Homesick for Another World

 

A character in one of Otessa Moshfegh’s stories says of a Polish barmaid he drinks away Christmas with, “There was nowhere to hide in the eyes of this woman.” The same could be said of Moshfegh herself. In her terrific debut short story collection, her dark vision misses nothing. What Moshfegh sees is often ugly. Her characters are alcoholics, drug users, compulsive skin pickers. They are self-deluded about their lives and their chances at love, capable of casual cruelty and callous judgments.

Yet Moshfegh treats this motley crew with compassion and dignity. She has made no secret in interviews that she has struggled herself with being a misfit. She was born in Massachusetts. Her mother was from Croatia, her father from Iran, and her experience as both an insider and an outsider in America deeply informs her work.

Homesick for Another World collects the stories that Moshfegh has published over the past several years, most frequently in The Paris Review. Her first book, McGlue, was an experimental novella about a drunken sailor accused of murder, published by the small press Fence Books. She followed that in 2015 with her novel Eileen, which was hailed by some as the next Gone Girl.

Eileen never approached the gonzo popularity of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller — though it received plenty of recognition and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Set in New England in 1964, its antiheroine, a bulimic twenty-four-year-old who lives with her alcoholic father and works in a boys’ prison, is far too neurotic and self-loathing. Moshfegh has said that Eileen was her attempt to write a commercial novel that would sell. As wonderfully idiosyncratic as the book is, it does have a conventional story arc and even features a femme fatale of sorts.

Moshfegh’s short stories are weirder, their narrative arcs more erratic, their characters more rebarbative. She’s drawn comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, in part because of her obsession with odd, unsettling characters but also because she sets in motion events that are surprising, even bizarre, yet somehow feel inevitable. But Moshfegh’s darkly comic voice — and her willingness to plumb the biological and even scatological in search of what makes us human — set her work apart. Moshfegh’s stories feel like dark rooms in which someone has briefly turned on a light.

All of her characters are looking for love in one guise or another. “Bettering Herself,” the story that won The Paris Review‘s prestigious Plimpton Prize, features a wine-soaked teacher at a Catholic school who’s harassing her ex-husband. In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a lawyer spends a weekend away from his pregnant wife, with whom he is fighting, and capitalizes on a case of mistaken identity when a visitor shows up at his door to form a brief connection. In “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” a young man who’s left home to seek his fortune as a Hollywood actor finds in his landlady a mother figure whose absolute belief in him belies his talent.

Moshfegh’s stock-in-trade are bizarre, marginal characters — those people it might be easier if we just ignored — and yet she’s equally capable of illuminating the poignancy of the kind of people who might fade into the background at a party. In “The Beach Boy,” John, a dermatologist, finds himself suddenly widowed when his wife, Marcia, suffers an apparent aneurysm. At her funeral, he discovers, as we all do, that grief is not his métier:

Several friends told stories, boasting about how much Marcia had meant to them, how deeply she’d touched their lives. Marcia would have liked that, John thought — all these people discussing her, pointing out her best qualities, remembering her finest moments. She’d have eaten it up. But what did these people really know about her. 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 . . . 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?

After the funeral, John discovers evidence that Marcia may not have been the person he’d always thought she was. His search for answers casts the conventional life they built together in a wholly different light.

The thing that’s so thrilling about this story is its suggestion — the same one posed by the twisted young woman wearing the mousy outfits in Eileen — that the most vital parts of our lives are invisible to others, and sometimes even to ourselves. Ignoring our blind spots may make life easier. But easier isn’t the point — not in Moshfegh’s universe, and not in ours.