Homesick For Another World
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399562884
Reviewed by: Noah Sanders
Ottessa Moshfegh’s is a joyfully disgusting writer. Her worlds are populated by an unappealing lot of losers, perverts, drunks and drug addicts, struggling to find purchase in whatever gutter they may have woke up in. Moshfegh seems to thrill in detailed descriptions of cystic acne, bloated bodies, horrifically mangled and misshapen limbs, and a slew of other physical deformities that afflict her characters. As monstrous as the characters in her first short story collection – Homesick for Another World – are on the outside, they are imbued with the potential for worse within. And it is a testament to her immense abilities as a writer that in the collection she is able to make these ugly creations not only relatable, but strangely likable. She is, quite frankly, a master of revulsion. Her characters breath, bleed, screw, and ooze from the page, sloughing through their sad existences, weakly reaching for someone, or something, to lift them up to places even marginally better.
In Homesick for Another World Moshfegh’s keen eye and descriptive power are turned towards a motley cast of down-on-their-luck characters – a Chinese factory worker who seeks love, a woman who seeks vacation in destitution, a wall-eyed country kid trying to become a Hollywood star – their only connecting thread the want, in even the smallest way, to find solace, or escape, from their uniformly miserable existences. Moshfegh’s is a hopeless world, the stories set in barren, hard-luck locales that on occasion read almost post-apocalyptically, consolation to be found only in the skewed connections between human beings. The tales told in Homesick for Another World place universal life moments we all share – first dates, break-ups, moving to a new place – underneath Moshfegh’s powerful microscope, pushing past the superficial to expose the warts, pustules, and enlarged genitalia laying just beneath the surface.
A sense of escapism trickles through each of the 14 stories in the book, a morbid romanticism that drives and consumes these characters, pushing them towards reprehensible acts in the hope that it will free them from the lives they inhabit. The titular character in “Mr. Wu”, is a lovesick, bitter drunk who writes intimidating texts to a local arcade owner, hoping it will draw her to him, only to ignore her when the chance arises. “Nothing Ever Happens Here” features a wall-eyed teen who departs his small-town life, convinced he’s the next big Hollywood star, his self-delusions bolstered by the awkward romantic advances of a fading gossip columnist. Moshfegh is at her best when she writes of dreamers, no matter how abhorrent, failing to touch the stars, but discovering the small joys of their own lives in the process.
Most of the stories here are written in the first person, allowing Moshfegh to showcase the world of her narrators through their cracked and skewed perspectives. It is here that her often stomach-turning descriptions are most powerful, as the moles and receding hairlines and picked-scabs her characters are infested with seem to trap the reader within these lives. Forcing us to find the hints of light in the very darkest depths that allow her characters, sad as they might be, to move forward.
In short story form though, Moshfegh occasionally abandons narrative pay-off, bowing down to her own seeming delight in the strange and disgusting. In Eileen, her acclaimed debut novel, she had page space to build character and plot amidst the internal and external filth, allowing the ending to organically blossom. Though the weaker stories in Homesick for Another World – “A Dark and Winding Road” or “Dancing In The Moonlight” – still sing with her visceral characters and descriptions, the shorter form forces Moshfegh to make relatively large leaps that often times strand her characters, and the reader, without adequate closure. But Moshfegh’s writing is so immersive, so hideously enjoyable, that even when she can’t stick the landing, the routine leading towards it always merits attention.
To say that Moshfegh’s stories are hopeful, inspirational even, seems a strange descriptor. She revels in pouring on the disgustingness, but in her capable hands, it only makes the characters more real, more relatable. All of us want to meet someone, all of us have dreamed of fame, just like all of us have a truly ugly, even creepy side to our thoughts, to our physicality. Yet, she even as she afflicts her characters with arms that look like “prawn claws” or a tendency to “vomit in public, just to make a scene” or a general nihilistic approach to the world as it is, she drags them from the gutter, even for just a moment, allowing them a chance to stand up just a little taller, even if they’ll surely stumble back down.