Dry, Black and Funny: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World”

“Razor-sharp short stories” – says a blurb by Zadie Smith on Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (2017). According to her publisher, the Boston-born, Los Angeles-based part-Iranian, part-Croatian Moshfegh (born 1981) is “one of the most gifted and exciting young writers in America”.

I learnt about her, obviously, through the novel Eileen (shortlisted for Man Booker 2016, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award). Ottessa Moshfegh is known for her outspokenness – a trait that has been interpreted as arrogance. Yet, I feel, at the end of the day, it has won/is winning her admirers and ardent readers.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (2017, Jonathan Cape)

Moshfegh’s recently published collection Homesick… is, quiet simply, “dark”. But this is a weird kind of darkness. It isn’t gothic in tone or texture; it isn’t pregnant with evil or insanity. It doesn’t consist of the mysterious, sensuous, temptation-filled shadows of tales like Dracula and Jane EyreAlso, this darkness is quite unlike the decay and disintegration – psychological or physical – communicated in the movies of Darren Aronofsky – through addiction (Requiem for a Dream) and obsession (Black Swan). Furthermore, there is no Kafkaesque angst or Hitchcockian suspense.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (2017, Penguin)

Moshfegh’s voice is her own. Her style is black because it too straightforwardly speaks of folly and frustrated ambitions. The collection is populated by young divorcées and old widowers and aspiring actors – figures who are looking for some kind of connection and advancement. The writer allows them to set goals for themselves, then makes them blow everything up or drift away in idiotic delusions. The stories are plain and realistic; unsettling mirrors to the reader. But, oddly, they manage to soothe and entertain. They somehow tell us we are not alone in our ugliness and insecurities.

Here are two very dry, funny, totally non-dramatic bits that have stayed in my mind:

From “Bettering Myself”:

The waitress went away and my ex got up to use the men’s room, and when he got back he asked me to stop calling him. “No, I think I’ll keep calling,” I said. “I’ll pay you,” he said. “How much money are we talking?” He told me. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll take the deal.” Our food came. We ate in silence. And then I couldn’t eat anymore. I got up. I didn’t say anything. I went home.

From “Nothing Ever Happens Here”:

Nothing ever happened under the covers of Mrs. Honigbaum’s bed, but from then on, each night before I fell asleep, she recited some prayers in Hebrew and put her hands on my face and shoulders. Whatever spells she cast, they didn’t work. Neither of us was very surprised.

Check out these two write-ups to learn more about Ottessa Moshfegh: “Ottessa Moshfegh Discusses Homesick for Another World” (English Kills Review) and “Finding Meaning in Going Nowhere” (The Atlantic).

And here’s an interesting video from Vintage: