Books

Ottessa Moshfegh Creates a Voice for Alienation In Her Short Story Collection

Homesick for Another World is a fine short story collection. It’s relentlessly dark and unforgiving of both the world we live in and ourselves.

Ottessa Moshfegh. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Ottessa Moshfegh. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Ottessa Moshfegh’s first published work, a novella titled McGlue, earned her the respect of being a writer’s writer. By her own admission she started her first full length novel, Eileen, as a joke; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. She can write. That isn’t in question. Her most recent work though, a collection of short stories called Homesick for Another World, moves her from being a crucial emerging voice in the literary scene to being the person who gives voice, life and imagery to alienation as we know it. This is such a fantastic exploration of the pathetic and impotent navel gazers that we’ve become as individuals in the 21st century .

The defining trait of most characters in this story collection is the emptiness of their lives. They are weak and often have no redeeming features. The stories don’t have a typical beginning, middle  or an end. Moshfegh’s gift, however, is in making us identify our own nothingness with that of the characters. None of them have a utopian construct of the world and they all seem to be aware of this in some twisted sense, which makes them interesting, if not likeable. A single man in his 30s who lives a depressed, absurd, cowardly, creepy, deluded, impoverished and alcoholic life in the story Dancing in the Moonlight, for instance, is among the finest portrayals of a post industrial gig-economy driven over-educated and under-employed youth with a profound sense of dislocation and lack of ambition. Like his friend does, we want to yell “you went to Yale for Christ’s sake” at Nick as well; except we also recognise every one of his flaws in ourselves.

Slumming, a story set somewhere in New England, has a teacher who lives a part of every year in a ghost town that has zombie drug addicts for residents. She is a nobody. She’s pathetic. She’s a meth addict. But she also seems aware of all these things and her of own voyeuristic pleasure in slumming with the zombies every year. She considers a man she was involved with thus,

He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius—some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.

Moshfegh’s characters, both men and women, hate themselves. They hate their bodies. They are ashamed of themselves; they have good reason to be. They’re neurotic. All of these traits lend themselves to taut, absurdist writing that the author excels in. The protagonist in the story Mr Wu, for example, wonders about kissing the fingers of a prostitute at some length.

He thought of the fingers of the prostitute from the day before and wondered where they’d been, how much money they’d handled, and what sticky knobs of doors they’d pulled on.

Homesick for Another World

Homesick for Another World
Ottessa Moshfegh
Random House, 2017

 Mr. Wu’s personal insecurity manifesting as obnoxiousness is gender neutral in Moshfegh’s imagination. Bettering Myself has a female and American version of Mr Wu; she’s an alcoholic drifting through life with an insatiable need to win the validation of her ex-husband and is a general misanthrope. Like every other loser in the collection, however, she’s also charming because she knows how wretched her life is. Her evenings stand testimony that,

Around ten p.m. I’d switch to vodka and would pretend to better myself with a book or some kind of music, as though God were checking up on me.

One aspect of the stories that many readers may find problematic is that Moshfegh seems to easily go from rot on the inside to outside.  Many of her characters are fat and often have some form of bodily disfigurement. It certainly does serve the nihilist cretin imagery that she aims to create. Her characters who’re doing well in the eyes of the society, such as the dermatologist in The Beach Boy, seem to  have no physical reminders of their internal rot. In fact the degree of internal rot isn’t as pronounced for those characters either. Which both makes and breaks the case for such imagery being a tool of the craft.

An old creepy neighbour, with a serious physical disfigurement as we’d expect, tries his game on a young woman who’s newly single in An Honest Woman. The equilibrium between ugliness, pity, condescension and shamelessness that Mosfegh manages to capture in their interaction lays bare our everyday hypocrisies. There’s no reason for this woman to stay after how the evening begins; but she does!

“The girl looked straight up at him. “You’re trying to get to me, aren’t you?” she said. Jeb’s eyes cowered and darted back and forth between her crossed, luminous knees and the rumbling windowpane. “I see your game. You’ve trying to shame me for being young and pretty. You want to make me apologize for all the other girls who didn’t like you. You just can’t stand that I’m right next door reminding you of all that. That’s it, isn’t it? Pump and dump,” she scoffed. “Nothing you say can hurt me. See if you can do it. I dare you.” She chuckled and sipped her whiskey, then placed the glass on the coffee table.

Homesick for Another World is a fine short story collection. It’s relentlessly dark and unforgiving of both the world we live in and ourselves. Each of these 14 stories will hold your attention completely and their overall arc will leave you inhabiting the complicated moral universe that Moshfegh creates. There’s no resolution in any of the stories, nothing that helps us to file them away in some corner of our heads.  We’ll likely harp back to these characters in our everyday lives. On our good days we may find it funny. On the bad days, one can only hope we don’t hate ourselves as much.