An Honest Woman by Ottessa Moshfegh, 2016
The magic trick:
Using a literary device as a directive to the reader
Interesting story today. On the surface of things, there would seem to be very little in common between our two principals – the creepy old man next door and the honest woman of the title. And yet it’s clear that Moshfegh wants you to compare and contrast them. The clues come early on. Jeb says, “Our houses are mirror images, you know.” The seed is planted.
It’s a cool thing to see a writer do. It’s not a literary device for the sake of being fancy or artsy. It’s a literary device as a directive. This is how she is alerting the reader to what is happening a layer beneath the text. And that’s quite a trick on Moshfegh’s part.
“Can I use your bathroom?” the girl asked, interrupting him.
Jeb looked down at her knees. The blue tint of her veins showed through her skin. He faked a cough, composed himself, then bent over the photographs again, wetting his finger not on his tongue but on the fat, spittley lip hanging down between his frown lines. “You know where it is,” he said.
Jeb listened to her heavy step as she crossed the front hall to the bathroom beneath the stairs. In her absence, he looked at the photos and thought back to a failed romance from long ago. He’d thought he was in love, but after only one intimate rendezvous the woman had sat on the toilet and dismissed him completely. “You’re too uptight,” she’d told him. “You have no imagination.” His heart fluttered again as he remembered how her thighs had swayed when she rose to wipe herself. Then the toilet flushed. He listened for the sink faucet to run, but it didn’t. The girl came back.
“I like the wallpaper in your bathroom,” she said. “And the old sink.” She sat down again. Jeb had placed a photo on top of the pile for her to see. It showed a skinny woman in a sun hat and a bikini sitting in a beach chair by a pool. “Who’s she?” the girl asked.
“My wife, may she rest in peace.”