Eugenides on Moshfegh
April 16, 2013 | by Jeffrey Eugenides
Every year, at our Spring Revel, we give three honors: the Hadada Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and the Terry Southern Prize. This year, Jeffrey Eugenides presented the Plimpton Prize to Ottessa Moshfegh.
The Plimpton Prize for Fiction is a $10,000 prize awarded to an author who made his or her debut in our pages in the previous year. Moshfegh had two stories in the Review: “Disgust” (issue 202) and “Bettering Myself” (issue 204).
Nothing is harder for a writer than getting published for the first time. The road from the bypass to the byline is paved with misery. In fact, it’s not even paved—that’s the problem: you’re stuck knee-deep in a bog, and no one cares if you ever get out.
Of equal difficulty, on the other side of the equation, is the task of finding an unknown writer. Reading through the slush pile is like looking for tigers in the jungle: they’re camouflaged not only by their stripes but their surroundings. An editor has to be unflaggingly alert and discerning, alive to any perceptible movement in the shadows.
If somebody forced me to pick the one thing that The Paris Review has done best over the years—the one thing that distinguishes this magazine and represents both its chief mission and achievement—I’d say it was the discovery of new writers. This was true when George Plimpton was the editor of the magazine—hence the name of the award I’m about to bestow, the Plimpton Prize—and it’s still true; last year, this year, and every year. Among those whose early fiction appeared in the Review are Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, Mona Simpson, David Foster Wallace, Edward P. Jones, Yiyun Li, and Elizabeth Gilbert.
The Plimpton Prize for Fiction is a $10,000 award given to a new voice published in the last four issues of the magazine, and tonight it is awarded to Ottessa Moshfegh.
Ms. Moshfegh had two stories in the Review this past year, “Disgust” and “Bettering Myself.” “Disgust” is about a middle-aged Chinese man, Mr. Wu, a lonely guy with bad breath, a frequenter of prostitutes, who falls in love with a woman who runs a computer arcade. The story is written in a fluent, restrained, uninflected third-person voice—a super-assured voice that makes clear from the first page, which also happens to be the first long sentence, that somebody is definitely in charge here. The restrained narration calmly surmounts the difficulties Moshfegh has set herself, which is to anatomize, in detail, the psychosexual elements of disgust as they play themselves out in the psyche of a man who hardly knows he has one. Mr. Wu is acted on by forces he doesn’t understand, and the story, which moves from scenes of sweet longing to those of serious shock value, enacts rather than explains its title, and so makes Mr. Wu’s experience the reader’s own. It’s one of those stories where I don’t understand the ending, one of those stories I’m still thinking about, even up here, right now.
“Bettering Myself” did what it said it would: it convinced me that Moshfegh was even better than I already thought. The voice here is totally unlike that of “Disgust.” It’s a sharp-witted, wayward, unpredictable, first-person voice, evidence that Moshfegh is a writer of significant control and range. The narrator of “Bettering Myself” is a problem drinker and Catholic-school math teacher who says to her students, “‘Most people have had anal sex. Don’t look so surprised.’” There’s a deadpan humor to many of Moshfegh’s utterances. A little Henny Youngman in there, trying to break out. But also something a whole lot sadder. It might be the cadences of the author’s name, which bring so many things to my mind—Odessa, obviously, but also Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister overthrown in the 1953 coup—but Ottessa Moshfegh’s prose seems to bear traces of mournful central Asian music. If I’m imagining this—and I am; for all I know Ottessa was born upstate—the fact remains that what distinguishes her writing is that unnameable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique. I think this is what made the editorial committee vote unanimously to award Moshfegh this prize, a concord that rarely happens and that I probably shouldn’t mention, because it might tarnish past and future recipients. But that’s all right. This is Ottessa Moshfegh’s year and it is my great honor to award her the Plimpton Prize for Fiction.