THE CHARACTERS IN Ottessa Moshfegh’s remarkable debut story collection, Homesick for Another World, circle one another like captive sharks in a pool. In fact, reading these 14 stories is something like a tour through an aquarium led by a deliciously mischievous guide, the kind of storyteller who delights in the salacious details of past mishaps. Lest ye forget, kids, one slip at feeding time and they’ll eat you alive in there.
A lot has been made of the scatology of these stories — again and again we return to moments where a character imagines or actually handles bodily fluids, orifices, and excrement. Sticking a finger in another character’s butt; sticking a finger in another character’s mouth; picking crumbs from the folds of a crotch. “His heart fluttered again as he remembered how her thighs had swayed when she rose to wipe herself,” says the narrator of “An Honest Woman.”
But these blemishes and base functions of the body always serve more than one purpose in the prose. They are gloriously puerile details — and that’s part of the fun. But they also insist upon the collision of memory and desire, drawing with a razor’s edge the boundaries between solitude and isolation, allowing the narrator to move between Moshfegh’s frank, gorgeous sentences and her wide, uncompromising authorial gaze. Nothing escapes her. And the great pleasure of the book is watching Moshfegh lend her enormous gifts to each of her alternately charming and repulsive protagonists, regardless of how terrible their ways.
“Her makeup was like stage makeup, or what they put on dead bodies in open caskets. It was applied heavy-handedly, in broad strokes of blue and pink and bronze. Still, I didn’t think she was unattractive.” The narrator of “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” the longest story in the collection, is opining about his elderly landlady, Miss Honey, who turns out to be as wise as she is outrageous. She is also tender in a way that manages to be both sweet and creepy, much like the narrator. What he means in that line about her being “not unattractive” is, I think, his version of a compliment. To the extent he poses some moral or social problem, we’re left to sort that out on our own.
It’s a kind of deep cover one enters in each new story. The world outside dissolves, and these particular worlds are governed entirely by the characters’ actions and reactions, and whatever judgments a reader might pass on the lives of these lovable miscreants are lost to the force of the story’s telling. “I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room,” says the narrator of “The Locked Room,” a Moshfeghian twist on coming of age. It’s a brief story, with about as much plot as the rest, which is to say not a lot. A young couple gets locked in a room during rehearsal. The young woman tries to climb out, fails, climbs back in. They wait. But the revelation is what matters, the acquisition of her fuck-it-all spirit, which we can presume comes and goes throughout the rest of her life like the piss and shit that flow throughout the book. “Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.”
Moshfegh commits to the point of view of her characters like few writers do, or have, or can, and in so doing insists upon their humanity in ways that surprise us on every page. But the book is not perfect. In places, her men tend toward caricature, as in the narrator of “Dancing in the Moonlight.” This guy is obsessive in a way that makes me feel as if he’s being punished, more so than the way we marvel at most of the others. Even then, the story manifests a gratifying sense of unity and wholeness. And it echoes gracefully with another recurring theme — the unrelenting mundanity of life.
Characters often distract themselves by watching “Days of Our Lives, Another World, Guiding Light,” or “the opening credits of Will & Grace,” or “Law & Order, then Oprah, then Days of Our Lives.” Each of these lists comes from a different story, and each is followed by yet more daily dullness. They cut grass, cry alone in bed, fidget with their colostomy bags. And of course, they pop zits, poop, and pee.
The Raymond Carver comparisons are inevitable and many, and while there is a shared stylistic lineage — a Shaker-like plainness of beauty — and a common interest in human meanness, sadness, and the need to numb ourselves with whatever numbing stuff we can find, Moshfegh’s departure from Carver’s shadow is clear and important. And it seems Moshfegh is keenly aware of exactly how.
