Ottessa Moshfegh writes about people who feel almost too realistic. In her novel Eileen and in most of the short stories in her collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh offers her readers an eyeful of awful. Her characters are compulsive, addicted, selfish, and peculiar, but – they are not weird, even in the story titled “The Weirdos.” They are (unfortunately) like people you might know, or at least know as well as you might wish. But when you are intimately in their heads and in their lives via Moshfegh’s startlingly direct prose, you understand just what kind of monsters you are dealing with – or might be yourself.
Eileen seems straightforward, but requires a bit of unpacking. Eileen is a caretaker and partner for her alcoholic father. Their home is a sty, but it might be an improvement over the boy’s prison where she is a secretary. A now-aged Eileen from the present tells the story of her younger self, and leaves no unpleasant detail unmentioned. She’s going nowhere, fast. Eileen meets Rebecca at her job, and quickly finds herself headed somewhere. Rest assured their destination is not what you will expect. What starts out as a compelling, can’t-look-away portrait of ugly reality veers off the road and into uncharted, exciting territory. While Eileen is an intense novel with all the detail and involvement you expect from the form, prepare to read it in one or two sittings.
Homesick for Another World might actually last a bit longer, simply because you’ll only need to read one or two stories at a time. Grifters, cheaters, losers – the characters in these stories might hope to rise to such a level, and never succeed. But Moshfegh gives us direct access to their thoughts in prose that is gripping and so awful in its honestly that all we can do is to bark our laughter out loud. Plot summaries of the stories might be misleading. Moshfegh writes about the mundane with an intensity that feels like science fiction.
All of Moshfegh’s work derives its power from her direct prose. It almost feels as if she’s hot-wired your brain to theirs. It feels real. But there’s another side to this. Moshfegh shows us what her characters are thinking and they’re generally things that many of us only think about, and in most cases we might prefer not to. So by writing so clearly about her characters’ thoughts she successfully externalizes them.
This is not unusual – but Moshfegh’s unique skill is that what in any other novel might look and feel and actually be simple introspection is, in her work, externalization. And while there is not a whiff of genre anywhere in the vicinity, Moshfegh’s brand of externalizing introspection feels quite fantastic to read, in all senses of the word. The title story for the collection arguably has some aspects of the fantastic, but Moshfegh’s handling of them is purely her own. Which is to say, rough and ready.
Eileen and Homesick for Another World are perfect examples of books that read quick and easy, but carry a lethal load of language. Ottessa Moshfegh’s prose is captivating and intense. Pick up the books in a store and you’ll not leave without them. But it’s not quite, not quite, as if Moshfegh will make you think thoughts you’ll wish to forget. You’ll remember these books all right, when you look in the mirror and are able to see the humanity boiling in your own brain.
For all that I wrote here about how much I enjoyed her work, I suspect that it will only take a few moments of listening to her voice for readers to make up their minds. You can hear her prose voice in her speaking voice. She’s plain spoken to the point of being hilarious. The interview begins with a brief bit of chat – a minute of so of warm up that I might usually elide. It felt right, in this case, to leave it in. Then, we start with a reading from her short story “The Weirdos” – and things get strange. Follow this link to download my interview with Ottessa Moshfegh – or just hang out here with us to hear about the punk rock club in China.