By Stefan Beck
The French call it nostalgie de la boue, “yearning for the muck.” It’s an affliction endemic to young people who hope to become writers, and its symptoms are easy to spot: the shuffling gait
and bloodshot eyes; the Salvation Army wardrobe, redolent of OTB parlors; the florid fascination with the Beat Generation; the equation of debasement with authenticity, which presents as an unthinking reverence for criminals, addicts, sex workers, the homeless, and Charles Bukowski. Often it proves fatal to emotional maturity and sound judgment. Once in a while it is a blessing in disguise.
Where does it come from, this compulsive attraction to the seedy, the seamy, the salacious? In literature, it has a tortuous pedigree. We trace its spiritual origins to Diogenes and his barrel, to Jesus and his low-life companions, to the parable of Lazarus and Dives and to the Beatitudes, and to stories like Leo Tolstoy’s “Martin the Cobbler.” It branches off in darker directions: the life and works of the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, Isaac Babel joining a Cossack regiment in order to experience “what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” It is in Babel’s Red Cavalry Stories that we find the blueprint for that muck-wallowing masterpiece of cult literature, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
Johnson was also influenced by Graham Greene, not least by Greene’s Catholic identification with the “poor in spirit,” but like most contemporary writers working in this nearly collapsed vein, he owed a debt to the Beats. His first novel is called Angels—cf. the “angel- headed hipsters” of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—and his early poetry is shot through with muck-beatifying imagery: “Our Lady of the Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover”; “Heavenly lady, / I’m drinking coffee / and you’re dripping mucus”; any line at random from “The Confession of St. Jim-Ralph.” But Johnson was a better writer than any of the Beats, in part because he rejected the superstition that substance abuse is a boon to creativity, but mostly because he treated his down- at-heel characters not like symbols, fetish objects, pincushions, or jokes, but like people. In this Johnson was, if not unique, at least unusual, and he is the gold standard by which today’s gutter-chroniclers should be judged.
Ross Macdonald said of Raymond Chandler that he wrote “like a slum- ming angel,” and this phrase is useful to keep in mind when consider- ing the use and abuse of nostalgie de la boue in literature. “Slumming,” of course, means being in low places where one doesn’t belong; it suggests tourism, gawking, exploitation. Like many in my generation, perhaps, I learned the term from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, which is essentially a literate person’s fantasy of having it both ways, of being a tough guy and a bona fide genius. I saw the term more recently as the title of a story in Homesick for Another World, a collection by the Garbage Pail Kid of literary fiction (I say this not without affection), Ottessa Moshfegh.
And here it is again:
“Are you a cop?”
“No.” Mona snorted. “Why, do I look like a cop?”
“Well, I’m not,” Mona said.
“Just slumming then, I guess,” the woman said, but not unpleasantly. She shrugged. You may have bigger tits than I do, she thought, but otherwise we’re not so different. We both have jobs that require us to work on our knees.
The exchange, between a prostitute and a cleaning lady, is from Jen Beagin’s debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead. The book, first published by Triquarterly/Northwestern in 2015, was reprinted last year by Scribner, which has just released Beagin’s follow-up, Vacuum in the Dark. Both novels are about Mona, a cleaning lady in her midtwenties, and both are based (as the jacket copy is careful to mention) on Beagin’s own experiences in that line. Cleaning houses, the book tells us, is an occupation thought to be so infra dig for an attractive, articulate white woman that everyone Mona meets asks her what else she does, that is, what she actually does.
One might argue that by putting “cleaning lady” in Beagin’s bio, her publishers are trading, not unwisely, on just this attitude of disbelief. (Last year, when Caitriona Lally won Ireland’s Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the headlines made it loud and clear that she was a cleaner by profession.) What quickly becomes apparent is that Beagin doesn’t need to trade on either the novelty factor or the “ick” factor or any factor but her own sui generis talent. Yet her work is, among other things, an illustration of why the “slumming” elements found in gimmicky cult novels exert such a powerful appeal, and how and why they sometimes lend themselves to the finest literature.
For comparison’s sake, consider that Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Slumming” is about a cleaning lady, but not from the cleaning lady’s perspective. The story is narrated by a woman, a high school English teacher, who summers in a poor, drug-razed rural town. (“English teacher,” it is worth noting, is a job maddeningly overrepresented in literary fiction. Were there nothing else to recommend them, Beagin’s books would deserve attention just for depicting a job writers seldom do.) Every detail that enters the reader’s visual field has been selected by Moshfegh to elicit disgust or a shallow, evanescent pity. The effect is of watching a docuseries whose ostensible purpose is consciousness- raising but whose true appeal belongs to the circus sideshow or the specimen jar.
