her father, a Jewish immigrant who fled Iran after the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s, bought her a cheap house in foreclosure in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2009, in the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis. Thematically, it’s about benefiting from another person’s misfortune, and what that looks like. They buy the house, and bond over renovating it, and in the midst of these renovations, they encounter the bereft former owner, a heavy smoker. Moshfegh herself is the villain in this story.
If you haven’t read it, you may wish to do so before proceeding.
I thought the essay was interesting, complex from a thematic perspective, and deft in its execution. Before the renovations, the house is deeply saturated with nicotine, and she imagines what it was like to be the former owner, inviting the reader to do so too: “Have you ever smoked a cigarette in a small room in Providence in the summer, in the still of the night?” This was the quote that spurred me to click on the essay when it landed in my inbox in an email from The Paris Review. As someone who regularly wakes up at 3am just to soak up the quiet dark of that hour, you can consider me biased towards still-of-the-night scenarios. I’ve read Moshfegh’s books Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and know she specializes in ugliness and brutality. I wanted to see what it was about.
When I shared the essay online, a few days after it was published, I quickly saw that many other people really did not like it. “What the fuck did I just read?” is a fairly common response to something by Ottessa Moshfegh, but this was something more. Not only did some people dislike the essay, they thought it revealed the author herself to be a bad person. Not just in 2009, but now. They thought it lacked self awareness and empathy. A few people attacked the writing style, but many more seemed to object to it on the grounds that it was immoral. Some objections seemed to be that she should not have bought a house in foreclosure at all. Others thought she should not have written about it, that doing so was disrespectful to the former owner, and that she was making a spectacle of him. They thought she came across as unaware of her privilege.
This is not what I took away from the essay. Isn’t it interesting how different people can get such different things from the same piece of writing? What’s going on here?
Here’s what I think is working in this essay, from a craft perspective.
For starters, it’s extremely economical. A whole world, an ethical dilemma, vivid characters, and distinct scenes, are all conjured up in the space of about one thousand words. Writing short essays like this that still have an arc to them is a lot harder than one might think.
It’s also unsentimental. This is what Moshfegh does. Her universe, both in fiction and nonfiction, is a brutal one, and highlights the ugliness that many other writers leave out. This includes the ugliness within ourselves that most people are unwilling to examine. In reality, ours is not a moral universe. People do not get what they deserve, and evil is rewarded constantly. Moshfegh knows this, and that knowledge is usually front and center in her work. She is famous for dwelling on the more excremental side of life, literally and figuratively. This choice is not always to my personal taste. (I read a review of her most recent novel Lapvona that made me decide to skip it.)
True to form, Moshfegh does not sugarcoat. She has written an essay in which she is the villain, and I think she knows that, too. She is not the one who repossessed the house, the bank did that, but she nevertheless took part in the mechanisms of cruelty and heartbreak and injustice. She does not make excuses for herself. She benefited from someone else’s misfortune, and says so. Her father bought her a house, and it was a special bonding experience for them: “It was a beautiful and slightly terrifying experience I know I was very lucky to have, and I loved the house, I loved the light and the intimacy of the rooms, and I loved writing in that house.” The house is where she wrote her first book, and it all came at the expense of someone else.
Most of all in this essay, I was struck by her choice to omit. She never describes the former owner, the titular smoker, but he is brought to vivid life nonetheless. I imagined him very clearly, but there is not one single adjective applied to him in the whole essay. He is given only action verbs. He pulls into the driveway. He walks through the door. He lights a cigarette. He waves her away. He smokes. He looks at the crumbled drywall. He throws a cigarette to the ground. He crushes it. He opens his mouth. He cries. He coughs. The lens of her merciless descriptive ability is never trained on him, and I’m certain this is intentional. To me, this came across as a preservation of dignity. In not being described, he is only felt, not seen. We are not told anything about him, not his height, not his weight, not his coloring, and not his age. We are told nothing about his clothes or the car he drove, only that he crushed the cigarette butt “under his sandal.” Deprived of his physical appearance, we cannot judge, only identify. She says exactly what it was like to see him cry: “It was horrible. It was heartbreaking. It was so bad.”
From a craft perspective, the essay is a solid lesson in how a person can be conjured up without a lot of detailed descriptors. It shows what writing can do, as opposed to another medium like film or television. The smoker is never described, but his physical presence, his reality, is undeniable. She presents his efforts to avoid catastrophe. He wanted to turn the upstairs into an independent apartment. He owed more than the house was worth. He failed to keep up with the mortgage. The house is lost, and then Moshfegh and her father come in like wrecking balls to tear the place apart.
In contrast, this is what it looks like when she wants to humiliate someone, or at least doesn’t care if humiliation is one of the results.
The writing style in “The Smoker” is conversational. It begins This one time. She refers to her father not as “my father” but as “my dad” and then just “Dad” throughout, as in: “Dad and I had spent a few days driving around and looking at these houses.” She tells you, in the very first short paragraph, what to expect from the world of the essay; it is dirty and violent. In under fifty words she conjures both pornography and a brutal murder: “In one driveway, I found a dirty playing card depicting the biggest penis I could ever imagine—I still have it. In one basement, the realtor had to disclose, the former owner had tied his girlfriend’s lover to a chair, tortured him, and then shot him in the head.”
In the next paragraph, Moshfegh also shows us that she is no saint herself, sharing unkind thoughts about the neighbor who complains about her dog and messy yard. It makes Moshfegh look ridiculous, to describe an elderly woman “bragging” about her tomatoes, but my impression was that this is intentional, too. David Sedaris often comes across as looking down on the already downtrodden people he encounters, the waitresses and greyhound bus passengers we meet in his essays from the 1990s and 2000s. He is desperate to put as much space between himself and these people as possible, although he is not without self-mockery. With Moshfegh it feels a little different. The glare of her judgement reflects back on her.
Moshfegh has made it clear in interviews that she thinks owning her own arrogance is useful to her writing, and a kind of feminist act. “I’m sure for some people [humility] could be the ticket in, the key in to the world of imagination and creativity,” she told the Guardian. “But for me it seems—not to bring it into the social-political conversation too much—that women don’t really need to be taught to humble themselves. Because at least in my generation we were born into a place where we were already lower, and I think arrogance might just be the thing to level the playing field a little bit.”
Moshfegh is blunt and unapologetic about wanting to grab some of what life has to offer for herself, including, perhaps, a house bought cheaply, but I don’t think she lacks self-awareness. Whether we agree with her personal philosophy or not, I for one am interested in seeing more essays that are not trying to do PR for the writer or for their life. PR essays are almost always boring. It’s worrying to me to think that a “good” piece of art must function as propaganda. If you need every writer you read to be a hero and a moral example, you're in trouble. If you want a clean world, don’t read Ottessa Moshfegh. In her own words: “I don’t feel that my work is something I want to use to preach moral righteousness, but rather explore the problem of being a human in a world where it’s very difficult to be one.”
All in all, I thought “The Smoker” was self-aware, and did express empathy, although it did not spell it out. Its themes were shame, guilt, and quotidian injustice. Is the essay too sparse to get these points across? Does the violent content in the first paragraph, and her judgemental view of her neighbor, seem to justify her presence as a gentrifier in an unsavory way, or reflect negatively and perhaps condescendingly on the former owner of the house? Is this subject an acceptable one for an essay? Or as some suggested, should it not have been written about at all? Does an essay need to be moral, or to set an example, in order to be good? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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