A Brief (But Not Too) History of
Literary Constipation

Jessica Gross Does Some Pandemic-Appropriate Reading

This is a constipated time. I mean that not literally—although “quarantine constipation” is, apparently, a real affliction—but metaphorically: it is hard (pun) to get more static than self-isolation. Shuffling from a bed to a table and back isn’t movement.

Perhaps that’s why, hunkered down in my boyfriend’s apartment in West Texas in the spring, I pulled Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen off his shelf and decided, at last, to read it. Friends had been recommending it for a couple of years, but I didn’t feel inclined to dive into what I’d been warned/enticed were some heavy-duty constipation and shit scenes until I, myself, was stuck at home. A poo in the bowel of the apartment complex, if you will.

Eileen did not disappoint. Its protagonist, a prison secretary in mid-60s New England who lives with her abusive, alcoholic father in the wake of her mother’s death, is comically grotesque. She abuses her body (much as her father has tortured her), failing to bathe and starving herself—and, in so doing, constipating herself. Eileen spares nothing in detailing the ins and outs (both extreme) of her excretory efforts:

The movements of my bowels were a whole other story. They occurred irregularly—maybe once or twice a week, at most—and rarely without assistance. I’d gotten into the gross habit of gulping down a dozen or more laxative pills whenever I felt big and bloated, which was frequently… I’d become dependent on those laxatives. Without them my movements were always pained and hard and took a good hour of clamping down and kneading my belly and pushing and praying. I often bled from the effort, digging my nails into my thighs, punching my stomach in frustration.

Moshfegh has been much praised for her “exceptional writing,” her “beautiful sentences.” But these sentences are more bludgeoning than beautiful. “Without them my movements were always pained and hard and took a good hour of clamping down and kneading my belly and pushing and praying”: those five ands give the sentence the rhythm of a boxing match. Eileen kneads and pushes and punches her belly; her language kneads and pushes and punches the reader, immersing us in her experience of helpless rage. In content as well as style, those last two sentences feel like a taunt: can you handle this? Well, then how about this?

Constipation is being good, keeping between the lines, staying small, keeping contained, following the rules (or pretending to). Taking a shit is being bad.

So, beautiful? No. But direct, challenging, and surprising: yes. The sentences are spare, with no extra flourishes. They’re bare bones, like our skinny, malnourished protagonist. (The sentences also flow—as, given the laxatives, Eileen’s stopped-up system promises to flow before long.) Later in the book, Eileen explicitly links her constipation to her eating disorder:

The sluggishness of my bowels was a constant preoccupation. There was a complex science to eating and evacuating, balancing the rising intensity of my constipated discomfort with the catharsis of my laxative-induced purges. I took such poor care of myself. I knew I should drink water, eat healthful foods, but I really didn’t like to drink water or eat healthful foods. I found fruits and vegetables detestable, like eating a bar of soap or a candle. I also suffered from that unfortunate maladjustment to puberty—still at twenty-four—that made me ashamed of my womanliness. There were days on end I ate very little—a handful of nuts or raisins here, a crust of bread there. And for fun, such as with the chocolates a few nights prior, I sometimes chewed but spat out candies or cookies, anything that tasted good but which I feared might put meat on my bones.

Eileen’s constipation, here, serves both literal and metaphorical functions. She’s stuck because she doesn’t eat properly; she doesn’t eat properly because she’s stuck developmentally. She does not want to grow up. Formulated differently, Eileen is stuck because she’s enraged and has nowhere to put it. There’s a clear map between her father’s torment of her and her self-torment; until the book’s climax, Eileen’s fury is only ever directed inward (though she has plenty of cruel thoughts about others). And where does her fury sit? Her bowels.

So constipation and rage are interlinked and mutually reinforcing: constipation (stuckness) causes rage; rage is suppressed via constipation; and on and on. Simone de Beauvoir’s short story “The Monologue” is told from the perspective of a furious, deeply un-self-aware woman who blames “them”—everyone else—for her unhappiness and loneliness. The tone is hysterical and frantic, as though the narrator is trying to outrun reality; de Beauvoir does such a good job of submerging the reader in the narrator’s psyche that the piece gave one of my students a literal headache.

