When reading a collection of short stories, one often discovers a bit of variance in terms of overall quality. That is, there will be a story or two or three that really sing, inspiring deep-felt and ongoing reactions, while others never quite achieve that same sort of resonance. It’s not a reflection on overall quality, per se; more like a breadth of literary impact.
Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World” (Penguin, $26) is something else entirely. This is a collection that lashes out with dexterous prose and narrative surprise. These narratives are constantly peeling back the layers of the human condition, pulling away the facades and revealing an underneath that is often unsettling and/or unpleasant. The 14 stories here are representative of an author considered by many to be among the finest writers of short fiction currently working.
“Bettering Myself” leads the collection off, introducing the reader to a broken teacher possessed of questionable motivation and even more questionable judgment. “Malibu” illustrates the self-destructive tendencies of a young woman untethered to any real sense of true want. With “No Place for Good People,” Moshfegh gives us a portrait of a man doing something seemingly altruistic for selfish reasons, maintaining an underlying sense of superiority regarding the developmentally disabled adults for whom he cares.
“Strange Woman” looks at the mindset of an older man’s developing fascination with a female neighbor that quickly devolves into a quagmire of creepy self-delusion, while “The Surrogate” is an odd tale of a young woman hired to serve as the face of a company due to the business’s Asian owner fearing discrimination on the part of potential partners. In “The Locked Room,” we bear witness to the ugliness that can spring from the unwanted acceleration of intimacy due to uncontrollable and unanticipated outside influences.
And so on and so forth.
Moshfegh’s work largely defies traditional summary; attempting to synopsize the myriad textual and subtextual facets of these stories simply cannot do them justice. Even more than most well-wrought literature, these tales transcend plot; they contain legions. The sophisticated characterization and thematic depth on display here is inescapable.
The reality is that most if not all of Moshfegh’s protagonists – one struggles to call them “heroes” – are fundamentally broken; that brokenness manifests itself in ways that range from mildly off-putting to outright disturbing.
Moshfegh is unafraid to embrace the visceral aspects of that brokenness, either – there’s a recurring grossness that is both physical and emotional. Unhygienic imagery – dirty fingernails and body odor and squeezed pustules are abundant – meshes with constantly-exposed personality flaws and creates intimate portraits that are queasily compelling despite their inherent nastiness.
Mining beauty from the unbeautiful is one of the more difficult things an artist can attempt, yet Moshfegh accomplishes the feat with ease. The readability of these stories is such that they generate a sort of car-crash compulsion – one simply cannot look away. Rendered in exquisitely scattershot prose such as this, even the darkest shadows invite our inspection. Every single one of these pieces not only scoffs at all that is the literary anodyne, but actively, almost gleefully undercuts it.
“Homesick for Another World” is challenging, confrontational work. Each one of these stories shines with a cracked-mirror bleakness that slices the reader to the emotional quick. And all 14 of Moshfegh’s final lines leave us wrung-out and strained … and eager to tackle the next one.