The final story in Ottessa Moshfegh’s third book of fiction starts with the sentence, “I come from another place.” If Homesick for Another World contained an opening epigraph, this might be an apt one. To be clear, the collection is not a work of speculative fiction, nor is it sci-fi, fantasy, or even magical realism. Everything that happens in this book is possible. If the things in this book have in fact happened to anyone, I doubt they’re talking about it, which is seemingly why Ottessa Moshfegh feels the need write these fourteen stories. So yes, her fictional world is one that looks, sounds, smells, and generally seems so much like our own, but I challenge you to put your finger on what exactly it is that makes Moshfegh’s realism the perfect degree of different. The stories circle repeated, nuanced themes such as love-as-obsession, contentment-in-depression, and the-freedom-of-loss, but there’s something else—a unique offness—about this world that pulls these fourteen stories together into a truly incredible book.
Born in New England to Croatian and Iranian parents, Moshfegh is young and intimidatingly successful. During her Stegner Fellowship, her first novel, McGlue, won the Fence Modern Fiction Prize and the Believer Book Award. Her second novel, the wildly acclaimed Eileen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is her third book, and her first collection of stories, half of which were published in The Paris Review.
Save for one five-pager, this book is full of standard-length (fifteen to twenty-five page) stories that joke like Miriam Toews, surprise like Charles Baxter, and wax nihilistic like Lucia Berlin. These are serious, patient, moody stories that sprawl out and sometimes go nowhere. If there was ever a writer to make you love a story that ends in basically the same place it began, it’s Moshfegh.
The way she makes you love them is with humor. Even when the stories turn truly grotesque and uncomfortable, there’s a tone of grim comedy or delightful description in every sentence. Hers is not the punchline cleverness of Sedaris, the voicey fun of Saunders, or even the wry wit of Lorrie Moore. Moshfegh makes you laugh with her entirely on-the-nose descriptions of people’s habits, gestures, and bodies. In “The Locked Room,” she opens the story with a long physical description:
Takashi dressed in long black rags, ripped fishnet stockings, and big black boots with long loose laces that splatted at the floor when he walked … his face was scabbed from tearing his pimples open and squeezing the pus out with dirty chewed-up fingernails. He used scissors to cut off all his eyelashes. Sometimes he drew a French mustache on with black felt pen. He was very preoccupied with death and suffering. He had a way about him I really liked.
By the end of the paragraph, we’re wincing, but by the end of the last sentence we’re laughing.
One of Moshfegh’s serious preoccupations is the body—faces, rashes, ailments, blood, sexual organs, sweat, the weird shapes of noses. She can be quite maximal in her delivery of physical details and description, but this is intentional. She’s calling out the plain strangeness of being a human being. She wants us to stop and think about just how ridiculous it is not only to paint our faces thick with makeup, but to have skin and hair and teeth at all. The project of this book seems to be: how can I convince a reader that the real world really is an alien world.
That’s not to say she’s heavy-handed, moralistic, or even judgmental. Her protagonists are often unlikeable jerks and creeps who, on the page, fly their fucked-up flags in full view of the reader. There’s two different and unique drug-abusing school teachers, elderly stalker-type old men, a cheating husband avoiding his pregnant wife, and a needy child on a mission to murder. Moshefegh’s in the camp that says characters, as long as they’re believable, need not be rooted for, and each one of hers, even the minor ones, are so vivid it’s haunting.
From a craft perspective, Moshfegh again sets her stories a few degrees apart from the expected. Much like her novel Eileen, which spends about two hundred pages in its first act, her stories often take twelve pages to “begin.” What she’s doing in those twelve pages, though, is coloring in all the hilarious lines of the world and drilling the character’s voice, past, and flaws into our heads. In “Bettering Myself,” featuring a drunk-depressed-disillusioned teacher who can’t seem to understand why she desires her ex-husband, has an inciting incident that lands randomly in the middle of a paragraph on page ten of fourteen. Up to that point, we’re treated with dark, humorous scenes of our protagonist sleeping under her desk, generally hating stuff, and explaining anal sex to curious students. These structures can only work if you have the talent to make every sentence memorable. Doubt not, Ottessa Moshfegh can do it.
That said, some stories don’t “add up” in the classic or expected way, with loose ends tied and life explained. Her worldview: life is not truly made of stories; rather, it’s a succession of moments. In “Beach Boy,” a character interrupts a funeral to ask, “Why tell stories? As soon as something’s over, that’s it … Things happen, and then more things happen, so?”
Maybe it’s pacing, then, that sets Moshefegh’s stories apart from the norm. What she chooses to spend time on are moments of description, human awkwardness, and discomfort. What she moves right through (or sometimes drops entirely) are plot points. In one story, half a page is given to detailing a main characters scarf. Pages later, that same character’s death occurs in one abrupt sentence, and then we quickly move on to life without her. Moshfegh puts weight on the unexpected, trying to prove to us, maybe how little time we actually spend paying attention to the tiny, daily absurdities. Death? That’s normal. The way a Latina waitress sings Happy Birthday to a retarded man—that’s what deserves our attention.
Although Homesick for Another World is at times irreverent, slightly absurd, and pitch black in its laughs, this isn’t to say that the writing lacks heart. Moshfegh is trying to prove to us that, as long as you pay the right amount of attention, we can see our own love, ugliness, and sense of self in all people, even those at the fringes of society. She puts lives on the page, even if they aren’t heroic or redemptive. She’s showing us the part of the world we often don’t want to see. She’s saying, loudly, and with a kind of smile, Look: there’s a whole other world right here.
Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfegh. New York, New York: Penguin Random House, January 2017. 304 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
Tyler Barton is a cofounder of FEAR NO LIT, the organization behind the 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. He’s a fiction editor for Blue Earth Review, a podcast host for Weekly Reader, and an intern for Sundress Publications. His short stories have been published at Little Fiction, NANO Fiction, No Tokens, and Midwestern Gothic. Find his work at tsbarton.com; find his jokes at @goftyler.