It was 2015. I was unemployed and living at my parents’ house. My brother had just separated from his wife and moved back into his old room. He had health problems, ate two steaks for breakfast and spent the hours of the morning lying face down in the living room with Christian sermons playing on the stereo.
I was doing my own weird shit, mainly going to rehabilitative Pilates with stroke victims and hating my life. I was slowly weaning myself off muscle relaxants and read New Age self-help books I torrented onto my computer. I didn’t really do anything yet each day my diary entry was seven pages long. That summer I filled three journals but I can’t even tell what they’re about. I wasn’t really in the kind of place to be communicating with anyone, but it was in that summer I wrote Ottessa Moshfegh a letter.
I was the same age as Eileen, the narrator in Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, and though our situations were nothing alike—I did not work at a prison for children, my father’s no alcoholic—I found the age portentous. I, like Eileen, wanted desperately, in fact violently, to escape my life.
I said this in the letter, or I think I did; I no longer have a copy. I showed it to my boyfriend before I sent it. He said it read like a Tumblr post. He found it insulting and presumptuous – to her, but also to him. He asked if there was anything in my life I was happy for. I was silent. Within two months I no longer had a boyfriend. At the time, I told him I would burn the letter but I didn’t.
I sent it to Ottessa Moshfegh.
Moshfegh’s emergence, her range, narrative control, line-by-line precision and fuck-it approach to modern publishing—asked why she wrote a novel she’s replied “to buy sandwiches,” “to shit out new shit”—doesn’t really match up with the image of a marketable young writer. If there’s a Kool-Aid Moshfegh hasn’t drunk it, or at least she’s spiked it first.
In her mid-thirties, Moshfegh’s biography includes attending a Gordon Lish workshop at age seventeen, and being published almost a decade and a half ago in one of the first issues of Diane William’s cult-followed journal, NOON. In her twenties she co-owned a bar in Wuhan, China. She’s lived next to crack addicts and been bedridden for an entire year with cat scratch fever. She is a Stegner fellow, attended Brown’s MFA program, and in the past four years has won award after award.
She’s collected a Pushcart, an O. Henry, and the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize. Her novella, McGlue, 115 pages of the inner monologue of a strung-out nineteenth-century sailor, won the inaugural Fence Modern Prize for Prose as well as the 2014 Believer Book Award. Her debut novel Eileen, a story of addiction, repression and murder, was published mid-2015 to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker.
Commenting on the manuscript of the novel, an editor at Penguin stated that it failed to live up to the expectations of her short fiction. I’m not sure if the comment is fair but I do agree with Moshfegh’s own critique of their differences, her stories are “weirder, they’re more transgressive, they do more peculiar work, I think on the reader’s mind.” And they do. They are dark, hilarious, and beautiful. They intoxicate.
Homesick for Another World collects these stories. They follow the weirdos, the dispossessed, the dysphoric. There are failing actors, women with deadbeat boyfriends, and men who feel they are owed debts still unpaid. There’s a gay man who was a mule in a former life but a mule that had been “horribly brutalized by his master”, and a woman who’s either possessed or just has a thyroid imbalance. Their voices—of the fourteen stories only three deviate from the first person—are all distinct, yet drip with a singular kind of venom. Within a few pages of the opening story, ‘Bettering Myself’, you’ll understand what I mean:
I’d roped a few men back to my apartment and showed them all my belongings, stretched out flesh-colored tights and proposed we take turns hanging each other. Nobody lasted more than a few hours.
When I think of the act of reading an Ottessa Moshfegh story, I think of the collection’s ‘Slumming’. Every summer a divorced schoolteacher holidays in a run-down town in rural New York. It’s poor:
Picture an empty street with a broken-down car, a child’s rusty tricycle abandoned on the curb, a wrinkled old lady scratching herself while watering her dun-colored lawn, the hose twisting perversely in her tight fist.
Once every three days, the teacher walks to the bus-depot’s restroom, enters a stall, stands in front of a seated homeless man, a ‘zombie’, hands over a ten dollar bill, and is given a foil package, a little “turd of drugs” in return. She gets home, ingests what she has to ingest and then she sits there, the sun lowers, and she “let[s] [her] soul fly.”
