Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick For Another World, (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), 304 pp.
This collection of short stories rides quickly off the back of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Booker Prize listed novel Eileen. Many of the stories within her new book share some thematic or tonal DNA and architecture with that novel, if not being quite as generically inclined in terms of plot and story-arc. But short stories are different entities to novels, the form asks and provokes the writer to leave situations and set-ups ambiguous and unresolved as happens quite often in the superb, often blackly hilarious and dark stories Moshfegh has put together in this collection. It is testament to Moshfegh’s story-telling ability and building of character in a relatively confined space that these stories often stop before you want them to in spite of their raw and sometimes disturbing subject matter, a quality often indicative of a considered writerly imagination, and this certainly applies here. The same can often be said with cinema and Moshfegh’s writing is visually attuned. Take this passage from ‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’, a story detailing the relationship between an out of work actor and his landlady Mrs Honigbaum:
Those first few months in Los Angeles, I lived off powdered cinnamon doughnuts and orange soda, fries from Astro burger, and occasional joints rolled with stale weed my stepfather had given me back in Utah as a graduation present. Most days I took the bus around Hollywood, listening to the Eagles in my walkman and imagining what life was like up in the hills. I’d walk up Rossmore, which turned into Vine once you hit Hollywood, and then I’d get on a crosstown local down Santa Monica Boulevard. I liked to sit with all the young kids in school uniforms, the teenage runaways in rags and leather jackets, the crazies, the drunks, housekeepers with their romance novels, old men with their spittle, whores with their hairspray. This was miraculous to me. I’d never seen people like that before.
The film rights for Eileen have already been optioned, easy to see why, and easy to see how Moshfegh’s style from passages such as this, in the right director’s hands, could translate well to screen. She writes her main characters and bit-part players exceptionally well.
The characters in that story are lying to themselves. Most of Moshfegh’s characters are lying to themselves in some way. In fact she has assembled, as the title of one of the stories, ‘The Weirdos’, has it, a broad and distinct cast of these tinted by delusion and the fictions they create in their own minds. Many of the characters have the feel of being out of sync, out of time, the dregs of contemporary America. Plenty of them come with a good deal of self-obsession.
‘The Weirdos’ details the dysfunctional relationship (mostly confined to their apartment complex) between a girl and her evidently psychologically disturbed, aspiring-actor boyfriend (the owner of the apartments). This is a sometimes aggressive, unpredictable guy whom she doesn’t even like, yet somehow can’t leave and who is obsessed with his crystal skull which for him holds runic properties:
He’d called to say that he was staying out late to watch the lunar eclipse, and that he forgave me for touching his crystal skull and that he loved me so much and knew that when we were both dead we’d meet on a long river of light and there’d be slaves to row us in a golden boat to outer space and feed us grapes and rub our feet.
The reader is left wondering who exactly is weird and who isn’t. Well, everybody and nobody perhaps. Flip that around and ask also who is normal, what is normal? Is it this couple who become progressively more obsessed with the idea of shooting gangs of Egyptian crows/pigeons (it’s never decided) that hang around the outside of the building and defecate on it and them, to the point where the boyfriend purchases a shotgun. Or is it another bog-standard middle-American seeming couple who move into another apartment around halfway through the story apparently because it’s the equinox, and that’s the best time to move anywhere.
There is something menacing, violent brewing away under the surface of Moshfegh’s narratives, what that is exactly is left undefined but it’s palpable and bothers you. It’s perhaps a barely restrained masculine aggression, a frustration that might be unleashed on the female characters or might end up in a series of pathetic but inevitable male nervous breakdowns where the women are left to mop up. Moshfegh often attaches a sort of pseudo-mystical, possibly redemptive or lifting power to her females.
Ok, so perhaps labeling characters as ‘weirdos’ is oversimplification but as one meets them there is a natural inclination to be at once repulsed and fascinated by their distinctive oddities and foibles.
