A Review of Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfegh
By Eric Wallgren
Homesick for Another World is a collection of stories about people who are disengaged—from themselves, from their surroundings—and the far-reaching ways they seek out coping through destruction. In “Mr. Wu,” a man falls so in love with his own fantasy of a neighborhood clerk that he can’t stand to actually meet her when she agrees to go on a date with him. In “Slumming,” a teacher spends her summer breaks out on skid row, doing drugs and loathing her pretentious fuck buddy. In the final story, “A Better Place,” a little girl plots to kill a man because she and her twin brother believe that doing so will open a portal for her to go to an alternate dimension where they come from and belong.
This last story is most likely where the title of the collection comes from, but every story in Homesick for Another World is laden with the desire for escape. Some of these characters manage, in small ways, to do it, but most of them just find that the long boring life they have is the life they’re stuck with.
All of these stories seem to build around the same hollow shape: something that Charles, the jealous brother and reluctant father-to-be in “A Dark and Winding Road,” succinctly illustrates when he says: “I loved it, or at least I thought I ought to love it—I’ve never been very clear on the distinction.” In this instance, he’s talking about his family’s cabin in the woods, but it might as well be what every character in Homesick for Another World has to say about life itself. And aside from pursuing fly-by-night distractions, nobody tries to do anything to overcome this ambivalence; nor do they seem to care to.
Moshfegh also doesn’t end these stories on moments that suggest growth or change for her characters. Instead she ends them once she’s brought the exact condition of her characters’ hopelessness into focus. Like in “Bettering Myself,” an alcoholic schoolteacher receives a payment from her ex-husband to stop contacting him. She writes a letter to her principal, announcing her resignation and admitting to switching answers on her students’ exams. In the end she’s still fucked up, but not without opportunity—she could leave her job, uncover a lie, start to reconnect with herself. She plans to give her letter to the school’s priest (it’s a Catholic school), but when she gets to the church where she plans to give it to him, it’s locked. She tears up the letter, and it becomes clear that this woman has been given plenty of chances to move forward in the past; she’ll be given more in the future, and she will never take any of them. Drunk and immobile is just the way she is.
The painful—and masterful—thing about that story, as well as every story in Homesick for Another World, is that this disposition is plain to see for the reader, but the character herself is totally blind to it. This could make for a deafening ennui: reading story after story about people who are doomed to fail and won’t recognize it. But this book made me feel strangely unbothered by the idea that all of us could be doomed to fail and won’t recognize it, and that the delusions we invent to cope with our failures could just be the basis of our most honest stories.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her stories in The Paris Review and granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford.
Eric Wallgren lives in Chicago, where he plays in a band called Lamestains. His writing has appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Collapsar, Fanzine, Prelude, and a few other places. He’s online at ericwallgren.tumblr.com. Also he makes music at eric-wallgren.bandcamp.com.