Recent fiction seems to be fed up with the classic pattern of beginning-middle-end, where characters develop and solutions emerge. Anyone who has spent any considerable amount of time living as a human being knows that this structure by no means applies to real life.
Not everything happens ‘for a reason’: sometimes misfortune strikes at random, only to test our patience, it seems. Recent fiction is gradually dropping the filters, exposing life in all of its tattered glory.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World illuminates the dark aspects of contemporary life with riveting audacity. Her characters are lonely, frustrated, deluded, confused and self-destructive. Their stories take place in run-down, modern working-class towns and greasy fast food restaurants. Each story represents a glimpse into their miserable day-to-day existence, which ends as abruptly as it begins, with no resolution in sight.
As we read on, we are ready to delve deeper into the shameful aspects of human existence
The characteristic simplicity of Moshfegh’s writing style is extremely effective in evoking confessional honesty. Her focused, eloquent descriptions that only crop up when needed, as well as her interest in the unspoken, grotesque aspects of human life leave the reader wanting more. As we read on, we are ready to delve deeper into the shameful aspects of human existence. We crave to know how worse it can get.
And this is exactly what ‘Mr Wu’ delivers. In a way, ‘Mr Wu’ is the story none of us want to know: we have all come across this one middle-aged, socially-awkward, appalling-looking man, characterized by weird habits and shady behaviour, and we’ve tried to avoid him as much as we could. A simple glance at him is enough to trigger goose bumps, which is why we turn the other way and pretend he’s not there. If some alien entity offered us insight into his thoughts, we would graciously refuse.
And yet, we devour this story with intrigue: the more it repulses us, the more we want to read. Ironically, this is exactly what the story is about: Mr Wu finds himself enjoying the same activities he is repulsed by, while we are enjoying being repulsed by Mr Wu. It’s inexplicable, it’s uncomfortable, it’s weird, and yet it’s part of human nature. Moshfegh does an excellent job drawing the reader’s attention to this phenomenon, by entrapping us into similar positions with those of her unfortunate characters.
The characters’ hidden struggles remind us of our own darkest secrets, those torturing us with the illusion that we are the ‘only ones’
Moshfegh’s stories narrate the thoughts we try to suppress: human bodies can be disgusting. Our relatives can be disgusting. We can be disgusting. It is a bold move to openly discuss these topics, and Moshfegh manages to do it in a way that works.
Of course, some stories are arguably better than others. Since they deviate so much from one another, with radically different characters and writing styles, we never know what to expect. And that is what makes each page of the collection so exciting.
The characters’ hidden struggles remind us of our own darkest secrets, those torturing us with the illusion that we are the ‘only ones’. This, I think, is the message the collection is trying to convey, if there is any message at all: ‘Hey! You’re not alone! Life’s a pain, and we are all miserable, unlucky and gross!’.
But besides that, there is no real lesson to be learned. Homesick for Another World acts as a mirror under harsh light, inviting us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, at the way we truly are.
The title could not be more fitting: the characters yearn for an escape
The collection effectively draws our attention to the peculiar balance of the familiar and the alien in our lives, characterized by an appreciation of the trashy, working class town landscape, and the promise of magic amongst the mundane, a touch of the supernatural within the human. The title could not be more fitting: the characters yearn for an escape, in nature, in a rooftop, in a potential partner, in magic, in death, in an exotic location.
Yet there is no salvation, no relief. It’s an ode to frustration, to the gross, to the dark side of being human.