Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen was the book that got all our attention (fwiw, I was very impressed, though I do, reluctantly, concede that the ending was a let-down) but it wasn’t her first book: McGlue, Moshfegh’s debut novel, won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose in 2014 and was published by a small indie in the USA; we haven’t read it (oops) and it hasn’t had much press (at least not in the UK), but what we’re getting at is that this new collection, Homesick for Another World, isn’t some cobbled-together sophomore effort cashing in on Eileen’s success, but is, in fact, the work of a writer who’s been slogging away for years and racking up some serious credits (The Paris Review, Granta, The New Yorker – you know, all the little magazines).
So! It’s a pretty hefty collection, centred on a crew of loners, misanthropes, freaks and creeps (so far, so good). Moshfegh deals thoroughly in the grotesque – her characters could be direct descendants of Flannery O’Connor’s Francis Marion Tarwater – and in the hopeless; her stories home in on often unpleasant folk doing badly and she carefully unveils their final ignominies. They’re funny stories, very sharply observed, and unflinching: my favourite, probably, was, ‘An Honest Woman’, starring Jeb, a horrid aging peeping Tom who sets his sights on the newly single woman (a ‘girl’ in her ‘early thirties’) next door, and who’s thwarted, laughed at and dismissed by that ‘girl’ in a set-piece that gleefully refuses to comply with the traditional outcomes of the gender war.
The collection could be split relatively neatly into two halves: in the first, we’ve got The Worst of the Worst – awful people being awful without redemption or hope, and failures doomed to continue to fail. In ‘Bettering Myself’, an alcoholic teacher dates a loser, stalks her ex, and fails to quit her job – her life isn’t quite at rock bottom, but it’s not far off, and her misery seems inexorable as she exercises only minimal, and futile, levels of control over her circumstances. In ‘Mr Wu’, the eponymous character is fixates upon a woman who works in his local games arcade: he’s pitiful (his rehearsed conversations with her are painful to recall) but any time he might redeem himself, he messes it all up (‘He tried not to pay attention to her disarray. Once she was his he could dress her any way he liked.’). Wu’s obsessiveness is repulsive, whilst also both pitiful and pitiable, and his story is indicative of Moshfegh’s strengths: a grim and gleeful attention to telling detail combined with a high dosage of very dark comedy. Her grotesques are horrifyingly recognisable (and very contemporary to their respective times): the boyfriend in ‘The Wierdos’, in his violent, peculiar passions and his domineering pettiness, is both utterly credible and too awful to observe. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’ we see a man ditching his wife to hide out in his family’s old cabin; the theme of self-debasement here is a recurrent theme in the book, as Moshfegh’s characters sink deeper towards their fates.
By the time we hit the halfway point, more or less, and get to ‘Slumming’ (a teacher spends her summers in a shit town, getting wasted, feeling superior to the locals, and then fails to help a bleeding pregnant teenager who she’s just hired to clean her house), the onslaught of dreadful folk being dreadful is almost too much – but it’s at this point that Moshfegh gives us relief: the second half is imbued with the tenderness and suggestion of hope or rebellion that the first half almost quenched. From the resistant ‘girl’ of ‘An Honest Woman’ to the unexpectedly sweet bond between the wannabe actor and his idiosyncratic old landlady in ‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’, and the unexpected and generous kindness and love between all three main characters in ‘The Surrogate’ (which I did not at predict from the set-up), the latter part of the book slowly pushes us back from the pessimistic brink induced in the first part. It’s not all brilliant – the ending of ‘The Beach Boy’ undercut the poignancy and sincerity of the build-up, and some pieces (‘Dancing in the Moonlight’) are let down by relatively weak plots – but it’s a long collection, as these things go, and the low points are few and far between. The final story, ‘A Better Place’, is something of an anomaly: it’s about siblings and parents, grief and coping and desperation, and it reads like Kelly Link doing Shirley Jackson – it’s a stylistic mismatch, in some ways, from the rest of the book, but’s full of raw pain and makes for a really powerful sign-off.
Any Cop?: Although at times Moshfegh’s glorying in the grotesque verges on the gratuitous, it never quite crosses that line; the second half of the collection provides enough tenderness and glimpses of love to balance it all out. If you like Flannery O’Connor, or maybe John Kennedy Toole, you’ll get on very well here. Moshfegh’s publishers are gearing up for her 2018 release, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and we’ll be getting our orders in pronto.