Ottessa Moshfegh’s “City of Forgiveness” is a freak show dressed up in severely tailored prose—little literary accessorizing. A father matter-of-factly sends his two teenaged girls abroad to collect money from Bob Smith in Paris. Some of the money is theirs to spend in what remains of the week although the father is confident that Sarna, the older sister, and Oona, the prettier, will eat on the cheap and spend money “only on the Metro and museum admission tickets.” The question is will Bob Smith quickly pay up and act like a gentleman? Gentle enough, polite--even handsome and stylish, sure, but Bob Smith is also doubtlessly insolvent. His clothes are well made and expensive but old and malodorous. His flat in the shabby chic Oberkampf is quite simply “a mess”: dust, dirty plates, broken window shades. He looks for money under cushions. Will the sisters see a dime of the thousands owed? Bob Smith’s French wife passes behind a glass door wearing a sheer dressing gown. Oona stares, sees “the round shadows of her nipples.” In response, the woman crooks her fingers “like horns on either side of her head.” The Devil makes other appearances in the shape of a young man and in a song the sisters recall that involves the Devil’s luring two boys to bed with a chicken bone. Later, in a sexual standoff with the sisters, Bob Smith chokes on a fish bone he pulls from his mouth. And there’s more uncanny business—fortune-telling cards and vampires, a mouse-sized poodle, a rat, a gargoyle—but why give this haunting story away? Beware Ottessa Moshfegh’s sleight of mouth.
So, too, in “The Man Whose Face Fell Off,” Douglas Watson conjures something other and more in what at first seems fanciful amusement. In “The Man Whose Face Fell Off” a man’s face falls off, and not for the first time either; only on this occasion, he loses his eyes. He thinks at least he is spared another “behind-the-scenes look at his face.” Whatever does Douglas Watson mean by “The Man Whose Face Fell Off”? One thing is certain: Douglas Watson is funny: “’Did you get the ace?’ said the man.” No typo here. As the faceless man says, “You try making an F sound with no lips.” His first loss of face has proven providential: his wife now always carries Tupperware in her purse. Alas, she is unprepared when his arm detaches, and her scream in the deserted restaurant distresses the man. He would comfort her were it not for his own troubles. Is this a love story? The loyal wife recovers and, unassisted, charges into the effort to save him. Meanwhile, the faceless man, by profession a philosopher, does what he can and philosophizes on what constitutes a man. Is a face needed? “Where does the sense of self reside?” Taxis refuse to stop. Dizzied by the horror he provokes, the faceless man leans on the stiff cane of his disconnected arm. He fears he might die and “picture(s) his wife alone, alone, alone.” Again the wife and his concern for her. In a last-hours tally of regrets, the only thing he unequivocally does not regret is his wife. “’Taxi! Goddamnit!’” What a woman! In discussion of marriage he thinks “gentleness ...underadvertised.” Ah, Douglas Watson is man of many moods, mirth and sadness. This might very well be a love story.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections and three novels. Her first novel, Florida, was a National Book Award finalist; her second novel, All Souls, a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. A third novel, Prosperous Friends, was noted in The New Yorker as one of the best books of 2012. Among other honors, Schutt has twice won the O.Henry Short Story Prize. She is the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. Schutt lives and teaches in New York.
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