"Homesick for Another World" (Penguin Press), by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh's story collection, "Homesick for Another World," couldn't come at a better time.
Notions of class and power are in an unpredictable flux. A new elite rises, flipping the deck into the air. Nobody knows where the cards will land.
So here comes Moshfegh, whose imaginative writing about train-wreck characters, rich and poor, adheres to a relentlessly dim worldview where a divided America comes together in the muck. You'd better not be hoping for the best for these folks because you'll be disappointed.
In these stories, Moshfegh's most educated characters long to merge with a world of baseness and vulgarity. It's not because they're searching for "shabby chic" furnishings for their psyches; they want to make a sacrament of renouncing their elitism.
In "Slumming," a divorced high school teacher spends her summers in a poverty-stricken town where she can buy drugs from a dealer in a bus depot "as if I were some pilgrim approaching a saint." In "Dancing in the Moonlight," Nick, a 33-year-old, Yale-educated Brooklyn resident, risks everything to win over a bleached blonde who once looked at him with revulsion. "I had to marry her," Nick thinks. "If I couldn't, I would kill myself."
The characters are echoes of the Harvard grad, Rebecca, in Moshfegh's 2015 novel "Eileen," who also crosses class barriers following her compulsion to fuse with the dark and defective.
In an interview with Vice — where Moshfegh has published some of these stories (along with The Paris Review) — the author said her writing "lets people scrape up against their own depravity." Moshfegh's downwardly mobile men scratch at pimples and scabs with clammy hands. Her women have yellow teeth, chipped nails and swollen body parts.
These externalities mirror their barely hidden fetishes, eating disorders and addictions. They work at jobs they hate, fall in love with people they find disgusting and explode with joy over doomed schemes for getting ahead.
The worst stories feel exploitative of these imagined lives. Turning the page can be like looking under a rock, or peeling off a bandage, to see what's underneath. The reader squirms, and then moves on.
The best stories in the collection, however, contain memorable, conflicting images of squalor and beauty, chaos and pattern. In "Nothing Ever Happens Here," an aspiring actor from a small town is offered a life-changing inspiration from his Los Angeles landlady. She tries to teach him how to stand out from the Hollywood pack. "Point out the hidden pattern. Find meaning in the mess," she tells him. "People will kiss your feet."
Feet kissing, or the desire to have one's feet kissed, is what's turning the gears in Moshfegh's worlds. If the metaphorical feet stink, that's disconcerting perhaps. But feet can stink, so it shouldn't be too surprising.