Pub. Date: Jan. 17, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Group
If you enjoyed Ottessa Moshfegh’s book “Eileen,” you will enjoy her latest book, “Homesick for Another World.” If you didn’t, stay far away from this one, for it is even darker and more depraved. “Homesick” is a collection of 14 short stories. As in “Eileen” Moshfegh examines the souls of her misfit characters, each one odder, weirder, and harder to understand than the last. Characters are written with an emphasis on flaws like rashes, greasy skin, pimples, puss pockets, and fat pockets. So that sometimes it felt like I was trying to read with icky things crawling on me, causing me to want to take breaks. But I couldn’t because each character is so confusing, yet so fascinating, they had me coming back for more. Plus, I never felt that the author was mocking, shaming, or pitying her characters, but rather acknowledging that this is what real people can look like.
“Beach Boy” is one of the easiest to read, meaning there is nothing physically grotesque to turn your stomach in the story. A long-married, NYC, couple seem to have a good, if predictable life. Twice a month they meet two other couples for dinner at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. At one dinner outing, the couple talks about their last vacation with its beautiful beaches. The only problem on the island is the poverty, with natives begging, and prostituting themselves on the beaches. This made them feel very uncomfortable (not out of rich-guilt reasons but because they found them intrusive.) This married couple read like boring, straight and narrow bourgeois snobs. When returning home from their dinner, while eating popcorn and watching a movie, the wife suddenly dies. After the funeral, the husband picks up his now deceased wife’s vacation photos. It appears that his rather prudish and predictable wife might have had a sexual encounter with one of the male beach prostitutes, forcing the husband to wonder if he ever knew his wife, or their life together at all.
In “Bettering Myself” an alcoholic teacher at a Catholic school in NYC fudges her students’ answers on their state exams so they won’t fail, and so she doesn’t have to bother teaching them. Her apartment is a revolving door for sexual partners. She keeps promising herself that she will change but never does. Still, it is hard to dislike her. She tries to keep a bright (usually way off base) outlook, so she doesn’t feel so sad. While waiting on the line at a McDonald’s she sees a person outside digging alone through the trash and feels grateful to at least be surrounded by all the people in the fast food restaurant. Also, the dialogue between herself and her students is inappropriately wicked and sometimes I laughed out loud. It is that kind of dark humor that keeps you laughing in what could be a very gloomy story.
“No Place for Good People” is “Homesick’s” wittiest satire. A widower who doesn’t know how to fill up his day volunteers in a residential home for the mentally disabled. He did not care to work for his wife’s father and now enjoys working at the group home where he is appreciated. He is a caring and well-meaning volunteer, but doesn’t always think things through with the men in his charge. There are three pals who live in the home and it is one of their birthdays. He takes the home’s van and signs them out for a birthday dinner celebration. The birthday guy (who hides his playboy magazines) wants to go to Hooters. He agrees and off they go. Of course, now the reader is expecting some sort sexual disaster approaching (especially since the reader knows that his father-in-law once took him to Hooters, which read rather creepy since his father-in-law seemed to be pushing him to cheat on his wife). However, when they arrive at the destination, much to the birthday guy’s dismay, they learn that Hooters is now a Friendly’s. And somehow, this all makes him realize that his life is much better now than when his wife was alive.
The grimmest in the collection is “A Better Life.” At first, I thought I was reading a creepy fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm, or a child’s disturbing fantasy. The story begins with a child explaining that she comes from another place and that it is not a real place like on earth. She doesn’t really know what, or where she came from. The reader quickly learns that she hates everything about the earth but her brother. It is her brother who she asks for help getting back to the other place (or whatever it is?). He informs her that to return she must either die or kill the “right person.” She decides to kill the right person. It took me a bit to realize that I was not reading a fairy tale, but the thoughts of a grieving little girl whose father has died. She picks the local bad man, who may, or may not have raped her mother for the girl, and her brother are too young to have a word for “rape”. I felt my muscles tense knowing that all of this will lead to a horrifying ending.
“A Better Place” is the last in the collection. I didn’t make the connection of the title to the characters until I read this last piece. They were all homesick for another world, or a better place, and a better life. (Warning to those who judge books by their covers; the spaceship on this cover is misleading making one think that this will be a sci-fi read.) Moshfegh is an extremely talented writer. At the tender age of 31, she has already won a few awards including the PEN/Hemingway Award, and I strongly suspect she will soon be a household name. She seems to have the gift of insight when looking into human behavior that she translates into her characters. But for my own taste in reading, I hope she attempts to dabble in different genres, and maybe write a bit less about pimple popping.
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