The Mouth of Our Caves
These are the reasons I am now in love with Ottessa Moshfegh:

Because right now I’m waiting for the answers to my questions.

John McPhee knew me better than most when he admitted, “I turned in the manuscript and went for a five-day walk in my own living room.”

When I fell in love with reviewing books, the lure involved my hunger to know what kind of beasts novels were—what skeletons held them up, how they moved and breathed, quickened and withered. But the lure of conducting author interviews draws on something else. The hunger to find out something rougher and closer-held about the shape a writer’s life can make, what fitful spurts and lulls and swerves can happen as a lifework’s body grows.

So here’s how it goes, every time: I read the author’s work, I read too much of it, I fall in love, I fall off the deep end, I send off my questions, and then I wait. I send off my questions and then the spell wears off. This one-way lost-weekend affair is over, maybe, or never was at all, and I can’t sort out what is real. My memory of the questions I’ve asked spills over me with cringing regret, and all I can do is wait. As if what I’ve really done is to fill up the author’s landline answering machine, and now I’ve got nothing to do but sit on my hands, picturing them as they’ll come home at the end of their trying day, drop their sacks of groceries onto the counter, and punch the button beside the flashing red light. How the wobbly tape will reel off my messages one after another, how the author will hear the strain in my wine-laced voice laboring to sound civilized, professional, recognizably humanoid. How they will stand there at the counter, drumming their fingernails against the Formica, and wonder how all of this became their problem.

*

Because she may well hate my fucking guts, and the good lord knows I’ve got a thing for that.

When novelist Luke Goebel showed up on Moshfegh’s doorstep to interview her, he couldn’t have expected the interview that unfurled. The one during which the seed of their engagement grabbed immediately for the soil. The one in which he would end up describing her as a “Croatian-Iranian witchdoctor” ready to ensorcel any unsuspecting reader. Story goes, the interview rolled on unceasing for weeks, growing and mutating into entanglement and romance, yielding at its exhausted finish line a single sheet of typed paper, the first draft of Goebel’s piece, afterward framed and hung on her living room wall: These are the reasons I am now in love

Love calls us out, into a reckoning with our own secrecy. Will it lead us out into the light, exposed, for good or peril? Or will we find instead that we’ve been claimed by further reaches of our inner dark?

The works that we most need to write come to claim us with no less power than does ruthless love. As Moshfegh told Goebel, on the subject of her first novel: “[For] me to pull Eileen out—it was a fucking miracle. No, it wasn’t just a miracle, it was fated. It was a fated miracle.” The kind of miracle that “gave me a life of not hiding.”

Eileen—that patron-saint narrator of misanthropic secretives, concealing her inner tempests, revving in park for years. Jane Eyre at her pissiest, trapped in a 1960s noir. All it takes is one small whiff of freedom. That’s enough to tip her into mayhem. Who knows what she may still be plotting, out there somewhere, beneath her mind’s strange, glittering nightscape?

*

Because the beast coiled at the center of my deep-realm, labyrinthine core has winked itself awake.

All afternoon she has been rising up through layers of dreams—through mouldering battlegrounds strewn with the dead by her own striking, those struck down by her enemies and by those she had no use for but who killed in her name nonetheless. She’s brushed past the line of brave but foolhardy souls who sought her at the gaunt dark end of long pilgrimages, who placed their earnest fates in her talons, her ancient urges, her unfathomable judgments. Nearing the surface she passed through the strangest dream flashes of all: the others of her kind. Blurred faces of litter-mates, lovers, hatchlings—each stolen away by superstitious men with swords, or lost to the chaos of flash-flooded caverns, or simply parted from her in the natural course of life’s relentless turn away from the present.

The witchdoctor rattled her bones and woke her—something I had begun to believe might never happen again. In my tiny backyard shed, still new enough that it smells of fresh wood and paint, for months I have continued to sit and wait in good faith for her to wake—one of those earnest foolhardy pilgrims.

But now my own dear beast lies curled beneath my desk. The one I thought had gone extinct is wide awake and making plans.

Out my window I watch my brand-new husband and near-kids splashing and laughing in a swimming pool we all built together one holiday weekend.

They have no idea who they’ve set loose inside their family.

*

Because when left to my own devices, I trend toward furtive importuning extremity.

