Cruel Intentions: Ottessa Moshfegh’s HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD
“I come from another place…I don’t know what it is. But it certainly isn’t this place, here on Earth, with all you silly people.” - Urszula, "A Better Place"
Ottessa Moshfegh writes from another world. She wields human cruelty and hypocrisy with a kind of unapologetic swagger. Her newly published collection Homesick For Another World should leave little doubt about her talent and capabilities. The stories in this book feature ugly human behavior written in a deft and singular voice. It’s a gloomy triumph of hard truths. One of the major motifs is the relatable feeling of otherness; characters who are unsure of where they belong and how to exist in a world that doesn’t feel like home.
A spiritual homelessness populates every story, and the diseases of self-delusion and hypocrisy inhabit every character. By and large, they cannot come clean; either to themselves or the people in their lives. But they want, so desperately, to be understood. Or at the very least, to be recognized.
In “Mr. Wu,” the titular character has an infatuation with a woman working at a local arcade. He secretly gets her phone number, but can’t muster the courage to ask her out himself, so he pretends to be someone else. But it’s as close as he can get, and Mr. Wu knows this: He is too repulsive and strange to be seen by this beautiful woman. Many of these stories deal with the deception and manipulation wrought by outcasts who are unable to live within the bounds of society’s morals and expectations.
In some ways, the characters are analogous to how Moshfegh herself writes; she’s working outside the boundaries of conventional plotting and mainstream fiction. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she pleases and trusts that we’re smart enough to catch on. Her prose is chock full of panache and poetic self-assurance, and she explores the dark corners of human hearts with a cunning precision. She knows what makes us tick, curse, throw up, and lash out at one another.
The cruelty that populates these stories isn’t sadistic for its own sake—it’s born from the very human desire to find home, not knowing how to get there, and therefore using every tactic at our disposal to try, even if it means screwing other people over.
In “An Honest Woman,” Jeb, a retired, grizzled widower invites his thirty-something attractive new neighbor (referred to only as “she”) over to his home under false pretenses, with the intention of having sex with her. His attempts at seduction are creepy and come across as desperate and pathetic. But soon the narrative flips, and the young woman uses Jeb’s weaknesses to psychologically gut and emasculate him. It turns out there’s more to Jeb than just entitled misogyny, and there’s more to the woman than her sexuality and curiosity.
“Homesick” portrays men and women as more than just victim and victimizer. Though the dynamics of power in gender are not avoided, the story paints both genders as desperate people with unfulfilled voids. Moshfegh’s characters are armed, dangerous, and deeply wounded. The combination is deadly.
Thankfully, it’s not all gloom. What’s remarkable are the moments of poignancy that Moshfegh crafts into her stories that feel completely earned. Part of the beauty of these stories is how her characters don’t have come-to-Jesus moments—what they find are confrontations and a dose of the truth, even if it’s bitter.
There’s the woman in “The Surrogate” who is taken in and given a new name and job because of the kindness of an immigrant family from China. In a moment of desperation, she considers taking her own life but is saved by the memory of her surrogate family, and opens her heart to love for the first time.
The characters may not ever find home or resolution, but after they confront the hypocrisy in themselves and others, there’s a sense that they have in fact changed. That something in their realities has been altered, something that bends them toward clarity.
This is the kind of writing that welcomes the devil into the room. Only then, Moshfegh seems to be saying, can we see any sliver of light.
In the final story, “A Better Place,” Urszula, a troubled young girl, has a dream in which she meets a magician who performs sleight of hand tricks that confuse and intrigue her. This is what Ottessa Moshfegh is essentially doing with Homesick For Another World. She’s performing dark magic that disturbs, enchants, and exposes both her characters and her readers.
“You see that darkness? And you see the moonlight?” the magician in Urzsula’s dream remarks, “There isn’t one without the other.”
Seth Conover has been writing since before he could read. He's also a marketer, music maker, culture hound, and coffee drinker living in Minneapolis, MN. Seth was a student at a recent Loft class called Copywriting Intensive: Building Your Portfolio, taught by Mary Ringstad. This piece was collaboratively written for that class and The Writers' Block blog.