This review originally appeared in 3:AM Magazine.
The publication of Ottessa Moshfegh’s story collection, Homesick for Another World, does not so much allow us to measure the progress of this writer’s talent following on her first two published books, the novella McGlue and the novel Eileen, the latter of which in particular generated considerable enthusiasm among readers and critics and seemed to establish Moshfegh as a writer whose developing career warranted attention. Instead, this new book mostly gathers the short fiction she wrote before the two longer works brought her more widespread acclaim, although these short stories, many published in such premiere venues as the Paris Review and the New Yorker, certainly also tagged her as a young writer of promise. To read them together now after considering Moshfegh’s initial efforts as novelist, in fact, only confirms their authentic achievement, the raw yet purposeful depictions of characters in extremis arguably wrought more effectively here than in either of the novels.
The reader previously unacquainted with Moshfegh’s short fiction fortunately will be immediately introduced in the book’s first story to one of her best, a story whose protagonist bears some superficial resemblance to Eileen’s Eileen Dunlop, but, as troubled and “unlikeable” as many reviewers found Eileen to be, the main character in “Bettering Myself,” a teacher in a Catholic high school serving mostly Ukrainian immigrants, is even more dislocated, both in her life circumstances and her ability to cope with them. Her state of mind and health are quite bluntly suggested in the story’s opening sentence: “My classroom was on the first floor, next ot the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the morning.” The narrator, identified as “Miss Mooney” by her students, is a general-purpose substance abuser, although she specializes in alcohol, usually starting at lunch, she tells us, and continuing until late evening, when “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.” She has been married, and near the story’s end she has dinner with her ex-husband, who volunteers to pay her if she will just stop calling him when she’s drunk. (She ultimately takes him up on the offer when it proves acceptably substantial.) She also has a boyfriend, still a college student, although eventually he has apparently “graduated” and moved on.
Miss Mooney is entirely aware of her own degradation, but she doesn’t altogether seem that disgusted by it. The tone of her narration is at best detached, as if she has become sufficiently accustomed to her situation that she cannot conceive any alteration in its static dysfunction, no longer anticipates that “bettering myself” might come to be more that an empty phrase—even if she wanted it to. When she declares that “every year was the same,” she is referring specifically to her consistent failure to teach her students the math they need to pass their achievement exams, but of course her resignation to her fate applies as well to the ongoing failure of her life in general. When at the story’s conclusion Miss Mooney prepares a resignation letter to her principal, it seems that she might finally be on the verge of changing her self-destructive ways but is instead easily diverted from her task of delivering the letter, the story’s final line—“The sun shone on”—ironically conceding to the likelihood she will continue in her lamentable habits.
There are moments in the protagonist’s narration when she conveys a clearly retrospective viewpoint—the narrative is recounted in the past tense—although we get no indication that from some later perspective the narrator feels shame or regret at her past actions. In this regard, “Bettering Myself” provides both a point of comparison and an important contrast to Eileen. Eileen Dunlop as well is disaffected from her own life, the circumstances of which she relates to us retrospect, but in her case she is recalling her previous experiences much farther into the future, after she has in fact lived the different kind of life those experiences ultimately prompted. While Eileen forthrightly portrays her younger self’s moral shortcomings and confusions, it is evident enough throughout her narrative that the older Eileen deplores the former version’s notions, that her life turned out better because if for no other reason she rid herself of them. To this extent, Eileen reads as a kind of moral inquiry, albeit one cast in the form of a quasi-noir narrative.
“Bettering Myself” foregoes both the appearance of moral judgment and the artificial formal scheme apparent in the novel. Its protagonist’s life is depicted in all of its shambles, without clearly signaling through other recognizable devices that the character might eventually see the error of her ways and her life follow a direction familiar to us from other stories. One could call this sort of story a kind of radical realism, through which characters and events are presented in a seemingly artless (but not unskilled) manner, burdening them as sparely as possible with externally imposed formal structures that might distort or equivocate. If such an effort makes it awkward to even identify a work such as “Bettering Myself” as a “story” in the first place, since there is little sense of forward movement in its action—the main character’s life so firmly fails to encompass the possibility of notable change, to consider the chronicle of its specifics a “plot” at all seems a peculiar misrepresentation—it also nevertheless accounts for its creepy fascination, its power to disturb. Achieving such an effect, of course, is not an “artless” move at all, but gives the story in its formal construction the suggestion of drift that mirrors the character’s lived reality.
Invoking the lived reality of her characters is the primary strength of Moshfegh’s short stories, and taken together the stories in Homesick for Another World are above all stories of character. They are in fact unusual among works of short fiction in successfully focusing on characters first—they are not so insubstantial in their reliance on setting and plot (at least as defined minimally as “what happens”) that they should be called merely character “sketches,” but what does linger most from the reading experience of these stories are the impressions of characters, even if in most cases the characters are difficult to admire and in some cases quite deliberately made to be unsympathetic. As in “Bettering Myself,” often the main character doesn’t try to hide his/her more unpleasant qualities. The narrator of “Malibu” informs us that
Girls liked me. I rarely liked them back. If they asked me what I did for fun, I told them lies, saying I Jet Skied or went to casinos. The truth was that I didn’t know how to have fun. I wasn’t interested in fun.