Since 2012, whenever a new story of Moshfegh’s was published I would order the journal it appeared in and wait for it, often months at a time, in the mail. The packages would arrive at my PO box sealed in plastic. I would take a bus in to get them, ferry them back home, disconnect my phone, and then sit down, open them and flick through the pages until at last I saw her name. Like in ‘Slumming’: “Each time I got home and tried what [she’d] given me, it was always the right stuff. It was always a revelation. Never once did [she] steer me wrong.”
Of course, the effect of Moshfegh’s fiction and the drugs the zombies dispense in ‘Slumming’ isn’t the same. In the story, when the drugs wear off, the protagonist remembers “the world down below”, but Moshfegh’s short stories never shy away from that world. They’re no analgesic. They’re not for comfort or safety, and they offer no momentary oblivion either, which is all the woman in ‘Slumming’ can attempt to grasp. In some way almost all her characters attempt it too. What they yearn for most is a world that isn’t this one, a world without pain. As the little girl in ‘A Better Place’ says: “There is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace.” A twenty-page hit of Moshfegh makes us aware of this disjunction. “Drugs get flushed from our systems,” Ben Marcus writes introducing the anthology New American Stories, “but not the best stories.” Moshfegh’s do something to our souls.
Her characters are all outliers but not enough for solace, not enough for us to fully other. They struggle against social constructions, repressed sexuality, “the humiliating need to make a living” – all the world’s shit and of course their own. We are all buffeted by these but some pretend they don’t exist, or that they exist in some kind of abstract. We become numb, self-conceited. To Moshfegh, the world, the illusory normal, is asleep: “whole families sitting down together, sipping on straws, sedate, mulling with their fries like broken horses at hay.” The voices of her characters are never sedate, they are the voices of those who are beginning to wake. The stories aren’t about how strange these people are, how debased, but that these people are ourselves. What discomforts us most, Moshfegh has said, is “to look in the mirror.”
This is where she’s most transgressive. Reading the stories together, I think of the Cheever journals, one entry in particular:
I suddenly think of myself as a pariah – a small and dirty fraud, a deserved outcast, a spiritual and sexual imposter, a loathsome thing. Then I take a deep breath, stand up straight, and the loathsome image falls away. I am no better and no worse than the other members of the gathering. Indeed, I am myself.
This is a kind of freedom and the stories almost always skirt it. If the novel is a political form, inherently dialogic, I’m not sure stories are, or rather they open an ambiguous space that offers the glimpse at a greater revolution, almost Blakean, one that is spiritual, the release of psychic bonds. It’s never something didactic though, the stories aren’t instructional they’re something more oracular, Pythic. Moshfegh doesn’t punish her characters or reward them. Her endings contain multiplicities. The actual events are easy to identify—a man grasps another’s ankle while half submerged in the sea, a dildo is picked up off a windowsill—but their significance is open. The ground shudders but the veil never fully tears.
Moshfegh never contacted me. She probably never read the letter. I’m relieved. Moshfegh once shared a story that while writing McGlue, she considered trying to summon the spirit of the sailor the book’s based on. She was close to the end of the novel and didn’t know how to finish it. Her psychic told her not to do it, that it was a terrible idea. Imagine if he appeared, she said, what could he say, what conceits might he destroy? I feel like Moshfegh might be the same.
A span of time has passed since and I’m different now. When the galley for Homesick for Another World arrived, I read it in a room, a room I pay for, that in the morning and dusk is bathed in light. In a moment of disappointment, I discovered there was only one story—at the time unpublished—I’d not read, but the disappointment was fleeting. I will come to the collection again and again.
Recently, sitting in a bar, a friend told me he’d bought a copy of Eileen from a window display after the announcement of the Booker shortlist. He asked me if it felt strange to have the writer I’d read for years, who was perhaps known on one side of the Pacific but not the other, all of a sudden here so widely received.
“No,” I said. “Not at all. I want everyone to read her.”
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer living in Melbourne. He is a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and was a 2016 Next Wave Writer-in-Residence.