Ottessa Moshfegh lifts the rock of our inner lives to see what sort of critters writhe beneath in darkness. While she thoroughly explored the inner lives of troubled protagonists in her novels McGlue and Eileen, Moshfegh’s tight-yet-roomy plotting lends itself well to short fiction. Because of this, there is perhaps no better display of her unique talents than Homesick for Another World, which features new pieces alongside stories that previously appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. In each story, a cockeyed protagonist is confronted by exactly the kind of pain they need to grow. That may sound rote, but Moshfegh dazzles with her abilities to sidestep sentimentality in favor of plot development, to humanely portray the broken, and to slowly unfold a surprise.
Keeping the same rhythm in each piece while varying the melody, the collection becomes kaleidoscopic, a prism through which we can view everyone, including ourselves, at their most vulnerable. Grieving husbands, aspiring actors, and pretend executives all have private embarrassments and goals they never seem to reach. In “The Surrogate,” a beautiful young Christie Brinkley doppelganger is paid handsomely to serve as the face of an Asian-run company, but struggles with a pituitary issue that engorges her labia and makes sex painful. At one point, she describes a dream in which aliens send a beam to suck out her “demons.” She goes on to ponder aloud: “‘I wonder if they’re really gone,’ I told Gigi. ‘If they are, I wonder what I’ll do. I wonder if I’ll be different from now on.’” For Moshfegh’s characters, demons come in different forms, and they’re constantly being blamed for individual failures. She lets each character inhabit this blame, opening a window for escape only when they’re about to give up all hope.
Moshfegh’s talent roars to life when a speaker simply decides to embrace the present and make the most of it. In “Bettering Myself,” Miss Mooney, a divorced alcoholic high-school teacher in her early thirties, faces change by simply deciding not to resign. In lesser hands, the ending would read as a commentary on how most people never really change, or worse, a deliberately bleak ending designed to wring cheap pathos from its prose. Moshfegh cleverly illustrates how her students are the only thing keeping her afloat or giving her purpose, even as everything else in her life falls apart. Toward the end, Mooney has dinner with her ex-husband, who offers her a monthly bribe to stop calling his house line. Excited about the bribe, Mooney drafts a resignation letter before going on a cocaine bender. On the day she decides to drop the letter off, there’s no one at the school to hand it to. Rather than leave it, she takes it as a sign and decides to stay. Here, Mooney isn’t resigning herself to something bleak, but rather coming to terms with the fact that she needs the interruption of her students to keep her away from the naturally destructive behavior she engages in. As Moshfegh puts it, “I went to McSorley’s and ate a bowl of pickled onions. I tore the letter up. The sun shone on.”
Mooney, like many of Moshfegh’s protagonists, is a scuzzy mess of strident vanity, deep loneliness, addiction, and neuroses. She gives voice to these characters with a narrative style that starts out simple before peeling back to reveal a more complex image. A typical opening might be described as utilizing a “this then that” approach, where the language is a little plebian, a little recollective. This approach seems to serve two purposes. It allows Moshfegh to eschew sentimentality in favor of advancing the character’s journey, and it offers up a hard exterior to chip away at. In “Mr. Wu,” for example, the first two pages of the piece feature sentences like,
He was in love with the woman at the video-game arcade. She was about his age, in her mid-forties, and had a daughter in high school. He knew her both from the arcade and from around the neighborhood, as she and her daughter lived just a few doors down from him in an apartment with her sister and her sister’s retarded son.
The cavalier quality of the language and the mundaneness of the narrative direction keep the piece humming along to the next plot point, where the language begins to open up. In moving from portraying Mr. Wu as a hardened character with ugly opinions, to showing the chinks in that armor that reveal those opinions to be the result of loneliness and desperation, Moshfegh is able to lift real pathos out from underneath. The protagonist’s decision to woo his crush not with his honest feelings, but with texts like “How does it feel to be a middle-aged divorcee living with your retarded nephew and working in a computer cafe? Is it everything you ever dreamed?” allows for the pain and heartache to sink in deeper when he finally meets her. Standing under a neon sign, he instructs his love to clap if she finds him attractive, and to whistle if she’s uninterested. He never receives his answer.
The bluntness of each story’s early sentences often yields—perhaps not unexpectedly—a great deal of humor. “The Weirdos” begins with the following sentence:
On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water.
Here, the juxtaposition of the bland (getting a taco), with the strange (everything else) reads as something like a joke. Further in that passage, the male character cries and continues to be strange. Rather than end the date early, the female narrator disregards this and is “impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.” These cockeyed juxtapositions give Moshfegh’s work an unusual levity that rests somewhere between cringe comedy and absurdism.
In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a man retreats to a cabin in order to escape his wife for a few days before the birth of their child. After eating junk food and smoking a few joints, he lays down in his bed only to discover a dildo nestled in the blankets. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the dildo belongs to his wayward brother and his junkie girlfriend. When the girlfriend shows up with meth, and it becomes clear the brother isn’t going to show up as promised, she and the narrator decide to get messy. The way these characters move from mutual distrust to participating in the sort of romance only drugs and desperation can create, is as comic as it is inevitable. In Moshfegh’s understanding, making the wrong decision is often the impetus for great discovery.
The illusion of control and the forces that conspire to break that illusion rest at the core of everything Moshfegh writes. The humor of the unexpected helps each piece to find unique pathways to truth. It would be a bit much to call her craft magical, but saying it’s akin to a magic trick is perhaps the best descriptor. There are dozens of short story collections that will compete for a reader’s attention this year, but pull up a chair and watch Moshfegh cast her dark brand of spell.
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in print or online for The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Vice (forthcoming), and The Los Angeles Review of Books (forthcoming).