That sound you hear? Packs of barking dogs, screaming sirens echoing through the hallowed halls of the literary patriarchy? That’s Ottessa Moshfegh and her debut collection of stories, “Homesick for Another World” setting off the alarm. Unrepentantly ambitious female author! Unsympathetic female characters! Ghastly hygiene!
Until her 2015 novel, “Eileen,” an unlikely, eerily seductive thriller shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Moshfegh was chiefly known for her nervy short stories, which like her eponymous novel are peopled with self-obsessed, almost comically unlikable characters and buoyed by a guffawing nihilism, a sense of humor as black as a bleeding ulcer.
Although “Homesick for Another World” does not advertise itself as linked stories, there are tenuous connections: addicts zombie-stagger through the streets of small towns and the recognizable landscapes of Los Angeles and New York City, as side characters or reflections of them — the bad boyfriend, the aspiring actor, the leering neighbor — flicker on the fringe of each other’s stories.
But they are obviously related by hunger. Moshfegh’s characters, male and female alike, are hungry. Hungry to get high, to get famous, to sexually dominate a lover; hungry for respect and adulation; hungry to fill their bodies with Big Macs and liquor; and hungry for the ecstasy of emptying themselves out, purging and more. They are hungry for happiness, which in Moshfegh’s world is simply the absence of misery.
A Catholic schoolteacher narrates two of the most engaging stories. She joylessly gobbles an array of pills and powders chased with booze and is one of a cast of women who bear despicable, casually abusive men with a jaded, occasionally bemused resignation.
Moshfegh has a taste for targeting the culture’s misogyny and male privilege. Sentence to sentence she gleefully manipulates the fates of her despicable cast of entitled, sexually repressed egomaniacs. To a man, they exist in an uneasy state of irritation, if not foot-stomping rage, at not having been given what they feel they as men so richly deserve — primarily booty and the love of a good woman, which you can be assured they will justly be denied.
She has more of an affinity for her women — bad girls, alcoholics and drug addicts are closest to her heart — who have spent their lives dealing with being objectified and erased by male desire. Face to face with the overblown egos and gross inadequacies of men, women exploit their weakness and make the most of it. As the dissolute girlfriend of a whacked-out wannabe actor says in the story “The Wierdos,” “I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. … I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy.”
Moshfegh writes writes with Bukowksi-like gusto and a loving matter-of-factness about their — or rather she would say our — most base bodily functions. The ways our bodies terrorize us and the satisfaction that can be gained in seizing control. The moving of bowels, expelling of gas, expressing of pus, the burst of semen; the inordinate amount of time some of us apparently spend licking and sniffing the funky recesses of our bodies as well as random inanimate objects.
Much attention is paid to dentistry. Teeth are most often rotted, “down to stubs, like baby’s teeth.” There is an inverse relationship between the quality of teeth and how rotten one is on the inside. Those with the nicest smiles are most full of bile.
Skin is frequently wrinkled, pocked, pitted and extravagantly pimpled. These afflictions are physical manifestations of untold unfulfilled desires — and of course the toll that smoking meth, binge-drinking and bulimia takes on a body.
In a welcome twist it is the men, not the women, who suffer the most over their weight and appearance. One self-hating single man circles the fat on his body with a permanent marker.
Like the famously prickly misanthrope Flannery O’Connor, Moshfegh is obsessed with the grotesque: a woman with morbidly swollen lady parts because of a pituitary condition, a beleaguered wife has an arm “like a prawn,” a predatory old man with vitiligo, in trying to seduce his much younger neighbor, woos her saying, “In some cultures it’s considered a mark of the divine.”
Amid all this physical deformity, the most successful stories are those about characters that are ugly on the inside. Moshfegh’s flair for evisceration is best displayed when the character isn’t wearing a colostomy bag but a Hermes.
The lazy bigotry of the ugly American couple in “The Beach Boy,” their fetishizing of the young male prostitutes cruising their beach resort and the husband’s subsequent spiral into insanity at what he imagines was his late wife’s betrayal, is more fully realized and despicable than other more obvious villains. Equally unnerving is the businessman husband in “A Dark and Winding Road” who describes his encounter with his no-account little brother’s anxious meth-smoking girlfriend as being “disgusting — just as I’d always hoped it to be.”
Tempted though you might be, it’s a disservice to the book as a whole to read the stories one after the other. If you could. The sameness of the characters and locations can cause stories to blur together. Moshfegh’s insistence on focusing on the uneasy, outwardly hostile relationship the characters have with their bodies can at times feel puerile and, other times, it obscures the larger story.
Why does it matter that we are being dropped into these characters’ lives at this moment? Why does it matter that they are suffering, what does it mean to be rebuffed by a woman who physically disgusts you? Why does it matter that a mewling young man who’s come to L.A. seeking his fortune is never going to find it? More often than not what we get is voyeurism rather than insight.
Perhaps that is Moshfegh’s intention? To keep us hungry?
There is this belief that a writer, as God, has to love their characters in order to make them breathe. I’d argue that it is necessary only that the author understands them. It would be hard to make the case that Moshfegh loves all of her characters, but it’s clear that she does have an intimate knowledge of the ways they are broken. Unfortunately this is so embodied in physicality, rather than finding any expression through her characters’ emotions, that the stories don’t consistently take on the velocity you anticipate.
Of course, you don’t expect or want Mosfegh to make you feel good. She is a fearsome God. She shows the reader the same lack of compassion she shows her characters. She will not deliver a cheap epiphany — it’s beneath her, nor will she gift the reader a final moonlight-glinting-on-a-piece-of-glass image that delivers the meaning one might be yearning for. What she gives us is a pimples-and-all image, how she seems to believe we all might, in our darkest moments, see ourselves. Maybe this is the God we deserve.
Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction, “Use Me” and “Blueprints for Building Better Girls.” She is a cofounder of Tin House magazine, a former senior editor of the Paris Review and teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University.
Penguin Press: 304 pp., $26