In Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story, Bettering Myself, a divorced, alcoholic teacher comes across an encyclopedia of worms in the old library of her school. She reads about all the different kinds: “Worms with two heads and worms with teeth like diamonds and worms as large as house cats, worms that sang like crickets …”.
The descriptions of those slightly grotesque, unusual worms, could serve as a useful guide for anyone who reads Moshfegh’s new collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World. Every story in it features characters who are a bit sick, a bit crazy and who are mostly at home living in the dirt.
Moshfegh has shown that she is comfortable in these dark places. Her 2016 novel, Eileen, about a young woman who works at a boys’ prison during a severe New England winter, shocked many with its attention to the vulgarities of the body and its introduction of “unlikeable” characters.
The 35-year-old American author has made it clear that she wants to do away with the whole paradigm of unlikeable characters. She wants to give readers an experience – and if being uncomfortable is part of that, then so be it. “It’s not my job to please people who can’t tolerate anything but lukewarm baths,” she told Electric Literature, a literary journal, in a 2015 interview.
Moshfegh’s collected stories share some of the darkness of Eileen but can also be hilarious and kind. Although they live in New York, California, China and rural Maine, the characters all seem to inhabit a world that is divided between the high and the low, the snobs and the poor.
The bourgeois snobs are trapped in words and ideas, miserable and confined in their own stories, habits and suffocating marriages, while the poor and the outcasts are seemingly less burdened by the monotony of everyday life, finding a kind of relief in their own drug-fuelled delusions or in binging on sodas and potato chips.
The teacher in Bettering Myself finds Zen in a McDonald’s while chugging a Diet Coke, feeling communion with a homeless person digging in the trash: “At least I wasn’t completely alone, I thought.”
Even nature is on the sickly side in Moshfegh’s stories. In The Weirdos, set in Los Angeles, a disillusioned young woman lives with her actor boyfriend in a neighbourhood where the parasite-infested palm trees “arched over the roads, buckling under the weight of their own heads, fronds skimming the concrete surfaces of buildings”. But the woman is magnetized by this ugliness, even as she grows to despise her boyfriend, who rubs his crystal skull for good luck and carves a scarab beetle out of soap to “let the aliens know that we were special”.
Moshfegh’s characters may have pimples, rashes and, in one case, a colostomy bag, but they also find elements of the sacred in mundane things.
Characters adhere to grandiose beliefs about themselves and bizarre metaphysical systems in order to cope with their place in the world, and Moshfegh describes these beliefs convincingly and beautifully.
The boyfriend in The Weirdos believes that light “streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome”.
In another story, a decrepit Hollywood agent with acrid breath constructs her worldview around a deck of cards depicting miscellaneous shapes. When she takes a guileless young actor under her wing, she reads his cards: “This game is a metaphor for life,” she says. “[T]here is always a pattern, even when things don’t make sense.”
Moshfegh’s stories hover around the question of whether it is better to avoid the world – to find comfort in delusions and stories – or to be totally immersed in it, even if that immersion is a kind of drowning. Or, in the end, if escape from loneliness and misery is even possible.
In perhaps the darkest story of the collection, A Better Place, a child copes with the loss of her father by investing in the idea that she can join him in the afterlife, either by dying herself or by “killing the right person”.
She sets her sights on the local bad man of the neighbourhood, and the chain of events that follow is as grim as one would think.
“And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth,” says the child. “There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace.”
Leah Caldwell writes for Alef Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Texas Observer.