Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh writes great stories about terrible people: from perverts to addicts to the cripplingly lonesome, her stories illuminate the fetid, mildewed corners of society with a critical yet surprisingly forgiving eye.
Moshfegh was deservedly shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize for her first novel, Eileen, which follows a scuzzy female secretary at a boys’ correctional facility. Eileen is one of the most captivating women in recent literary history, although often difficult to read and difficult to like. She mopes and wallows in the sweat and stink of her body, is mistrustful of others and appears to be on the brink of some kind of breakdown. But, in a broader sense, one could consider all that grime to be coming from a character who is reveling in her free will and femininity, learning to celebrate her ability to make her own choices, both good and bad.
Homesick for Another World collects stories from 2012-2017, and while each possesses the tang of what makes Eileen so deliciously sour these stories are by no means the underdeveloped counterparts to that novel. Moshfegh reminds readers of the power of great short fiction and that an economical page count needs to be earned through expert authorship: her prose is tightened and cropped in a way that lets no life linger beyond its close. None of these stories welcome expansion or hint at at some dormant, novel-length potential, which makes them all the better in their current state. They cut to completion.
In “Bettering Myself,” a hard-drinking teacher throws away her professional future at her Catholic School and burns out in meteoric failure. In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a married man attempts to clear his head at the old family cabin, but finds himself haunted by the past indiscretions that previously unfolded in the house. He falls in with an addict who used to rendezvous at the cabin with his brother and lets her “do whatever she wanted” — “It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting — just as I’d always hoped it to be.” In “No Place for Good People,” the narrator works with the mentally handicapped, but bluntly explains “you can call them retarded.” “That word doesn’t offend me,” he says, “as long as it’s used in the proper way, without pity.” A failed birthday trip to Hooters disappointingly lands him and his charges at the local Northeastern-US ice cream chain, Friendly’s:
The place was full of fat ladies and their men, who looked wrinkled and haggard, heaps of mashed potatoes disappearing under their thick mustaches. There was one table of pug-nosed young women, bored and stirring their milkshakes with their straws, a half-eaten plate of fries between them. A few children fussed and lolled around in their high chairs. The air was humid, the lighting bright and fluorescent, the carpet gray and stained. It was not a happy place.
Moshfegh’s characters cultivate a powerful sadness underneath their ugly exteriors. In “Malibu,” the rashy, pimpled narrator asks a random telephone number out on a date. She accepts. “She said her name was Terri and that she lived out in Lone Pine with her mother, who had Parkinson’s. She said she wanted to get pregnant she’d have something to think about all day.” The narrator spends the rest of the story imagining her naked and anticipating their date. His immaturity is cringingly gross, but those feelings fade into not pity but a compassionate, deeper human understanding upon reviewing the bigger picture. He lives with his uncle, mows lawns, and clearly lacks positive relationships and role models in his life. In one scene, he visits a doctor to ask about his rash, which results in a perfectly devastating Moshfeghian exchange:
“So you’ve got something wrong with you,” he said, looking at the form.
“I try to throw up all the food I eat, but I’m still fat,” I said. “And the rash.” I pulled up my sleeve.
The doctor took a step back. “You ever wash your sheets?”
“Yes,” I lied. “So what’s wrong with me?”
“I’m not one to judge,” he said, placing his hand over his heart.
Of the fourteen pieces in Homesick for Another World, seven stories were previously featured in The Paris Review (Moshfegh received the George Plimpton prize in 2013); these are the standout works in the collection and alone make this a worthy read. The weaker pieces are curiously the most explicit and strange, and the shocking weirdness of stories like “The Surrogate” and “The Locked Room” outweighs their literary merit. While omitting these would have created a much tighter collection of top-tier stories, the comprehensive nature of Homesick is appropriate given the nature of Moshfegh’s prose. She writes warts and all, and even the darkest blotches are worthy of investigation.