HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Books, 2017
Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?
What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.
Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.
That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.
EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 2015
I didn’t love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excels at crafting female characters who are sympathetic enough to warrant investment but abhorrent enough to shatter the conception that even the most contentious of antiheroines must above all else be likable. There’s nothing sexy or pleasant or charming about our titular Eileen, and it’s a breath of fresh air. The novel follows Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old friendless young woman living in rural Massachusetts in the 1960s, working at a boys’ prison she calls Moorehead by day and caring for her cruel alcoholic father by night. She daydreams of escaping the monotony of her everyday existence, until one day the alluring Rebecca takes a position as a counselor at Moorehead and Eileen finds herself with a new fixation.
In contrast to the richly textured Eileen, her foil Rebecca is drawn rather simply, but with precision. She’s beautiful and she wears all the right clothes and says all the right things. Eileen doesn’t allow herself to consider that Rebecca is anything less than perfect or that her intentions are anything less than noble, but as these events are being narrated to us by a much older Eileen, the reader is painfully aware that certain limitations in young-Eileen’s perspective are going to lead inexorably to a tragic conclusion. But we also know that both Eileen and Rebecca make it out alive, so the question becomes how their dynamic is able to culminate in catastrophe that spares them both.
Moshfegh rises to the challenge, as the whole thing slowly builds toward a chilling and mesmerizing climax, as dark as it is unexpected. My only hangup with this novel is the repetition in its descriptions of Eileen’s home life. Maybe it’s meant to reflect the tedium that Eileen herself feels, or maybe it’s an indication that this would have worked better as a short story, as others have suggested. But still, I really enjoyed this, as both a character study and a commentary on the bizarre and contradictory ways women are socialized to view themselves and others. This is better read as a character-driven literary novel than a thriller, but even so, I was thrilled by it.
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, July 2018
This book was a weird and offbeat delight. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is exactly what its title advertises – our unnamed narrator decides that all she wants out of life is to sleep for a year straight. But not just 8 hour a night sleep – she wants to pass an entire year mostly unconscious, which she attempts to achieve with the help of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals prescribed by the least qualified psychiatrist of all time who she happened to find in the yellow pages.
I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what it is I liked so much about this book, when the interesting thing about it is that it makes no effort whatsoever to be likable. The narrator is a selfish twenty-something with no sense of responsibility toward anything or anyone in her life. The circumstances of her life are probably difficult for most readers to relate to – she’s rich, she’s thin, she’s pretty, she lives in the Upper East Side in an apartment paid for by her inheritance – and she neither needs nor wants our pity. But at the same time, this candid and frank style has its own kind of charm and dark humor (it reminded me a bit of The Idiot in tone), and I found the overall effect to be both intriguing and a bit unsettling.
And, as with all good unlikable protagonists, there’s definitely more to our narrator than she wants us to see. Her (borderline?) abusive relationship with her now dead parents certainly plays into the fact that she holds everyone – including us, including herself – at an arm’s length. She resists accessing her emotions to such an extent that at first you wonder if she might actually be heartless, but throughout the book you start to notice certain cracks in her carefully constructed facade. She tells the reader ad nauseum that she doesn’t care about her friend Reva, but this statement is occasionally belied by her actions especially under the influence of drugs. It’s an interesting look at repression as a coping mechanism, as well as the lengths we’re willing to go to to avoid the things we don’t want to face.
Ironically, while the narrator’s goal is laid out plainly from the first page – she wants to sleep for a year – Moshfegh’s agenda with this novel is much more opaque. I will gladly admit to thinking on more than one occasion “I don’t get it, I don’t get what Moghfegh is trying to achieve with this.” Because this book is just what it says on the tin: it’s about a girl taking a lot of drugs and sleeping for a year. But even through those moments of doubt, I was engrossed. Moshfegh’s prose is effortlessly engaging, and her rather unconventional exploration of mental health and ennui just really struck a chord with me. And the final page is like an emotional gut-punch. Having read this, I have a very good idea of why Ottessa Moshfegh seems to be such a polarizing writer, but if the rest of her books are this intriguing, I’m officially hooked.