I lived for years in the middle of a clearing on the top of a thickly wooded ridge. There, I built a moat around my own nature. I learned to sacrifice my health, my relations, my piggybank, to the ravages and ecstasies of one radical need: to give myself over as a space that writing could fill—with transmutation, with an oblivion that gave and gave and gave.

As I watched the other claims of life slip past, slip away, I didn’t feel bereft. There was no other life than being made of this. By then, I had been remade and didn’t know what I was anymore. Some beast I could love and punish in equal measure. I found I was as fanatical as any of the blazing-willed, spare-not-the-rod Alabama farmers in my bloodline. I could mortify my flesh in the name of the cause and still spend any idle moments with kith and kin inwardly preoccupied, fingering my lash.

Until I couldn’t. Until flesh fought back, uprising in protest and violent work stoppage. I got sick. I got sicker. I got obscurely, weirdly sick. Signs of darker warning pulsed through every new bloodied nose, inflamed tendon, bulged eye socket, enlarged gland, raised fever.

What a boneheaded moment for a writing woman to fall in love. Some of us learn nothing until we can learn it the hardest way imaginable. Pick the right man, but for the woman we don’t want to be. Make deals we know we’re going to break. Touch but not love. Love but not need. Sit between his children on the couch and psychically inoculate them from needing us too. Leave nothing behind when we go. Drive home believing we can shake them all off, hungering hard for our radical years. Long for the beast to come and grab us back.

*

Now the questions themselves are changing direction.

They cut loose from the waiting and follow me down the past year, through a welter of change—from inveterate recluse to new wife and some kind of mother. I know the source of my fears. And the question that hounds me. Am I built to survive family life: its sugared surfaces, its unforgiving regimens and schedules, its endless night-and-day compromises?

I am like the uneasy husband from a story in Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, who has holed up in a remote mountain cabin overnight, far away from his pregnant wife at home. He gets wildly stoned, seeking to conjure something potent made from the past, either his own past or drawn up from some deeper primordial origin—something undeniable, eternal, that would prove his greatness. Some proof he can wear secretly while inside the confines of everyday family life. He admits that after decades of wandering through life, “I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else.” As his high wears down and the night turns weirder, he knows that family and future are waiting, somewhere down the mountain, ready to claim him.

That expert knower and lover of beasts, Joseph Campbell called art “the set of wings to carry you out of your own entanglement.” Could signing up for domestic life have been an obstruction of my own design? A perpetual entanglement generator, configured just to my size?

I want to be like Campbell, bright with fond joy as he savors Bill Moyers’ questions, spilling his answers onto tape for hour after hour. I can almost picture my own tweedy elbow-patched arms jumping and flapping with sublime transcendence, wholly disentangled.

But there at my actual raggedy elbow comes the tug of another beastlover, John Gardner, famed for loosing cave-dweller Grendel into the glare of center stage. He shines a bright light on my own nature when he claims that among the list of qualities that writers of fiction tend to embody, is “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” He states this not in despair, but in wry solicitude. Gardner’s sparkling irony, Eileen’s mordant wit—they embrace the dark treasures we’ve smuggled into our deepest haunts.

There are worse fates, they seem to tell us, as they raise a glass to the ruthlessness of life’s everyday binds. We raise ours back, distracted already, our attention turning inward. At the mouths of our caves we are pacing back and forth, working the ground over, working the answers out.

*

Now my own dear beast has risen up to face me across my desk.

I imagine she will ask me what I intend to do. I watch every move she makes, trusting nothing. These are the questions I ask her:

Where the ever-loving shit have you been?

Did I displease you? Are you already turning away, poised to leave?

Or do I misread the shift of your stance, the arc of your spine: are you going to eat me up?

And what about them, I ask—the ones out my window now, laughing and splashing in the sanitized water? If I betray any hint of my allegiance, one way or another, will you sniff the air, whip your snout in their direction, and lock your sights onto them?

My secret is not that I want you to spare them. Not that I worry you’ll visit your worst upon the ones I love. Instead, what I want is not to share you with them at all.

My secret is—I want your worst visited upon me. Jacob grasping his own ineffable visitor, that terrifying, electrifying angel: I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. I want you all for myself.

Blades of glaring sunlight bounce off the surface of the swimming pool and slash the painted walls around me. Outside, my new family douse each other with water. They splash, they play. They don’t know how the bright of their joy can burn. Blind spots slice across my field of vision, and I never think to look away. As burning light fills the air of my room, my eyelids open wider.


Photo used under CC.