Laughing in the Dark With Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Homesick for Another World’

Lee Polevoi

 

Homesick for Another World
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press

294 pages

 

Rarely does a novel or short story collection live up to the overblown critical hype that seems to come around as regularly as hurricane season. All too often, the feted author’s work is intermittently striking or unusual, but falls short of accolades like “astonishing,” “breathtaking,” etc. After a while, discerning readers grow wary of over-the-top critical approval and can disregard the real thing, when it comes around.

 

Ottessa Moshfegh was roundly praised when her first novel, Eileen, appeared in 2015. But the near-universal acclaim greeting her newest work, Homesick for Another World, shouldn’t be mistaken for mindless “herd-speak.” The stories gathered here—with their faint echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver—are remarkably piercing and consistent in their depiction of loneliness, corrosive relationships and failed ambition.

 

They’re also, almost without exception, very funny as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off.

 

“Bettering Myself,” the opening story, introduces us to a typical Moshfegh protagonist—in her mid-twenties, a substance abuser, stuck in a dead-end job, and afflicted with all manner of self-loathing. She’s also working hard to prepare herself for a meeting with her ex-husband:

 

“I tidied up my apartment. I filled a vase with bright flowers. Anything good I could think to do I did. I was filled with hope. I bought new sheets and towels. I put on some music. ‘Bailar,’ I said to myself. Look, I’m speaking Spanish. My mind is fixing itself, I thought. Everything is going to be okay.”

 

Is it gender-biased to find this intelligent yet dispirited narrator’s voice more interesting than the countless male counterparts found in contemporary fiction? In “Slumming,” a somewhat older version of a Moshfegh protagonist (middle-aged, divorced high school teacher), gets by scoring drugs in a dreary, fly-over town and enjoys casting her acerbic gaze on the locals:

 

 

“And sometimes I visited the deluxe shopping center on Route 4, 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. I only shopped there for things like bug spray and batteries, clean underwear when I didn’t feel like doing laundry, an occasional box of Popsicles.”

 

In these and other stories, like “Malibu” and “A Dark and Winding Road,” Moshfegh clearly demonstrates that a character’s likeability isn’t at the top of her literary priorities. The unflinching honesty with which her characters speak (which might also be construed as misanthropy) is startlingly refreshing, if only because they say things all of us think from time to time, but would never dare to speak out loud. The narrator of “Malibu,” for example, a distasteful young man with body sores and a disarming candor, offers this response to a woman who shows some preliminary interest in dating him: “All I want to do is see your naked body, then reevaluate.”

 

Moshfegh is also a master of comic timing. In “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” an aspiring actor goes from one disquieting audition to another, ending up at one where the director asks him to kiss two girls to show his ability to be “brave” and “goofy.” The actor freezes, unable to comply with this untoward request:

 

“’I’ll count to ten,’ said the director.  ‘One, two, three …’ I looked into the lens of the camera and saw my upside-down reflection. It was like I was trapped in there in the darkness, suspended from the ceiling, unable to move. I looked at the girls again. Their lips were frosted in pale pink, mealy and shimmering, nothing I’d ever want to kiss. Then one of the girls bent down to my finger and sucked my chewed-up wad of gum into her mouth. I took a step back. I was shocked. I tripped on a cord. The girls tittered. ‘Ten!’ the director shouted.”

 

Yes, these stories are bleak and the author seems strangely obsessed with acne, scars, and other unglamorous bodily functions. But Ottessa Moshfegh’s vision surpasses these particulars and Homesick for Another World emerges as among the most profound, absorbing short story collections to appear in years. And you can take that critical hype to the bank.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic and author of The Moon in Deep Winter. He has just completed a new novel.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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