That is not to dismiss Moshfegh. She is a skillful writer and very funny, the latter quality having cemented her cult-writer status. She is said to be a creator of characters who “violate the rules of feminin- ity” (Alexandra Kleeman, Vanity Fair), and a prophet of female rage. Moshfegh and Beagin share sexual, biological, and scatological preoccupations, but where Beagin is self-aware, Moshfegh flirts obliviously with self-caricature. One of Moshfegh’s stories ends, as if she simply tired of writing it, “. . . it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it would be.”
Beagin, though also a fundamentally comic writer, possesses a greater emotional range. Her insights into selfhood and human nature are harder won, more credible. Most importantly, when the reader laughs, it is with Mona, not at her. Beagin’s eye is for the best detail, not the ugliest one, and her ear for dialogue can only have been tuned by a life among people, not just books. This presents a significant challenge to the reader. Beagin’s warts-and-all portraits do not permit the reader to loathe or love any character in a conventionally satisfying way. Reading these two books is rather like real life in that respect— but way more fun.
So, apart from the toilets she cleans, where is the “muck” in Beagin’s oeuvre? When Mona is accused of slumming, it is because she is dating the sex worker’s friend, or pimp, called “Mr. Disgusting” by Mona. Mona meets Mr. Disgusting, a junkie, while working at a needle exchange in Lowell (“Hole”), Massachusetts. A needle exchange, in Jack Kerouac’s birthplace—this sounds like a cult novel composed by algorithm! But we are in the presence of an exacting intelligence and voice. This junkie is “another pelican mired in oil.” He looks like “an overworked drawing with too many wrinkles.” He is charming but affected, and Beagin’s command of dialogue is such that the charm and the affectation are not mutually exclusive. What we get is not a noble Luciferian antihero but someone self-dramatizing, stunted, a little pathetic.
Mr. Disgusting lives in a residential hotel (“So it’s like a nightclub, then,” Mona says, when told to bring ID) with “the charm of a check- cashing kiosk.” He struggles with addiction thanks to a freak injury— the same sort of freak injury, we will learn, that cost Mona’s father an arm. He has false teeth. He dumpster-dives. He steals flowers for a living, from people’s lawns and, we are subtly given to understand, from cemeteries. He is a reader; he even reads aloud to Mona after (or before) sex, from The Jungle Book, a detail which becomes less cute as revelations about Mona’s past accumulate.
Is he a bohemian or a piece of shit? “Depending on the light and her angle of perspective, he alternated between the two versions— aging hipster, total creature, aging hipster, total creature—like one of those postcards that morphs as you turn it in your hand.” When Mr. Disgusting backslides, then agrees to inject Mona, and then almost kills her with a witches’ brew of heroin, cocaine, Novocain, and caffeine, the reader may say: total creature, hands down. When he informs Mona, “You looked like a half-dead fish lying on the pier, just before it gets clobbered,” the reader may wonder if Mr. Disgusting’s endearingly pretentious brand of “creepy honesty” is actually just pathological.
Having nearly done the worst thing he could do to Mona, Mr. Disgusting proceeds to do the second-worst, which prompts her to decamp to Taos, New Mexico. Mona calls this “pulling a geographic,” a piece of 12-step jargon that recalls Horace’s words: “They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea.” She is still cleaning houses, still collecting air sickness bags and vintage vacuum cleaners, still stealing Xanax and other drugs from her clients, still drawn inexorably to the muck. In addition to cleaning up filth, Mona rubs herself with dirt, “the Holy Dirt from El Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe church she’d visited on her way to Taos.”
In New Mexico—“the sky . . . a blithe, concentrated blue, the color of Windex”—Mona dwells among the strange folk who make Beagin’s work such an alternately comic and tragic delight. There are Nigel and Shiori, a beatific, insufferable couple Mona calls “Yoko and Yoko.” (“. . . together we play instruments that we make by hand,” Nigel tells Mona over “some sort of macrobiotic glop with tofu and yams.” He scolds Mona for disliking wind. He repeatedly recommends, as he puts it, “Homer’s The Odyssey.”) There is Henry, the client Mona suspects of abusing his daughter, Zoe, which leads not only to some amateur sleuthing but also to a cascade of disclosures about Mona’s own ambig- uously traumatic past. Mona’s private passion for photography—she takes pictures of herself, like Cindy Sherman, in other people’s clothes, other people’s contexts—leads her to an even stranger job of detective work, at the behest of a psychic who might be legit.
