Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction is like a new species of wild animal. First there’s that stunned delight: I’ve never met this species before! Whoa, it feels kind of dangerous. Then there’s the inevitable effort to categorize it, to place it within a larger taxonomy. It’s been delightful to watch some of our smartest, most fearless writers come to grips with what makes Ottessa Moshfegh’s work so special, so hard to shake. Take Jeffrey Eugenides: “Moshfegh is a writer of significant control and range…. What distinguishes her writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” Or Rivka Galchen: “A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant.” Those stories I read in the Paris Review stuck with me for keeps: these are very different psyches each to each, and the voices are utterly distinct, but each is an exploration of a mind that’s unsteady on its feet in a most arresting way, a triumph of unreliability, you could say – unreliable on just about every level imaginable. The world is a lot weirder than is commonly understood; Ottessa as an artist has a purchase on that weirdness and brings us into contact with it, in a way that is wildly electric.
But those are the stories; like many I was very eager to see what this writer would do with a longer form. McGlue, her bravura novella, gave a tantalizing hint, but nothing quite prepared me for the narrative tricksiness, the storytelling cunning, of Eileen. My God, can this writer play the long game. I want to quote, if you’ll forgive me, from the starred Kirkus review, because it makes the point better, I think, than I can: “A woman recalls her mysterious escape from home in this taut, controlled noir about broken families and their proximity to violence…. The narrative masterfully taunts…. The release, when it comes, registers a genuine shock. And Moshfegh has such a fine command of language and her character that you can miss just how inside out Eileen’s life becomes in the course of the novel, the way the “loud, rabid inner circuitry of my mind” overtakes her. Is she inhumane or self-empowered? Deeply unreliable or justifiably jaded? Moshfegh keeps all options on the table…. A shadowy and superbly told story of how inner turmoil morphs into outer chaos.”
Set in the 7 days leading up to Christmas in 1964 in a small town outside Boston, Eileen is the story of how a deeply unhappy young woman imprisoned by her circumstances finds a most unexpected accomplice who busts her out of her confinement, though arguably, as Bob Dylan sang, she uses a little too much force… While stylistically this reminds me of nothing so much as Shirley Jackson of The Birdcage and Vladimir Nabokov of King, Queen, Knave, in another sense this reminds me of the wonderful Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, in that there’s a political valence to this novel all the more powerful for being so beautifully sublimated in a powerful suspense novel. It’s a hell of a thing for a young woman to feel as unattractive as Eileen Dunlop is made to feel by the world around her; the wound is real. And so, though she makes choices you or I might perhaps not make – though perhaps you would! – I think few will say that in the end they’re not rooting for her to go all the way.
Read more about Eileen here.
If you’re in the New York City area, don’t miss the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. The show is on view until August 23, 2015. From their site:
Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat filled numerous notebooks with poetry fragments, wordplay, sketches, and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class, and world history. The first major exhibition of the artist’s notebooks, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks features 160 pages of these rarely seen documents, along with related works on paper and large-scale paintings.
To dive a little deeper, learn the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s partner, Suzanne Mallouk. In Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, the reader is plunged into 1980’s New York City where the lovers meet for the first time. All about art, underground culture, passion and creative energy, this biography is gripping and transportive. See below for an excerpt from the book.
“Sublime, poetic…A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”—Rebecca Walker for NPR
“Stunningly lyrical . . . Original, insightful, and engrossing. . . . While filled with pop culture anecdotes art fans might seek—Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard both make appearances, for instance—Clement’s account is an honest love story above all else.”—Publishers Weekly
This excerpt is from Jennifer Clement‘s Widow Basquiat, the story of the short-lived, obsessive love affair between Suzanne Mallouk and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Clement is former president of PEN Mexico and is the author of three novels and several books of poetry.
THE CROSBY STREET LOFT MADNESS
She irons the clothes, folds his clothes, places them in the same order on the shelf—the red sweater is folded this way and placed above the red shirt. She places the soap at an angle on the sink and always places the towels in the same order 1-2-3. She irons one shirt five times. She makes the bed three times and irons the sheets. If a sweater fades in the wash she cries. She never speaks and only answers questions or speaks in a panicky monologue:
“My mother was a spy in the war. They took her to see a woman with transparent skin. They could see her heart beating in there and her lungs and blood. They could see her eyeballs turning. This was a military secret. Nobody knows about this. And they would give the woman food— turnips, oranges, bread—and watch it all go down into her. This was a military secret. I heard about her when I was five and I thought she must have been very beautiful like a larva, but very scared. I kept looking at my own stomach and wondering what was in there. I chewed care- fully. My mother said she was a kind of Venus or virgin.”
