Empathy and brutality in a squalid world
We’re foul and fallen beasts, broken in body and brain, and the fiction of Ottessa Moshfegh provides our age with a defining act of portraiture. Her writing blooms with physical deformity — foul scents, rotting teeth, misshapen bodies — and the kind of delusions and daydreams that conspire to keep the heart a lonely hunter.
But what in lesser hands may operate as a gawking cruelty registers here as empathy: a doctor telling no lies to a sick patient who has convinced themselves of health. As one of the narrators puts it, judging a similarly addled family member: “I’m not saying he was an idiot. He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristic some smart people have.”
That combination of self-loathing and selfregard is the American writer’s register. Of the 14 stories in Homesick for Another World, 11 employ a variation of the same voice: call it the first-person blustery melancholic. While some fiction writers use the short form as a kind of laboratory for experiments in perspective and tone, Moshfegh narrows her focus, seeking nu- ances within established forms. While reserving the freedom of the third person for certain stories — tellingly, all involving older men horrifically misjudging women — the dominant style here is intimate and slightly broken.
The tone is set immediately in the outstanding first story, Bettering Myself. Detailing the daily routine of a divorced alcoholic high school teacher, it’s a showcase for many of Moshfegh’s tics and tropes: the near-epiphany ending, the casual vulgarity, the strategically tamped-down sorrow.
The voice aims to shock, hoping to avoid despair. (“Most people have had anal sex,” I told them. “Don’t look so surprised.”) The tension between the visible ruin of a protagonist’s life and the nonchalance they feign in describing that life is the real drama, and a potentially unresolvable one.
Similar woes beset the figures in Slumming and A Dark and Winding Road. On first glance the kind of compactly anomic stories often featured in The New Yorker (a regular publisher of Moshfegh’s work), they quickly darken beyond initial expectations.
In the first, an educated middle-aged woman spends her holidays among the hopelessly poor and drug addicted. Self-aware enough to consider herself alien in these surroundings, yet lacking the resolve to shape this knowledge into a better life, she shares a fatal flaw of many in this collection: clarity of vision doesn’t save them but allows them only a more exacting anatomy of their failures.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonists view themselves and the world with dispassion