From the beginning, the narrator’s proclamations of her own righteousness and innocence are as suspect as the blame she places on everyone around her. On the very first page, we get a hint she’s repressing something big: “I’ve taken so many sleeping pills they don’t work anymore and that doctor is a sadist he gives them to me in the form of suppositories and I can’t stuff myself like a gun.” On the most literal level, we understand that she can’t sleep because she’s disturbed by something we don’t yet understand. On a more metaphorical level we see her considering “stuffing” something inside her anus, stopping herself up, but with a hint at future explosion (“like a gun”). On a stylistic level, the lack of punctuation simulates for the reader the sense of poorly contained disturbance. Over and over throughout the story, the narrator refers to “stuffing,” “suppositories,” and, on one occasion, constipation itself. Here is the narrator ranting about the horror of traveling to “second-rate boardinghouses and cheap restaurants”:

Dubious sheets filthy tablecloths sleep in other people’s sweat in other people’s filth eat with badly washed knives and forks you might catch lice or the pox and the smells make me sick: quite apart from the fact that I get deadly constipated because those johns where everybody goes turn me off like a tap: the brotherhood of shit only a very little for me please. Then what earthly point is there in traveling alone?

The narrator claims her constipation is a reaction to travel she considers too low-class for her fine tastes. But her proclamations that everyone and everything are beneath her are part of the same defense mechanism that causes her to conspicuously overuse references to stuffing things down. What causes her constipation in the passage above is the thought of sharing “those johns” with other people—of being intimate, of being found out, of sharing a private space, of being seen.

Gradually, in fits and starts, and despite herself, the narrator reveals to the reader what’s at the root of all her strained repression: she is grieving the death of her daughter, who committed suicide. She’s using every tool at her disposal to try to contain—repress, avoid—her grief, her rage, and her guilt. But ultimately, she can’t escape the fact that she is absolutely alone, that her daughter has died, and that—given her extreme self-involvement—she likely does bear some responsibility.

But in constipation there is not only anger; there is also intimacy.

Philip Roth’s 1962 novel Letting Go offers a more visceral view of the constipation-rage cycle in an involved scene of fatherly constipation (a motif Roth takes up again in Portnoy’s Complaint). The novel’s protagonist, Gabe, has visited his friend Paul’s parents at the request of Paul’s wife Libby. Despite her conversion to Judaism, Libby is still a shikse in her in-laws’ eyes, and thus is indirectly responsible for their decision to excommunicate Paul. Gabe’s visit is intended to smooth things over. When he stops by Paul’s parents’ apartment on Thanksgiving, Paul’s father is ill with heart disease and rage-fueled constipation:

“Mr. Herz has been sick,” his wife informed me, having actually stared me into silence. “We decided to stay home for the day. Who wants to get tied up in all that traffic?”

“Yeah, we decided to stay home,” Mr. Herz said. “We were going to go to Rio de Janeiro for the weekend, but we decided to stay home. Look, I think maybe I can move my bowels,” he told his wife, and instantly she was out of her chair and freeing him from the languorous curves of the BarcaLounger. He insisted on walking under his own steam to the bathroom.

“Leave the door open a little,” she said to him.

“All right, all right.” Newspapers covered the floor at the entrance to the kitchen, and he crossed over them as though they were ice. Some seconds later the bathroom door shut. Mrs. Herz left the room hastily; I heard her call, “Are you all right?”

“I’m all right.”

“Don’t strain,” she said. “Leave the door open.”

Minutes pass. Again she tells him not to strain (“You’re not engaged in some contest, Leonard.”) As he sits on the toilet, his wife makes no effort to conceal from Gabe her hostility toward her son Paul and her conviction that his betrayal—marrying a non-Jew—caused his father’s condition. “He was always critical,” she says of Paul.

She was picking threads from her apron while she spoke and depositing them in the pocket of her house dress. “But he wounded his father in such a way,” she said, coming down with a fist on her knee, “you can never imagine it. He made that man an old man. One thing we asked him in his whole life. One thing.” She held up a finger to convince me of the tininess of their request in the face of the vast universe. “He gave his father a wound that man will never forget. His father worked like a slave for him all his life, took every chance, and all he got was bad luck and a terrible slap in the face. Some Thanksgiving,” she said, and with her lip trembling, she removed herself from the room.

