From Homesick for Another World
Humour frequently gets short shrift as a literary device. There seems to be a prejudice against jocularity on the part of some critics and awards juries who appear to assume that if a work of fiction is funny it cannot also be of serious intent. Those who know better understand that nothing could be further from the truth.
Laughter can release tension, but it can also do the opposite, confronting readers with their own biases and unacknowledged presuppositions. We laugh, but then are forced to ask ourselves why we laugh. What exactly strikes us as funny in any given situation? The answer can often be uncomfortable since it requires us to acknowledge internalized attitudes we would rather not harbour. Humour can also be very dark and some of the best humour contains an unrepentant nasty streak.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s barbed story “Slumming” is of this kind. It is howlingly funny on its surface, but carries the weight of moral critique underneath. It elicits laughs from unexpected juxtapositions and outrageous descriptive passages, then turns a mirror on the reader to interrogate precisely what it was that appeared so funny in the first place.
Moshfegh’s effects are elicited largely from her chosen narrative approach. “Slumming” is a first-person tale and, significantly, the first-person narrator is the most morally reprehensible character in the story. The ironic distance that Moshfegh sets up allows her to imbue the tale with a moral subtext that does not have to be explicitly stated; we understand more than the narrator does and consequently make the kind of judgments about her attitudes and actions that remain unavailable to her.
The narrator is a high-school English teacher from an unnamed city who spends her summers in a house she bought for a song in the town of Alna, where property values are low in large part thanks to the population, located at the lower end of the income spectrum. Or, as the narrator stipulates in the opening sentence, “You could tell just by looking … the people of Alna were poor.”
The narrator’s temperament regarding Alna and its citizens amounts to a masterpiece of condescension and derision. The house she bought “for next to nothing,” which was “full of cobwebs and tacky wallpaper,” is a bungalow that sits alongside “a sloshy, milelong tributary to a lake twice the size of Alna itself.” In her eyes, the town lacks the sophistication of the place where her sister spends the summer, having “no gallery of naive art, no antique shop, no bookstore, no fancy bakery.” (It’s the adjective “naive” that sells the sentence.) The “vagrant townsfolk” downtown she refers to as “zombies” and she turns her nose up at the patrons of the local shopping centre, “where the fattest people on Earth could be found buzzing around in electronic wheelchairs, trailing huge carts full of hamburger meat and cake mix and jugs of vegetable oil and pillow-size bags of chips.”
Moshfegh traffics in grotesquerie where the denizens of Alna are concerned: they are depicted as morbidly obese, intellectually stunted, and emotionally vapid. They are rubes and the only sensible reaction to them is disdain. But it is important to note that it is the character, not the author, who harbours these odious assessments. The narrator’s feelings for the town’s citizenry are summed up in a pair of bitingly ironic declaratory sentences: “It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them.”
The only townsfolk the narrator does want to deal with on an ongoing basis are the zombies at the bus depot from whom she buys drugs – “ten dollars’ worth of whatever was for sale.” Mostly, this amounts to meth or heroin. “I knew that because it was obvious and because I dabbled in both when I was up there,” the narrator says.
The entirety of the narrator’s sensibility toward the town can be summed up in the comment, “I was only ever just visiting Alna. I was slumming it up there.” Her sense of superiority and entitlement is remarkable and pervades every interaction she has with other people in the town. Her blithe unconcern for her fellow townspeople comes to a head when she hires a pregnant teenager to clean her house then fails to take action when she notices the girl in physical distress.
It is left to the narrator’s neighbours to attend to the girl and call an ambulance for her. Their compassion and evident caring is in stark contrast to the indifference of the narrator, whose only reaction is to walk by the river and out to the bus depot to score drugs.
The overarching tone in “Slumming” is ironic and Moshfegh insists that her reader spend time wallowing in the consciousness of a truly unlikable character. Yet for all that the story is a highly moral one, with a lot to say about urban perceptions of small-town life and the unthinking prejudices so-called city elites demonstrate toward rural folk they are perfectly happy to exploit for their own purposes, so long as they don’t have to associate with them beyond their usefulness.
At its core, Moshfegh’s story is a cautionary tale about liberal hypocrisy. It satirizes the kind of individuals who believe themselves to be sophisticated and highly intelligent while constantly looking down on those they deem not to share their enlightened view of the world. In its brilliant send up of economic privilege and cultural partisanship, “Slumming” is a very funny story with a very serious message at its acerbic heart.