Rating: 4 Stars
I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh last year when I read Eileen. It’s really hard to say that you love a book that tries so hard to be unloved. Eileen is one of the most unlikable protagonists that I’ve ever read. She’s resolutely unhappy and full of self loathing. Centering an entire novel around such a character and keeping you interested, if not exactly rooting for her, is a literary triumph.
Home For Another World follows along the same course. Instead of a novel, it’s around a dozen stories of bleakness. The central characters are almost invariably unattractive, whether it be their looks, their personality, or their motives. They all pick at scabs, sometimes literally. These are not people that, in the real world, anyone would root for.
Yet, in story after story, Moshfegh succeeds in pulling you into it and making you care. Beyond just making you care, there’s usually at least a line or two in each story that makes you laugh out loud, even if, after you laugh, you feel slightly guilty or uncomfortable about the laugh and wonder what that says about you.
For instance, Bettering Yourself features an alcoholic grade school teacher who screams at her students, tells them about her sex life, and obsessively calls her ex-husband until he pays her to stop.
Malibu concerns a man with pimples, a rash all over his body, and bad teeth out looking to meet a woman. His mentor giving him girl advice is his uncle on permanent disability who has a colostomy bag that he never properly cleans.
Slumming is the story of another teacher (high-school English this time) that has bought a summer house. At the end of every school year, she goes out to spend the entire summer at the house. While there, every day she gets a sandwich from the local sub shop and then walks over to the abandoned bus station, where she goes into the men’s room and buys whatever drug that is being sold that day. It changes from day to day and she never asks what it is, but somehow, magically, it is always precisely the drug that she needs at that moment.
I could go on, but I think that the point is made. In Moshfegh’s universe, you’re never going to meet a good person. You’re never going to meet anyone with unsullied motives. The happiest ending that you’ll probably get is that the person chooses to live another day.
Stylistically, her short stories owe a pretty strong debt to Carver. The characters live on the fringes of society. There is a best a minimal plot. Characters make their choices and willingly live with the consequences. You have small stories told in a minimalist style, but that punch way above their weight.
The opening stories are much stronger than the closing stories. If the quality had been maintained throughout, the collection would have entered Knockemstiff territory. Even if it doesn’t quite reach that level, still this was the strongest collection of stories that I’ve read in a while.