For many, Ottessa Moshfegh is best known for her novella, “McGlue” (2014), and her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, “Eileen” (2015). However, over the years she has gained an appreciative following of readers who have admired and devoured her short stories in the Paris Review. Instead of capitalizing on the success of “Eileen” with a second novel, Moshfegh has brought out a collection of stories — some old, some new, all psychologically astute, astringently funny and wonderfully entertaining.
As its title suggests, “Homesick for Another World” contains tales about alienation and disconnection. In the opening story, “Bettering Myself,” we meet a heavy-drinking, drug-dependent teacher who sleeps in her classroom, fudges on exams and hounds her ex-husband, all the time convincing herself that she is making headway in self-improvement. In “Mr. Wu,” a lonely soul lusts after a kindred spirit and wangles a blind date, but before embarking on “the romance of his life,” he has an encounter in a brothel that proves more eventful and rewarding.
Most of Moshfegh’s stories concern relationships. She introduces us to many divorcees and widowers in search of new flames, but also disastrously mismatched couples who soldier on in their strained unions until they are ground down — or, as in one story, divided by sudden death.
Two tales feature unholy alliances: In “Malibu,” a man goes on a date that consists of a preprandial plate of Nutty Butters and even nuttier bedroom antics; in “An Honest Woman,” a 30-something visits her sexagenarian neighbor one storm-lashed night to negotiate his cheap whiskey and creepy come-ons.
Two stories cover different ground. Moshfegh’s longest, “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” a hilarious cautionary tale about making it in Hollywood, tracks an aspiring actor following his dreams and the sage counsel of his larger-than-life landlady (“Love will ruin you. It turns off the light in your eyes”). In her last story, “A Better Place,” Moshfegh comes full circle — only this time, her treatment of betterment takes in madness and death.
As with “Eileen,” Moshfegh’s focus is on characters living on the edge of society or sanity, and she digs deep into the human psyche to explore oddities, frailties, warped agendas and reckless desires. A discernible cruel streak runs wild, but so, too, does a toxic trail of black humor.
“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood,” one character confesses. Another leaves his pregnant wife for the weekend to enjoy a final wild spree “before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was forever ruined.” Often, Moshfegh’s brand of tragicomedy errs more to the tragic: “My poor wife,” a widower muses, “I didn’t know how little I loved her until she was dead.”
One male narrator’s voice doesn’t ring true, and one broken life is relayed as random acts of self-destruction. Otherwise, Moshfegh’s singular stories are unified by bold ideas, intoxicating detail and perfectly calibrated humor and pathos.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Homesick for Another World
By: Ottessa Moshfegh.
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 294 pages, $26.