Beware when Ottessa Moshfegh’s characters open their mouths. “When he smiled he exposed the deep rot of his clawlike teeth,” she writes of one creepy old man. “They were nearly black along the gums.” In another story, “Weirdos,” the narrator describes a woman trying to rent an apartment in her building: “She smiled broadly, revealing the worst set of teeth I’d ever seen. They were sparse and yellow and black and jagged.” Though a bit of a freak, the woman, Moon Kowalski, turns out to be wise; she gives the narrator a good-luck charm and tells her how to figure out whether to leave her (awful) boyfriend.
Teeth can also reveal a whole life, as in a brief encounter in “Slumming”: “She stuffed the bill I gave her in the pocket of her worn cotton housedress, pulled a sucker from her mouth, and smiled, showing me—not without some hostility—a lone bottom row of teeth rotted down to stubs, like a baby’s teeth. She was probably around my age, but she looked like a woman with a hundred years of suffering behind her—no love, no transformations, no joy, just junk food and bad television, ugly, mean-spirited men creaking in and out of stuffy rooms to take advantage of her womb and impassive heft.”
Sometimes bad teeth can be an impetus to perverse acts. “She had yellow, nubby teeth,” the narrator of “Malibu” says of his date Terri. “I tried to see past her teeth to the inside of her mouth.” By the end of the story he’s stuck his hand all the way down her throat.
Then there’s Moshfegh’s characters’ skin. Blotches, rashes, blackheads, acne scars — you reach for the phone to call them a dermatologist. (They seem beyond dentistry.) Homesick for Another World is Moshfegh’s first collection of stories, many of which have been appearing for years in the Paris Review (and a couple, more recently, in The New Yorker). In 2014, she published the novella McGlue: a performance piece we spend rattling around in the head of a drunken 19th-century sailor, as he tumbles about below deck in the hold of a ship returning him to Salem to be tried for murder. The novel Eileen (2015) was a more conventional thriller and a nominee for the Booker Prize. Last year she told a Guardian interviewer that she wrote Eileen using Alan Watts’s manual The 90-Day Novel with an eye to becoming no longer broke, and famous enough to sell books.
It makes mischievous sense that Moshfegh would turn to a bromide-filled manual studded with inspirational quotations from Mary Karr, Picasso, and Einstein to write a commercial book. The stories in Homesick for Another World are mostly marvels, but none of them are marvels of plot. Voice, mood, atmosphere, and the piercing detail are the native elements of her arsenal. Action is delayed, displaced, frustrated, or elided. Even her few twist endings serve more as thematic punctuation, ancillary to the substance of the story: ironic climaxes, diffusions, disintegrations.
There’s a kinship among her narrators. They’re liars. They’re lonely. Many of them drink too much and/or have drug habits. They’re in lousy relationships, or are happy to be rid of their spouses via death or divorce. The alimony could be better. So could their looks. No matter how familiar with their miseries they are, they aren’t without illusions or delusions.
But a gender gap emerges. Four stories are narrated by more or less young men and relate their chance encounters with members of the opposite sex. It’s hard not to think of these guys as douchebags. The narrator of “A Dark and Winding Road” is a married lawyer who goes to a cabin in the woods and meets “the kind of girl who works at a Store 24 or some pizza parlor or bowling alley, takes a lot of flak from patrons, eleventh-grade education.” The story trades in a traditionally gothic opening for a more contemporary goth mode; a stray dildo is involved. The narrator of “Malibu” — the one who puts his hand down his date’s throat — can’t stop telling us how good-looking he is, despite his pimples. “Nothing Ever Happens Here” is told by a clueless, Eagles-listening aspiring actor in the early 1980s who says of life in his hometown in Utah: “I’d been like a celebrity in my high school — prom king, class president. I was voted ‘most likely to succeed’ even though my grades were awful. I could have stayed in Gunnison, gotten a job at the prison, worked up the ranks, married any girl I chose, but that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted. I wanted to be a star.” The hipster in “Dancing in the Moonlight” boasts of all the expensive clothes he keeps in his $350-a-month windowless room in a Brooklyn flophouse. You can tell Moshfegh gets a kick out of filling these guys up with themselves.
There’s something a little more tender in her treatment of her woman narrators. The woman who delivers “The Surrogate” lands a job as the play-acting surrogate vice-president of a firm owned by Chinese immigrants because they want impress their clients with an executive who looks “like Christie Brinkley.” But she suffers from a pituitary disorder that causes her genitals to swell, and she never sleeps with the men she brings home. Instead she strips for them, revealing a photo of Charlie Chaplin covering her crotch. When one innocent young guy asks her who Chaplin is, she tells him, “Hitler.” It’s characteristic of the dark humor in this collection, where the disgusting and pathetic bits are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, and the characters know it as well as we do.
Throughout, Moshfegh achieves a rare balance of sympathy and contempt. As the high-school English teacher in “Slumming” says of the poor residents of Alna (“grape stains on their kids’ T-shirts, cheap dye jobs, bad teeth”), the town where she summers: “I didn’t want to have to talk to them, get to know them, or hear their stories. I preferred to keep the residents of Alna as part of its scenery.” That, despite her drug habit, is of course impossible. That’s true of this collection too, even when Moshfegh turns, as she does several times, toward sad and predatory older men. Flawless writing about people who are the sum of their flaws, whose flaws are their charms — no matter how disgusting it gets, you can’t look away.