And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.
The characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World will come as no surprise if you’ve read her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Eileen. The people who populate these tales are inappropriate, slack, liars, cheaters, sleezeballs, hypocrites – they are us.
Two stories – ‘Bettering Myself’ and ‘Slumming’ – are narrated by teachers, those bastions of standards and rules and betterment. In ‘Bettering Myself’ which opens the collection, a teacher at a Catholic school keeps a sleeping bag in the back of her room to facilitate naps when she’s still drunk from the previous night; considers one of her students to be a friend, and avoids teaching calculus by talking about her sex life. While ‘Slumming’ is set in the holidays when the narrator goes to live in Alna, a poor town where she owns a summerhouse. There, she eats a footlong sandwich divided in two – one half for lunch, the other for dinner; takes ten dollars’ worth of meth or heroin, depending what’s on offer in the bus-depot restroom three times a week, and occasionally hangs out with Clark who looks after the summerhouse the rest of the year. They slept together the first year she was there, ‘me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist’.
It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do.
Many of the stories are concerned with the behaviour of men. Mr Wu is in love with the woman who dispenses the tokens at the arcade he frequents but doesn’t know how to speak to her. While he makes a plan, he visits sex workers in the city, averting his eyes when he has sex with them because ‘He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love’. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, the narrator escapes to his parents’ cabin in the mountains following a fight with his pregnant wife, ‘to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was ruined forever’. There he discovers a dildo underneath the blankets on the bed and an unexpected visitor.
Probably the best piece, if you were to judge each story alone, comes in the middle of the collection: ‘An Honest Woman’. A young woman meets her 60-year-old neighbour, Jeb, over the chain-link fence that separates their gardens. Her partner’s recently left her, while Jeb is widowed and has a nephew about the young woman’s age.
‘I’ll meet her,’ said the nephew. ‘But I’m not saying I’ll take her out. I don’t need any drama.’
‘What drama? You should be so lucky,’ Jeb said. ‘A sweet gal. Comes with baggage, of course, as they all do.’
‘Kids?’ the nephew asked. ‘Forget it.’
‘No, no kids. Emotional issues, more like,’ Jeb said. ‘You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.’
The story takes a creepy turn when the woman visits Jeb, waiting for his nephew but a storm prevents his arrival. Moshfegh highlights the irony of Jeb’s statement about women quoted above when she has him behave as an entitled, misogynistic white man.
It’s at this point in the collection that Moshfegh’s aim starts to become clear: this is a collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. To pull this off and maintain the interest of the reader is quite a feat and Moshfegh does it with style. Her prose is sharp, nailing thoughts, feelings and the messiness of life, love and sex – of which there is plenty.
This an accomplished collection. Every story is worthy of inclusion but there’s something about them taken together which really is spectacular. Ottessa Moshfegh is a remarkable writer.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.