Minutes went by, and then I heard her ask, “You finished?”

“I’m finished.”

“You feel all right?”

“A little tired.”

“I told you don’t strain. The doctor told you—”

You get it. The father is enraged at the son (for choosing a non-Jew, for leaving); his rage manifests in illness; one major facet of said illness is an inability to move his bowels. This is the only scene we get of the elder Mr. Herz: later in the book, Paul returns to Brooklyn for his father’s funeral.

But in constipation there is not only anger; there is also intimacy. What makes this Letting Go scene hilarious rather than disgusting or tragic is Mrs. Herz’s entreaties that her husband leave the door open while he tries to push poop out of his butt, and her determination to converse with him throughout the process. Is talking about your bowel movements a Jewish thing? I can’t deny that my cousins and I would huddle in the bathroom together, cheering each other on and even pressing each other’s stomachs in an attempt to induce shitting. On the occasions I went to the bathroom alone, my Nana would inquire: “Success?” (Other oft-uttered phrases: “Light as a feather,” “The sweet smell of success,” and “Here—have some prune juice.”) Of course, anger and intimacy aren’t actually at odds with one another. There’s no faster route to connection than breaking the bonds of polite decorum and engaging in an honest fight. Cue the metaphor: decorum is constipation. To break the bonds of decorum—to fight, to be intimate—is to shit.

[pullquit]Going to the bathroom is private; knowing about it is being let in on the secret.[/pullquit]

In Eileen, too, the connection between relieving oneself and intimacy is as explicit as the connection between constipation and repressed rage: “As one might guess, I was easily roused by the grosser habits of the human body—toilet business not least of all,” Eileen tells us. “The very fact that other people moved their bowels filled me with awe. Any function of the body that one hid behind closed doors titillated me.” Going to the bathroom is private; knowing about it is being let in on the secret. By this logic, Eileen is not only challenging the reader by telling us about her bowel movements; she’s also inviting us in. Or maybe this is the challenge: can you hang with me, can you keep reading my story, when I tell you about all this? What are the limits of the intimacy a narrator and reader can share? Are there any? A bit later on, Eileen tells us of her job as a prison secretary:

I clocked in and out every day on time. I was a shoplifter, a pervert, you might say, and a liar, of course, but nobody knew that. I would enforce the rules all the more, for didn’t that prove that I lived by a high moral code? That I was good? That I couldn’t possibly want to hike up my skirt and move my runny bowels all over the linoleum floor?

Constipation is being good, keeping between the lines, staying small, keeping contained, following the rules (or pretending to). Taking a shit is being bad, rebelling, disturbing others—but, and, disrupting the boundaries that separate us from one another, connecting, knowing one another in all our many flaws. See, again, that passage from de Beauvoir’s “The Monologue”: what constipates her is the thought of being seen for who she really is.

It’s in ultimate expulsion that the satisfaction of the constipation narrative lies. By the end of the first chapter of Eileen, narrated from the much more recent past, we know that she is not going to be stuck in her hometown with her father forever—just as we know, from that mention of laxatives immediately following her first reference to constipation, that she is going to take a shit, and it’s going to be good.

With the laxatives, my movements were torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out, a sludge that stank distinctly of chemicals and which, when it was all out, I half expected to breach the rim of the toilet bowl. In those cases I stood up to flush, dizzy and sweaty and cold, then lay down while the world seemed to revolve around me. Those were good times. Empty and spent and light as air, I lay at rest, silent, flying in circles, my heart dancing, my mind blank.

In constipation there is the hope for release: from anger, from lonely separation. There is the hope for movement. It’s this hope that, from the midst of a pandemic that feels unending, we might read for.

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Jessica Gross’s debut novel, Hysteria, is available from Unnamed Press.

Jessica Gross
Jessica Gross
Jessica Gross's writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review Daily, among other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School, a Master's degree in cultural reporting and criticism from New York University and a Bachelor's in anthropology from Princeton University. She has received fellowships in fiction from the Yiddish Book Center (2017) and the 14th Street Y (2015-16), where she also served as editor of the LABA Journal. She currently teaches writing at Eugene Lang College at The New School. Hysteria is her first novel.





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