America loves its schadenfreude. We watch TV shows such as C.O.P.S. and Jerry Springer that center on the misfortune of others. We follow Twitter accounts like @FloridaMan that mock bizarre local crimes. And there are the annual Darwin Awards, given out to people who die in ridiculous ways, that is, those who “chlorinate the gene pool.” No human is above idiocy, which is why the fool is the mascot of humor. But the factors the cause people to grow inane are myriad: low education and income, broken homes and relationships, substance abuse issues, mental health problems — these are the firecrackers that can eventually blow up in one’s face. We may laugh at the man who set his underwear on fire inside of a Starbucks, but what are the psycho-socio-economic conditions that we are really poking fun at?
Homesick for Another World, the long-awaited debut collection of stories from the acclaimed American fiction writer Ottessa Moshfegh, is filled with people made eccentric by circumstance. Moshfegh is like a doctor in her ability to predict the advanced stages of social illness , and her stories, filled with characters who’d be at home in Harmony Korine film, play out like hypothetical terminal situations, uncoated by the sugar of recovery. Unless it is out of a destructive or cruel self-indulgence, no one in a Moshfegh story is having a good time, at least not for very long.
In “Bettering Myself” a divorced Catholic School teacher confesses to drinking during work, talks about her sex life with her students, and fudges their SAT scores. “No way those dummies would cost me my job.” she says. While the teacher’s nihilism may widen the eyes, it is an awkward dinner with her ex-husband that waters them:
My ex got up to use the men’s room, and when he came got back he asked me to stop calling him.
“No, I think I’ll keep calling,” I said.
“I’ll pay you,” he said.
“How much money are we talking?”
He told me.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take the deal.”
Our food came. We ate in silence. And then I couldn’t eat anymore. I got up. I didn’t say anything. I went home.
Thread-lines like these come around like a sucker punch in many of Moshfegh’s narratives. Readers familiar with her lauded debut novel Eileen, shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, will find these protagonists exhibit psychological hangups similar to those affecting eponymous Eileen. These are people mired so deep in misery and misfortune that they have been left socially shriveled and repugnant; people who seek out sexual thrills as forms of revenge or stand by, in a semi-psychotic states, as traumas befall others around them.
This particular mood, a tightrope between creepy and outright sinister, is one Moshfegh can foot with Petitian grace. In “An Honest Woman”, a seemingly friendly man named Jeb tricks his sultry new neighbor to come visit during a storm. He offers her whiskeys, tells her to take a load off, and suggests she go to his bedroom and try on his dead wife’s clothes. “My sweet Betty Ann. She left a dresser full of clothes… and just your size. Shall I bring one down? You can come up and look at them yourself, if you like.” His neighbor doesn’t bite, opting instead to bleed his dignity dry.
One of Moshfegh’s great talents isn’t just her willingness to spelunk into the psyches of weirdos, predators and black sheep, but to be braceless in her depiction of them. “In [‘An Honest Woman’],” she told the New Yorker, “Jeb’s physicality plays a major role in his personhood and in the way he relates to the female neighbor. It was crucial that the readers have a palpable sense of his nastiness… [But] as the writer, I had to sympathize with Jeb in order to understand him a little.”
In sympathizing with her characters, if only wading deep enough to save them from being stereotyped or lifeless, she has cultivated a penchant for compassion for misfits often mishandled by other writers. In “No Place for Good People”, for example, a widower named Larry takes a job at residential home for the mentally-disabled. One of his charges, a man with an IQ “in the high sixties” shows Larry a trick he has learned with a porno mag:
Paul put a finger from one hand down on the page right over the girl’s private parts, then pressed a finger from the other hand to his pursed lips and grinned. He put the magazine back in the box and stood there beaming.“That’s very good, Paul,” I said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. I hadn’t received much training in how to handle these types of situations. I did the best I could.
Later, Larry tries to help Paul celebrate his birthday at the local Hooters only to find it has shuttered its doors. Paul’s disappointment at having to go to Friendly’s instead is genuinely heartbreaking.
Moshfegh is at her best portraying underdogs fated to stay under and “good people” prone to bending their halos. Yet for all the hits in Homeless for Another World, and this collection is a banger, its b-sides are essentially filler that abandon surreal situations for more hackneyed dramatizations. The plight of the twitterpated Ivy-League protagonist of “Dancing in the Moonlight” feels contrived and “The Surrogate” plays through like a Showgirls rip-off. Another story “The Locked Room” — about two temporarily captive conservatory musicians — reads like an early, undercooked sketch.
Still, these are small complaints, and they barely dull the dazzle of this remarkable collection. For as brilliant as was Eileen, Moshfegh is near virtuosic in short story form, and newcomers to her work would do well to begin with this collection. Even in her efforts to break out of her habitual settings and characters, Moshfegh can conjure enchantment, such as the young girl in the dark fantasy of “A Better Place,” who seeks to return to the afterlife by killing “the right person.”
And while Moshfegh’s stories are indeed unsettling, they are also candid and axiomatic, depicting the more morbid aspects of human nature with unexpected solicitude. “I hate people who use others as props to buoy up their idiotic self-conceits,” she continued in her New Yorker interview. “But, then again, hate runs deep, and so I guess I love Jeb a little, too.”
HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press | $26.00 | Hardcover | 304 pp