The Bad and the Ugly

Homesick for Another World BY Ottessa Moshfegh . Penguin Press. HARDCOVER. 26.

The cover of Homesick for Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh always wants you to know when one of her characters is ugly, outside or in. The unnamed narrator of "Malibu," one of the stories in her first collection, Homesick for Another World, fixates on his pimples and demands money from his sick uncle, who has to wear a colostomy bag. "I still had the rash," he says at one point. "There was nothing I could do about it before my date that night with Terri. I lay on my bed and reached down to the floor and picked little crumbs and hairs out of the carpet." Terri, his blind date, turns out to be fat. "Her chest was large but looked like it would just sag and splay all over the place if it wasn't hoisted up into a bra." He imagines climbing on top of her will feel "like resting on a water bed." In "Nothing Ever Happens Here," a young man from Utah is traveling by bus to LA, where he hopes to become a star, when a fat man sits next to him: "I watched him pick out the little crumbs from the folds of his crotch and lick his hands." (Crumbs are everywhere in Moshfegh's world.)

In graceful sentences, Moshfegh lingers on tiny instances of the grotesque. (The effect can be unnerving. She once said of her own writing: "It's like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.") As well as being unattractive, her characters are often narcissistic, unkind, and plagued by strange preoccupations. There is Mr. Wu, a bachelor in a small Chinese town who's obsessed with the woman who works at the local arcade. After going to great lengths to get her phone number, he agonizes over what to text her and then opts for a cruel attack: "How does it feel to be a middle-aged divorcée living with your retarded nephew and working in a computer café? Is it everything you ever dreamed?" And there is the teacher in "Slumming," one of the collection's stronger stories, who spends her summers getting high in a decaying rural town full of poor people she views as beneath her. She allows a heavily pregnant local teen to miscarry while cleaning her house: As she works, the girl's huge belly prevents her from seeing "the bloodstain widening down her thighs"; the teacher watches, calmly reading a magazine. There is also the Upper West Side widower in "The Beach Boy" who, when his wife of three tranquil decades dies, discovers she may have slept with a male prostitute on the island where they took an anniversary trip; suddenly enraged over the years wasted on her "petty desires" and smug friends, he returns to the island, hoping to wreak revenge by sleeping with one of the beach boys himself.

Often Moshfegh's characters are fixated on another person, with desire or with hatred—as if they're looking for someone to blame. Always they are mournful, angry, and driven by a sense that they have not received everything they deserve. (Although most don't seem particularly surprised by the shoddiness of their lot. As the narrator of "Malibu" imagines writing in a book of advice for other men, "If you want something and can't have it, want something else. Want what you deserve. You'll probably get it.") A lesser writer might try to soften or redeem these characters, but Moshfegh is more interested in examining the contours of their disappointment, tracing where the shadows fall on unsatisfying lives.

Homesick for Another World is Moshfegh's first book since the success of her 2015 novel, Eileen, a psychological noir about an unloved young woman. Eileen also takes a hard look at the suffocating, revolting parts of life. Like several of the protagonists in Homesick, Eileen is bulimic, and she too has a dangerous fascination with another character, a redhead named Rebecca. But Eileen is a thriller, written, Moshfegh has claimed in interviews, as an experiment to see whether she could produce a best seller. By imposing the framework of a "spiffy noir package" on her material, Moshfegh was able to bend the darkness of her characters' inner lives toward the inevitable crimes they would commit, giving the book a more familiar kind of allure. The stories in Homesick have no such exterior catalyst; the action seems to take place mostly within the characters' minds, and many of the stories barely even make it out of the protagonist's apartment. The effect can be airless, repetitive, claustrophobic—these people are stuck in their unpromising situations and we, as readers, are trapped in there with them. It's as if Moshfegh were keen to see how much misery we can take.

Our tolerance may be higher than we expect. We can't look away from Moshfegh's characters, just as we can't look away from a car wreck, or a stranger picking his nose in public. Moshfegh makes her readers voyeuristically complicit in her depictions of poverty, compulsion, and physical decay. At the same time, she dares us to identify with these characters in their petty vanities and indulgences. She reminds us that other people don't have the monopoly on what is ugly, selfish, or pathetic, and she does so in part by revealing the occasional glimpse of some perspective outside the narrators' fixations. At one point in "Slumming," the callous teacher finds herself at a yard sale and buys a lamp from a fat woman sitting on a piano bench in the shade. "She was probably around my age, but she looked like a woman with a hundred years of suffering behind her," the teacher thinks. "No love, no transformations, no joy, just junk food and bad television, ugly, mean-spirited men creaking in and out of stuffy rooms to take advantage of her womb and impassive heft." In her arrogance, the protagonist can't imagine the other woman's life involving any dignity, self-respect, or happiness. Walking away from the yard sale, though, she remembers that the woman can look back at her, too: "'Rich bitch,' I imagined [her] to be thinking as she plunked her sucker back into her mouth."

So much depends on where you're watching from. When John, the depressed widower in "The Beach Boy," finally has to leave his apartment after his wife's death, he doesn't bother to change out of his pajamas. "He didn't care if people thought he looked forlorn or deranged," Moshfegh writes. "Let them judge. Let them entertain themselves with their stories."

Moira Donegan is a writer living in New York.