Ottessa Moshfegh is arguably the most grotesque and gruesome of popular contemporary writers. Her stories are cringe-worthy, creepy and sometimes downright upsetting, but told in biting, bold and luminous prose. The juxtaposition between the stomach-turning content and the beautiful writing makes her work all the more intriguing, and her short story collection Homesick For Another World is no exception.
Last year Moshfegh released her second novel, titled My Year of Rest and Relaxation, to wide critical acclaim and commercial success. The book, which tells the story of a young woman who hates the world so much that she decides to sleep for a year, rung true with an audience of young, disillusioned women who could oddly enough relate to the narrator’s plight. What stood out about the book was the contradiction between the young woman’s life – she was beautiful, had money to spare, and lived in New York City – and the bitter, apathetic lens through which she saw the world.
Many of the characters in Homesick For Another World are like this as well. They see the world as a place of darkness and solitude, and are experts in self-pity. Despite being unlikeable – and at times extremely gross or creepy – all of the characters are compelling. They are people so different from what we’re normally presented in literature that it’s almost impossible to turn away from them. Moshfegh’s stories often revolve around middle-class or lower-middle-class adults who live in squalid conditions and develop odd habits. She explores sexuality and psychology and aging, and each story is filled with a type of humour that’s both dark and extremely entertaining.
My favourite story of the bunch was Beach Boy, which begins in the latter half. A middle-aged man and his wife return from a beautiful island trip where they celebrated their anniversary. When the wife unexpectedly dies of an aneurysm, the husband uncovers some upsetting information about her that changes the way he sees their relationship. Beach Boy is one of the least grotesque stories in the book, and that alone made it feel like a bit of a reprieve – it was almost like the story was an island amidst the rest of the churning, brutal plots. But still it held true to Moshfegh’s darkness, offering insight into the lives of seemingly normal people who are actually just as deranged as the rest of us.
Another story, called A Better Place, is about two young children who believe that if they murder the right person, they’ll be transported to a mythical “better place” where their lives will be filled with wonder and excitement. The narrator, a young girl, is frightening in her intensity, and has disturbing habits like calling her mother “The Woman” and muttering to herself at the kitchen table. The sinister plot and cliff-hanger ending give A Better Place the feel of a horror story.
There are no dud stories in the bunch, although some fell more toward the periphery of what I consider interesting and consumable. A few times throughout Homesick For Another World I found myself wondering how on earth a person could come up with the freakish ideas Moshfegh seems to adept at writing about. It felt almost improper to be reading about fictional characters’ perversions, and several times while reading in public I felt I had to close the book in case someone starting reading over my shoulder. But feeling like you’re peering through someone’s window into their privates lives is exactly what Moshfegh intends. She’s simply showing us that we’re all interesting in the darkest aspects of life, even if we’ve become very good at pretending we’re not.