In a story nearly as disturbing as “Bettering Myself,” the narrator protagonist of “Slumming” escapes her unhappy existence making “an abysmal living back home teaching high-school English” by spending every summer in a rural, working-class community where she occupies herself most of the time by scoring drugs and generally feeling superior to the locals. At the ostensible climax of the story, she notices the signs that her pregnant cleaning lady is having a miscarriage (she is beginning to bleed through her clothing) but does nothing to warn her, so the woman continues her work and is eventually taken away by ambulance.
Other characters in the book seem less to lack a strong moral compass than a full commitment to the integrity of their own lives. The narrator of “The Weirdos” recounts an episode of her life during which she is living with an aspiring actor boyfriend in a relationship that she finds unsatisfying, at times enervating, reinforcing her already depressed state. Yet she seems curiously apathetic about the situation: “There were people I could have called, of course. It wasn’t like I was in prison. I could have walked to the park or coffee shop or gone to the movies or church. I could have gone to get a cheap massage or my fortune told. But I didn’t feel like calling anyone or leaving the apartment complex. So I sat and watched my boyfriend clip his toenails. . . .” “Maybe he was the man of my dreams” the narrator declares in the story’s final line, as if her later life has been sufficiently uninspiring that even this aimless episode may have had significance after all. There may be as well in her seemingly throwaway remark a non-ironic admission that perhaps in truth the boyfriend actually was the man of her dreams, but this more likely tells us that the narrator’s dreams remained without much ambition.
In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a man retreats to a mountain cabin after a fight with his pregnant wife “to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I know it was forever ruined.” He is visited by a woman looking for his brother, who apparently has also been using the cabin to share drugs with the woman. After concluding the brother isn’t going to show up, the narrator and the woman party instead. “I let her do whatever she wanted to do to me. . .It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it to be.” In some ways, this asservation articulates what could be taken as the source of dissatisfaction—and thus the misbehavior—of many if not most of the characters in Homesick for Another World: their lives are sufficiently unrewarding that they settle for the stimulation provided by the dangerous and the disgusting. If this doesn’t necessarily make life more worth living, it does help make it seem more consequential—at least temporarily. Some of them are perhaps as self-aware in their alienation as Urszula, the child protagonist of “A Better Place,” who finds her reality so disagreeable that she is convinced it is not actually her proper reality at all. Instead she believes she comes “from some other place,” a better place. “It is not somewhere or anywhere, but it’s not nowhere either. There is no where about it. I don’t know what it is. But it certainly isn’t this place, here on Earth, with all you silly people.” Urszula believes she can return to this place that is not somewhere but also not nowhere by killing the “right person,” and after determining who that person (a bad person) is for her, she sets out to kill him.
“A Better Place” is somewhat too abstract, too overtly allegorical, at least in comparison to the all of the other, more vividly and concretely rendered stories in Homesick for Another World. Still, its placement as the final story in the book does suggest it can be read as implicitly a recapitulation of the underlying dilemma faced by the characters in most of Moshfegh’s short fiction, giving readers the opportunity to reflect on the preceding stories, perhaps reinforcing or altering our impressions of them and the kinds of people they portray. These are characters who are so homesick for another world, one in which their own existence seems less absurd, that they behave in ways that betray their self-perception they are themselves not made for the world they actually inhabit. Such behavior in its extremity at times pushes these characters and their actions into the domain of the grotesque, a term that has been used by critics to describe Moshfegh’s fiction, some of whom have specifically compared it to the work of Flannery O’Connor. But Moshfegh’s stories are not anchored in the religious/theological assumptions motivating O’Connor’s fiction: O’Connor’s characters are grotesque because of their distance from God; Ottessa Moshfegh’s characters are marked by their distance from a reality in which the existence of God—understood as a trope signifying purpose and meaning—would even make sense.
Moshfegh is perhaps comparable to O’Connor, however, in that, judging from what she has produced so far at least, her short stories are more resonant and rewarding than her novels. McGlue is a compelling novella chronicling the degradation of a recognizable enough sort of Moshfegh character, and as an historical narrative its details of 19th century nautical life distinguish it from the stories of contemporary life that dominate Homesick for Another World, but nevertheless by its conclusion it comes to seem more like a short story that has been extended beyond its most effective length. The protagonist of Eileen is also surely a character readers of the short stories would readily recognize, but if McGlue at times seems to drift, Eileen is ultimately too overdetermined by the requirements of its plot and the expected atmospherics. Eileen Dunlop emerges not so much as a character shorn of all sentimentally conceived notions of “growth” or self-help but as a synthetically fabricated figure fashioned to do the work assigned to this sort of character in this sort of narrative. It is difficult to think of this as a promising advance from the more audacious work presented in Homesick for Another World.