I read about Ottessa Moshfegh before I read (very much) of her work and my impression was that she’s an arrogant and eccentric misanthrope. But don’t get me wrong: calling her this is not as harsh a judgement as it might seem. An “arrogant and eccentric misanthrope” is pretty much how I would describe myself back when I still lived in the US.
(Perky blonde co-worker at one of my many crappy mall jobs: You’re so quiet. Why don’t you talk more? You should smile more.
AEM me: Here’s an idea. How about instead I just punch you in the face?*
*of course I never actually said this, but believe me I wanted to…)
Although I’ve become much more humanity rah! rah! rah! in the meantime, I sometimes wonder if it’s because of where I’ve lived for the past 19 years. Germany is the land of worst case scenarios, most of its native folk suffering from a serious and perpetual case of Chicken Little-itis. I’m crazy stubborn and a contra to the core, so it makes sense that I would become a let’s-look-for-that-silver-lining positive-minded person when surrounded by a bunch of Cassandras all day every day. Would I have stayed an arrogant and eccentric misanthrope if I hadn’t left the States? Or was my down in the dumps, doom and gloom, people hating persona only part of being in my mid-20s, i.e. something I would have eventually grown out of? Who knows. Either way, my glasses are now mostly rose colored, although these are certainly trying times for even the most buoyant of optimists.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to read more of Ottessa than the odd story or story fragment I’ve found on the Internet for a while now. I started My Year of Rest and Relaxation a few nights ago and I’m really digging it. I read online somewhere that Moshfegh has been compared to Nabokov, and so far I would agree. Her writing has that same sharp, chilly, inventive and (darkly) funny-without-being-funny feel that his does. One of the criticism I’ve heard about her work is that her characters are completely unlikable. Personally, I don’t really get this “characters need to be likable” hang up that a lot of readers seem to have. Sure, likable characters are, well, likable, but I’m not reading to make new friends. Characters can be despicable as long as they are also compelling (case in point, Humbert Humbert. Nabokov even had me feeling for the guy at the end, which was masterful as fuck.) So far the main character doesn’t seem particularly like she’d be my BFF, but I also don’t have anything against her (love that she took a dump on the floor of the gallery as well as the casual, pretentious cruelty of the stuffed puppies with the laser eyes. Yikes.) Then again, I am only about a quarter through the book, so I might be changing my mind. As for now, I’m definitely impressed with her writing and pleased that she lives up to the hype surrounding her these days.
I’m also glad I’m digging the book because I’m in a state of mourning that Ubik came to an end. Jesus, I loved that book. So. Much. Like I wrote here, for me, reading Philip K. Dick is more like a direct experience than merely reading. This was even more fully realized in Ubik than in his short stories. The novel waffles around a little in the beginning as he sets up a world with telepaths, precogs, various organizations, Terra, Luna, blah, blah, blah. At times it’s hard to keep track of things. But then the curtain rips, reality slips away bit by bit and paranoia creeps in. Just what is this world anyway? I just bought Flow Tears, the Policeman Said which I plan to read once I’m done with Moshfegh.
But my (growing) love for Philip K. Dick is more personal than just my admiration for his writing: the more I read about the guy, the more he reminds me of my father. Anyone who knows anything about Dick’s personal life is probably thinking, Oh Jesus, I’m sorry. PKD was most definitely not the poster child for “well-adjusted and even tempered”. But in this article, Dick’s daughter Isa said, “He had a fantastic sense of humor, and he could be very charming. He was gifted intellectually, and yet so emotionally fragile, as he suffered from terrible bouts of anxiety and depression.” Add in warm-hearted and incredibly generous to the good traits, and this describes my father perfectly, as do these descriptions:
“He was someone who tended to consider a lot of things that could go wrong, and scenarios that could take us to really bad places.”
Friends painted a vivid picture of a man who, when angry, would stamp his feet, wave his gun and rip his shirt off “like the Incredible Hulk”. (My dad managed to keep the guns in the closet, but he did punch an occasional hole in the wall.)
Like Dick, my father had a deep, paranoid fear of government and the authorities, particularly the IRS, who he was sure would someday come knocking on the door to put us “out on the street” or in “the poorhouse,” which apparently still existed just for us.
And the parallels continue: My father was completely obsessed with ancient Rome and the early Christians.
Of course, my father wasn’t like PKD in every way. He never had any visions, but would have definitely found the idea bad ass; he didn’t have a drug problem, although he was an on-again, off-again alcoholic. Dick was married five times, but my father was only ever married to my mother. They stayed together to the very end, but there was a whole lot of drama in the middle, including multiple affairs and my father throwing his wedding ring out of the car window in a fit of rage (My mother: He threw his wedding ring out the window on the 580 freeway, kids! The 580 freeway!) Rage and histrionics aside, my father was, thankfully, never physically violent with anyone, while Dick apparently was.
PKD was a science fiction writer, but my father was a scientist. He worked with semiconductors and mask making technologies and none of us could understand fuck all about what he did. At his memorial, we learned from a former colleague for the first time that he was one of the leading experts in his particular niche not at the company, not in the state, not in the country, but in the entire world. How would we have ever known this when he was sure the world was ending, an IRS agent lurking up the hill, waiting to destroy us, his boss getting ready to fire him at any minute?
My father was a person who never knew his own worth. Or maybe part of him did, but he could certainly never enjoy it. But he would have enjoyed Dick’s books, of that I’m sure. I can imagine him reading the book I just finished and later pretending to spray a can of Ubik anytime things got weird, which for him, was always. I wish he was still with us.
My father, Robert Lionel Dean. A volatile, haunted, at times absolutely infuriating human being. But he was also one of the most special, endearing and brilliant people I’ve ever known. From what I’ve read, a lot of people who knew Dick felt the same way about him.
RIP, Bob Dean. Miss and love you.
p.s. Dick had his first vision in February 1974, the month and year I was born! Ubik is set in 1992, the year I graduated from high school! Have I ever mentioned I can get a little obsessive? Well, now you know. 😉