Mojtabai, A. G.
MOJTABAI, A. G.
Born 8 June 1937, Brooklyn, New York
Daughter of Robert and Naomi Alpher; married Fathollah Mojtabai, 1960 (divorced); children: two
A. G. Mojtabai had no formal literary training. When very young, Mojtabai began dissecting on her own, developing an intense interest in biology. Early in her schooling, she was tracked for science; while in high school, she interned for two summers at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory. She received a B.A. from Antioch College in 1958, concentrating on philosophy and mathematics. She married later, and lived in Iran, where her two children were born. The marriage ended in divorce.
Returning to the U.S., Mojtabai lectured in philosophy at Hunter College, receiving an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1968. She worked as a librarian at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia from 1968 to 1970 and received an M.S. in library service in 1970. Thereafter, Mojtabai worked for six years as a librarian at the City College of New York. From 1976 to 1978, Mojtabai was a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, and was Briggs-Copeland lecturer in English at Harvard from 1978-1983.
Mundome (1974), Mojtabai's first novel, is a series of reflections or reveries on a few recurring themes. Richard Henken, the narrator, is an archivist, a specialist in "fugitive and ephemeral materials" in a mouldering public library. He spends his time outside of work caring for Meg, his mentally disturbed sister, who deteriorates as the book progresses. Richard is sane, sober, and responsible; Meg is everything Richard is not. The novel has two settings—inner and outer—which fuse at the end, and only one main character, or perhaps two main characters who fuse at the end. There are two equally cogent ways of reading the book; Mojtabai claims to have written it both ways, and has preserved all the ambiguities. Her aim is to produce vertigo in the reader—"a sense of radical dislocation." The book was praised for its poetic imagery and lapidary precision, and faulted for its lack of sensuality and lyricism.
The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud (1976) is a complementary exploration. As Robert Morris noted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, "If Mundome plumbs the elusive recesses of dark psyches to show how two people lose themselves in the labyrinths of madness, Eels unfolds with the same sort of quiet horror to reveal how an entire enlightened community crumbles despite its principles of logic and reason." The book describes a summer educational experiment with high school students who live in a mansion called the Four Winds at the edge of the sea. They are told the story of the 400 eels that the young Freud dissected; this monumental dissection is the measure of what the man lost to science when he turned to "other" things. Yet for lack of attention to these "other" things, the community at the Four Winds is lost. The book was praised for the high luster of its writing, and both praised and faulted for its meticulous clarity.
Mojtabai's vision of the world is rather bleak. Her refusal to flesh out her books with details of dress, food, and conversation and her lack of narrative breadth have led some reviewers to claim she is not really a novelist. Mojtabai's literary method is dissection—presenting a character, then trimming away layer after layer of deceptive appearance. She rarely amplifies a social context; instead, she cuts the individual away from the traditional social underpinnings. Characteristically, there are no seduction scenes; instead we are offered gropings, failures, fantasies, people in juxtaposition rather than in connection.
Called Out (1994) is a short novel in which Mojtabai tells how a tragedy involving strangers disturbs the lives of people who live in or near the site where the catastrophe occurs. The story of an airplane crash in a small town in Texas is related through monologues by witnesses of the crash and those affected by it. Felice Aull wrote, "This well-written, reflective novel considers the paradoxes of contemporary life and death. Disparate lives, social isolation, moral confusion are played off against the theme that 'no man is an island.' The crash, with its plane cargo of multinational travelers, explodes the insular (symbolized by the town's name, Bounds) existence of the observers. The web of connected humanity extends to the dead as well as to the living."
Mojtabai explores terminal illness and death in the collection of stories called Soon: Tales from a Hospice (1998). Seventeen tales make up the anthology, all about the dying patients, family and friends, and hospice staff at St. Anthony's Hospital in Amarillo, Texas, where Mojtabai volunteered as a hospice worker for several years. Mojtabai discusses the miracle of willingness to accept the unknown in dying, as she explains in her preface: "[Hospice] is as much a mode of practice as a place.… Help comes through a mutual unfolding. And, happening to be present at a graced moment, sometimes I am startled to find—this side of death—the old barriers rolled away, stranger turning towards stranger with no other strangeness than the ease of turning." Richard Dyer wrote of Soon in the Boston Globe, "Mojtabai has all the gifts of a great writer—the observant eye that misses no nuance of expressions; the ear that hears the music and the poetry behind the plain cadences of common speech; the willingness to confront her own primal fears."
A Stopping Place (1979). Autumn (1982). Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas (1986, 1997). Ordinary Time: A Novel (1989).
Desmond, N. S., "Individuality Versus Conformity: A Comparative Analysis of This Theme in The Catcher in the Rye and The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud " (thesis, 1979).
CA (1999). Other references: Boston Globe (27 Nov. 1998). Critique (Dec. 1978).
—CAROLYN G. HEILBRUN,
UPDATED BY ALLISON A. JONES