Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

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.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

  1. I’m not usually drawn to short stories but if ever we needed our ills and flaws reflected back at us, now would seem like a suitably prescient time. I shall see if I can get hold of a copy at the library!

    • I’ve started reading a lot more short stories lately. I think I’ve finally embraced the idea that they’re perfect for reading when you’ve a short period of time. There’s some excellent collections around at the moment too.

  2. Having recently read ‘Eileen’, I agree with your judgement that this is a brilliant writer. But what a depressing read that was!. Of course the world is full of imperfect people, and very bad people, too, and she portrays them very realistically. But I cannot agree that this is all there is to us. My two discoveries of 2016 have been Elizabeth Strout (especially ‘Olive Kitteridge’) and Kent Haruf – flawed characters a-plenty but much more besides. The worlds these two create seem to me both richer and more believable

  3. I’ve not read Eileen, but this sounds fascinating! I love reading short story collections as a way of getting to know an author. Thanks for letting me know about this!

  4. I really liked Eileen despite its weirdness. In fact, that’s why I liked it! I can imagine she’d be good at the short form. Will look out for this.

  5. I have just discovered your blog and the first thing I want to say is: thank you. Thank you for this great initiative, celebrating female writers is absolutely essential and unfortunately still much needed. I have just noticed that never in my life have I read as many female writers as I have in the past year and I am quite proud of this. Your blog is gonna help me to keep following this path 🙂

    Great review, I’m not much of a short story reader but this collection looks really interesting, maybe a bit unsettling but that’s what I like. I’ve also heard a lot about “Eileen”, which is on my TBR list, so I’m definitely going to check out Ottessa Moshfegh’s work in the very near future!

    • What a lovely comment; you’ve made my day. Delighted to have you here and hope you find plenty of fantastic books to read. Hope you enjoy Eileen, I do think Moshfegh’s a very special writer indeed.

  6. Elena’s review earlier today prompted me to bump Eileen up the TBR pile … this collection sound just as compelling so loving short stories I have to read these… but which do you recommend first? This collection of the novel?

    • I’m not sure it matters, to be honest. I think the stories are better than the novel but that might just be personal preference. There are similarities in tone and theme.

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