Take this passage from “The Beach Boy,” the ninth story in Homesick for Another World:
Sometimes he liked to put his ear to Marcia’s chest and listen. Her heartbeat was light and chatty, a rhythm that made you want to waltz around the kitchen. John could have been a cardiologist, but he’d pursued dermatology instead. At parties, he wowed people with descriptions of boils and rashes and growths, strange hair patterns, nasty scars, pus-filled cysts, bizarre freckles, cancers, moles. “Within six feet of this fellow, you could detect the distinct smell of porcini risotto,” he’d say. “His armpit was filled with fungus.”
One can’t help thinking of Carver’s own well-known cardiologist, Dr. Herb McGinnis, who wowed his kitchen party with a story about hearts and love. John, on the other hand, “could have been a cardiologist,” but isn’t. Instead, he chose a different organ. He’s a dermatologist, who commands a room with tales about his own obsession — the many diseases of our skins.
Extend the metaphor as far as you’d like because the divergence is not only superficial. Moshfegh’s stories have less heart but more tenderness than Carver’s. They are in a few places supple and downy, and in other places knotted and calloused, and everywhere endowed with nerve. But they never pretend to dive beneath the complicated layers of the skin. Instead, these stories are content to examine in the finest of detail all the many ways in which skin, our largest organ, after all, can lead us to a deeper understanding.
Later in “The Beach Boy,” we sit with John’s thoughts as he contemplates the conversations going around during his wife’s funeral.
What could one know about a person? John had known her best of all, had been able to predict her every move, the arc of her sighs, her laughs, the twists of her shadow as it crossed a room. In the days since her death, he’d felt her drifting through the apartment. He’d done double takes the way you do when you think you see your own cat or dog begging for food under the table at a restaurant. Nobody would understand, John thought, how well he knew the sound of Marcia’s coffee spoon hitting the saucer, how the sheets rustled around her when she turned over in bed. But were those things significant enough, he wondered, to boast about?
What could be more true about the way we experience that kind of loss, the loss of someone who has moved and coughed and stirred in our proximity for decades? What could be more honest than asking yourself, in John’s position, Is this enough?
The answer is not simple. What John points to is the irrevocable loss of his smallest but most familiar intimacies. On one hand, no, it is not enough — not enough to convey the qualities of the loss itself, the size of the pain, the depth of the confusion. On the other hand, nothing else comes any closer. Literature is uniquely capable of expressing a complex likeness of pain and loss. The short story is uniquely capable of fixing those complexities to our breathtaking failures at adequate response. In Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh has put our inadequacies beneath her finely tuned microscope, and in so doing shown us new ways to see.
The best story in the collection is the only one not yet to have appeared elsewhere in print. Maybe because it is not like her other stories, or maybe because it inhabits all of her other stories in one. It’s the final story in the collection, “A Better Place,” which stands in as a titular story for the book. In “A Better Place,” the narrator, Urszula, a girl of undetermined school age, rages and rants against the unfairness of being born to humans, then plots her path to an otherworldly self-destruction. “There is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.” The story is pitch perfect, never once tipping over into pedantry, never once losing the tension of its existential march toward the end.
Urszula believes she and her brother Waldemar come from “some other place” that isn’t “something to be near or in or at. It’s not somewhere or anywhere, but it’s not nowhere either. There is no where about it.” She and Waldemar believe that to get back to the other place, they must kill someone — a precise someone. Urszula comes to know exactly who her person is, and from there the story turns into a kind of sly modern reckoning of the Hansel and Gretel tale.
This overt but deft fabulism at the end of a book of realist fictions strikes me as bold formally, but also critically. It’s easy to imagine this story being widely misunderstood, if not simply overlooked, in the course of Moshfegh’s so far brilliant career. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year for her novel Eileen, and won the Fence Modern Prize in 2014 for her first book, a swashbuckling novella called McGlue. But I’d like to think there’s something lurking in this final story that points the way toward her future work. Something in its lawlessness, in the coolly murderous tone of its voice. In any case, every story in this collection is worth reading and reading again. The joy and outrage redouble with each new visit. Just beware those pock-ridden sharks — they do bite.