At first Jean-Michel thinks this is funny and puts some of her words in his paintings. Then he tells her to shut up. He paints Self-portrait with Suzanne. He paints her speaking her chicken-chatter, “PTFME E a a a R M R M O AAAAAAAA.”
They do coke six or seven times a day. He tells Suzanne she can only wear one dress. It is a gray shift with white checks. He tells her she can only wear one pair of very large men’s shoes. He does another line of coke. Suzanne walks clunk- clunk-clunk, her feet wading in the shoes, around the loft. He tells her she can’t wear lipstick anymore. He says she can only buy groceries and detergents. Then he says no, he will buy them. He does another line of coke and paints Big Shoes, a portrait of Suzanne in big shoes. He calls her Venus. He says, “Hey, Venus, come and kiss me.” He says, “Venus, go get us some coke.” He writes “Venus” into his paintings and says Suzanne is only with him for his money.
Jean-Michel sticks black paper over all the windows so that they won’t know if it is day or night. “The day is too light,” he says.
Soon Suzanne stops cleaning and Jean-Michel stays at home all day.
Suzanne finds a place to live under a small table, like a small cat that finds a hiding place. From here she watches Jean- Michel paint, sleep and do drugs. He picks up books, cereal boxes, the newspaper or whatever is around. He finds a word or phrase and paints it on his board or canvas. A few times a day he crawls under the table with Suzanne and gives her a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes he pulls her out, has sex with her, and then puts her back under the table and continues to paint.
Sometimes Suzanne weeps a little and Jean-Michel says, “Shut up, Venus. I know what it is like to be tied up and fed, with a bowl of rice on the floor, like an animal. I once counted my bruises and I had thirty-two.”
Suzanne moves from under the table into a closet in the bedroom. In here there is a green trench coat, a pair of moccasins, black and pink pumps, a tin frying pan, a supermarket plastic bag full of bills, two large boxes of chalk. Under one moccasin Suzanne finds a small box of birthday candles.
THEY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A CAR
Shortly after Suzanne moves into the Crosby Street loft Jean-Michel takes her to Italy. He is having a show at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena. Neither Jean-Michel nor Suzanne knows how to drive a car so Jean-Michel pays to bring Kai Eric along to drive them around.
In the airplane Jean-Michel continuously gets up to do some coke in the bathroom. He says he has to finish it up before he goes through customs in Europe. He says he wants to open up the emergency door exit and jump on the clouds.
Suzanne has hepatitis. She cannot lift up her arms.
Jean-Michel sits beside her; he kisses and licks one of her arms.
“Beautiful arms,” he says. “Venus, I have to paint your arms.” He takes a blue marker out of his pocket and paints on Suzanne’s arm. He paints her humerus, ulna, radius and carpus. He writes “animal cell” on the inside of her wrist. He draws a ring around her finger.
“Now you are my wife,” he says.
Read more about Widow Basquiat here.
Learn about the Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum here.
Hop in the Backlist Time Machine! This feature is where Penguin Random House staff members recommend their favorite backlist titles – instead of the next best thing, these are the best old things. Sometimes we peer into the past on our own, to give a little extra attention to a book that still holds up today.
We asked one of our employees, Linda Cowen: SVP, Associate General Counsel in the Legal department, to share a favorite backlist book. She’s even memorized the first few lines of the book – see what she wrote below.
“The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.”
Why this book/lines?
I love fiction that doesn’t have a straight narrative/chronological plot. For instance, I love books of linked short stories where you don’t realize how the characters are connected until several stories in. Justine is the first book in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which consists of four linked novels. They all tell a version of the same events from the points of view of four different characters, and in a slightly different style. You can’t get the whole picture unless you read all four, but also each stands on its own. And for Durrell, the city itself was the most important character. It’s quite magical, especially because pre-WWII Alexandria simply doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.
Of the four books Justine is the most lyrical, which makes sense because Justine herself is the most inscrutable character. These books also bring me back to when I first read them, in my early 20s, traveling for six weeks in Greece, a completely improvised trip. Even in the mid-1980s you could still go somewhere not too far away but be very remote, almost like time travel. I like to revisit them every few years, like visiting old friends, and also my own past. With that first line I’m immediately transported. My favorite edition is the Penguin Ink edition, with cover art by Robert Ryan. It’s just gorgeous and so evocative of the time. Just looking at it makes me want to start reading. I have a copy in my office.
– Linda F. Cowen
SVP, Associate General Counsel
Inspired by Justine? If you’re starting to dream of Egypt, Fodor’s has a great guide to Alexandria.