Moshfegh deals in an inappropriate, borderline sick, and often very funny – always first person – narrative line. A good example is the story ‘No Place for Good People’, recounting the protagonist Larry’s time as a ‘daytime companion’ at a care facility for ‘moderately’ mentally challenged individuals. In the midst of a scene where the protagonist is driving a couple of his charges from the home on an excursion to a local Hooters we have a classic deadpan line: ‘I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded.’ But this immediately melds into a nice passage of character and world building: ‘When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.’
The collection’s cover blurb mentions Flannery O’Connor as a potential influence or stylistic compatriot, but Moshfegh’s fictions displaying such (partly childish on behalf of her characters) contempt for the world are as much a product of late-90s and noughties adolescent goth as they are Southern Gothic, not that this literary comparison doesn’t ring true. The grotesquerie of Moshfegh’s characters, the quackery, the dilapidated, grubby, inhospitable settings and backdrops, and the tangible sense of disaffection and thinly veiled disgust in the stories might be products of an imaginative amalgam of both types.
In an interview with Vanity Fair Moshfegh mentions that if the literary world was high school she would be part of the goth crowd. Maybe this is a throwaway remark, so without getting into a prolonged debate here about the origins of modern goth subculture, its strands and its acceptable historical antecedents, Moshfegh is definitely tapping a vein that drips something distinctively affected by modern (via mid-century) American goth. This phenomenon has manifested itself in relatively recent times in a cultural figure like Marilyn Manson and the media furor around his alter ego and controversial lyrical content. It has also been – rightly or wrongly – implicated in a terrible event in the shape of the Columbine massacre and its perpetrator’s (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris) so-called trench coat mafia.
Not that any of Moshfegh’s characters are potential mass murderers or musical iconoclasts in waiting, but they are certainly disturbed, simmering away in a low-key manner, part of that resentful, hard-done-by modern gothic American psyche, and their disenfranchisement might manifest itself in either acts of dissenting creativity or dissenting carnage, the final extreme of the boldly grubby frustration [greasy too – the image of men eating chips from the bag recurs several times in different stories] demonstrated by the people we meet in Moshfegh’s fictions.
Both would be expressions of hopelessness or disdain depending on attitude and chosen path. Moshfegh, born in 1981, is of the right age for such a cultural climate to have had a reasonably formative influence on her thinking and many of her characters feel on the edge of something, at breaking point, ready to unleash or come apart. Take the characters who get hold of the shotgun in ‘The Weirdos’, you feel things could go one of several ways through both of their obsession with that gun. The story ends without any reveal but with the boyfriend becoming more embroiled in violence and seediness.
Speaking of that in the briefest story in the collection called ‘The Locked Room’ following a brief episode in the lives of two teen protégé musicians, the character Takashi is described as follows: ‘Takashi dressed in long black rags, ripped fishnet stockings, and big black boots with long, loose laces that splatted on the floor when he walked. He smelled strongly of old sweat and cigarette smoke, and his face was scabbed from tearing pimples open and squeezing the pus out with dirty chewed-up fingernails.’ This passage highlights Moshfegh’s enthusiasm in bodily functions and gross-out moments. The character displays a healthy nihilism, distaste, perhaps a superiority complex over the life he has been given and the world he inhabits.
Accidentally locked in the titular room with his girlfriend and trying to devise a way to escape the following exchange occurs between them: ‘I tried to explain the idea of mind over matter to Takashi. “If you believe something really and truly it becomes reality,” I said. “Don’t you think?” “I believe in death,” was Takashi’s reply.’
Takashi’s physical aggression, unlike that of the principal male character in ‘The Weirdos’, is directed towards himself as a self-harmer, but this is not the case with his ideas about the world. His comment, part impassive aside, part deadly serious life philosophy can be applied to many of the stories in this collection as a sort of modus operandi where characters are experiencing cultural deaths or personal bereavement. These are stories that are undeniably warped but distinctive and hugely engaging.