The emotional fulcrum of the book is Mona’s relationship with her semi-estranged father, whom she calls from time to time despite her better judgment. Mona’s efforts to reconcile her feelings about her father with the sort of man she knows him to be are skillfully handled and never used to manipulate the reader’s emotional response. For the most part, Mona is capable of a greater empathy than her audience is likely to match. When Mona’s father lost his arm, Beagin writes:
“It was like watching a plant die,” her mother used to stage- whisper to friends and relatives. “You could smell it all the way down the hall. By the time they amputated, his hand looked like an old glove. A crushed, black leather glove.”
The glove imagery occupied her imagination for weeks after- ward—she’d been six or seven when she first heard it—but it came in handy later. She kept the image in the back of her mind and could bring it forward at will. It was money in the bank, a kind of emergency fund; when her father did something mortifying, the image of the empty glove helped her forgive him.
Given the varieties of “mortifying” Mona refers to here, her forgive- ness is no small feat. In Beagin’s new book, Vacuum in the Dark, Mona tells a new love interest—a man she calls “Dark,” married to one of her clients—a funny story about her dad. “Once, when I was about seven, we were stuck in traffic and a cement truck pulled up next to us. The tank was painted with swirling red and white stripes. I asked what was inside the tank. ‘Clowns,’ he said gravely. ‘That’s how clowns are made.’”
A few lines later she is telling Dark about the same man beating up her mother in the driveway, in front of the neighbors.
The book opens with Mona cleaning a house in which someone has been hiding nuggets of stool like Easter eggs. Mona shares her suffering with an unlikely confidante, her imaginary friend, Terry Gross, of NPR’s Fresh Air. Though Beagin mines this “relationship” for comic material, it stands for something more serious: a grasping after good advice, stability, emotional support. Mona will need all of the above. Vacuum finds her making deeper forays into her past, examining her history with her grandparents, Woody and Ginger, and the mother who gave her up to foster care, aged 12. A visit to her mother in California yields hilarious exchanges with Mona’s more or less decent stepfather, Frank, an ex-Marine and school cop with a fondness for fake Native Americana, but it also stirs up painful memories of abuse and abandonment.
Things having gone south with Dark, and perhaps weary of her entanglements with her oddball clients, Mona takes a romantic chance on a man named Kurt. Though they meet during an earthquake, Kurt is anything but earth-shaking: doughy, undersexed, and lacking in any sort of seismic ambition. Is he going to provide the stability that Mona has hitherto found only in imaginary friends? Will Mona adapt to a comfortable but isolated new life with Kurt, cleaning rooms at the Bakersfield motel he has inherited? Nobody who’s been paying attention could possibly think so, and when a temptation to the dark side appears, Mona tells Terry about him: “I feel like I’ve known this guy all my life.” Sagely, she replies, “Well, that’s because you have. He’s your father. He’s your grandfather. He’s every man you’ve ever been close to.”
No prizes for guessing what Mona does with that insight.
* * *
Pace Ross Macdonald, it makes no sense to accuse a crime writer of slumming. We know why a crime writer yearns for the muck: it’s where a lot of the crime happens. “Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote, “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” When the protagonist of a typical cult novel goes down these mean streets, what is his motivation? It is not to make judgments, to take action, to right wrongs. Often it is to acquire forbidden knowledge (or knowledge, at any rate, that is likely to titillate or scandalize a bourgeois sensibility), to transgress, and to report back as nonchalantly as possible.
The trouble with such a “quest” is that the disapproval of hope- lessly conventional people is a poor measure of whether something is dangerous or exciting. Much of what could have constituted “forbid- den knowledge” about drugs, sexuality, criminality, violence, mad- ness, outré religious practices, or disordered family or interpersonal dynamics, 70 or more years ago is common knowledge today. Whether much of anything remained shocking, by the late 1950s, to the men who fought in World War II and Korea is an open question. As an animating principle for a work of art, “Things are not as they seem” always risks the Tonto-like retort, “As they seem to whom, exactly?”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s work is rooted in transgression. Many con- sider it a feminist act for her to write about the body, specifically the female body, the way she does. Homesick for Another World is, like the beggar Lazarus, full of sores—not to mention pimples, vomit, feces, halitosis, bad teeth, eyeball mucus, a colostomy bag, and a withered hand described as a “prawn claw.” But if Moshfegh’s aim is to rub our noses in a reality that airbrushing has concealed, she is late to the party: Jonathan Swift ably mocked our body hang-ups three centuries ago in “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” and many of us find them wearying.
After growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Moshfegh attended Barnard and Brown. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford from 2013 to 2015. In 2013, she won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for “Bettering Myself.” Her debut novel, McGlue, won both the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award in 2014, and was republished by Penguin this year. In 2016 her second novel, Eileen, made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Regularly published in blue-chip periodi- cals like The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta, she belongs to a world of sophisticates, people who succeed in large part by honor- ing the same boundaries in real life that they thrill to see trampled in artistic productions.
On paper, Moshfegh’s is nostalgie de la merde. In the story “Mr. Wu” (first published in The Paris Review as “Disgust”), the buttoned-up pro- tagonist visits a brothel:
“Be quiet,” he said. He took his fingers out of her bottom and pushed her head into the pillow to muffle her squeaks. That gave him an idea. He squished his fingers between her face and the pillow and hooked them in her mouth. He felt around her mouth for her tongue and did his best to wipe his fingers off on her tongue.
It’s a good thing there are magazines like The Paris Review in which this can seem daring; on the internet, it seems like any old weeknight. And here is Moshfegh boasting of how she used (but also subverted) conventional narrative structure to write her novel Eileen: “I participated in the paradigm I’m so critical of. . . . I ate the shit. But my aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting.”
As Swift might repeat in his amorous fts: “Oh! ’tessa, Ottessa, Ottessa shits!”
J. P. Donleavy said that “the purpose of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame.” Moshfegh begs to difer. To an interviewer who asked if she worried about what her parents thought of her writing, she replied, “My parents aren’t Midwestern Christians. My parents are badass. They don’t give a shit what any-
body else thinks. My parents think I’m awesome.” When Moshfegh, surfeited with prizes and glowing reviews, invokes a bogeyman like “Midwestern Christians,” it can only be to reassure herself that she’s at least transgressed something. If her parents think she’s awesome, their opinion is safely aligned with that of everyone in our cultural apparatus and much of our book-buying public.
Transgression is an increasingly meaningless concept, at least when it comes to the usual categories of misbehavior. For anyone who recognizes this, it is a doubtful foundation for any artistic edifice. Beagin’s work, though it is full of sex, drugs, and turds, is not in any sense about transgression. It does not ask “Why aren’t you, vanilla reader, like this?” but rather “Why am I like this? Why am I drawn to this darkness?” Mona’s tortured choice at the end of Vacuum in the Dark recapitulates this project of self-understanding.
The answer to the question, in Mona’s case, is twofold. She is drawn to the muck because of its familiarity: it’s her father, her grandfather, and every man she’s ever known. But more significantly, the muck has been the raw material of everything Mona has created. She is used to transforming whatever is to hand into meaning and, abstractly speaking, beauty. It is a daily practice, a habit, a survival mechanism. It is why her attitude toward her reader is not a sneer, daring him not to look away, but an invitation to participate in a range of sensations from horror, to head-shaking comic disbelief, to awe.
One is skeptical that the boue automatically confers authenticity. Perhaps this notion obtains from the sense that being poor, pervy, maladjusted, addicted, or just plain dark is something that nobody would ever want to fake. But we know better. With the encouragement of thinkers like Georges Bataille, transgression has come to seem like a profound and hieratic act, and plenty of people want in on it. “For a few privileged individuals (a limitation usually left unstated),” according to Roger Shattuck, “prohibitions on crime and violence exist not so much to inhibit action as to add zest and intensity to those actions experienced as transgression.”
Forbidden knowledge, no longer the purview of “a few privileged individuals,” is, among the educated, almost compulsory. “Difficult nowadays to find a point of view kinky enough to call one’s own,” wrote Donald Barthelme in his story “See the Moon?,” “with Sade him- self being carried through the streets on the shoulders of sociologists, cheers and shouting, ticker tape unwinding from high windows.” That was back in 1968. If one lives in a slum, the darkness may be an inescapable and unwelcome feature of daily life—but for the rest of us, too, it has never been less exotic. Yet the real forbidden knowledge— about what makes us tick, about whether we can ever really change, about whether we even want to—remains hidden. It is the business of literature to take up its steel wool and solvents, crouch down into those hard-to-reach spaces, and go looking for it.