In “Homesick for Another World” there is retching in nearly every story. Sometimes fingers are stuck down throats. One character likes to vomit in public — he’s like the Naked Cowboy, but different — “just to make a scene.” Another hastens to the toilet and, in an expression new to me, “vomited with joy.”
Shakespeare told us, in Sonnet 118: “We sicken to shun sickness when we purge.” Moshfegh’s men and women cannot quite cope with this world. They are desperate and lonely and estranged. They want to tear the pain from their hearts, and it is less complicated to void their stomachs. Our empathy for them blends with disgust, which is nearly the definition of the grotesque in literature.
Moshfegh’s dark, confident, prickling stories are mostly about youngish men and women not so far out of college. Some are schoolteachers, some unemployed. One is a Yale graduate in debt, another a callow young actor from small-town Utah who is about to be devoured by Hollywood.
They’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and find themselves hunkering down in nowhere towns, dismal cabins, shabby apartments. Often they are recently divorced or separated. They have little money and no support systems. They are in flight from, or feuding with, parents and siblings.
Sex is not healing in Moshfegh’s world. Men sleep with prostitutes, or force their hands down women’s throats. One woman reports that in mid-act “his genitals swung in my face like a fist.” Chekhov’s dictum about guns (if one is on the wall in Act I, it must be used in Act II or III) applies in one of these stories to a newfound dildo.
Moshfegh uses ugliness as if it were an intellectual and moral Swiss Army knife. The transgressive sex in her stories can put you in mind of Mary Gaitskill. Her stories veer close to myth in a manner that can resemble fiction by the English writer Angela Carter.
There’s some Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews and Katherine Dunn in her interest in freaks and quasi-freaks. There’s a lot of pus, acne and scarring here. One woman’s genitals are so large they flop against her thighs.
Like Diane Arbus, Moshfegh lights things from below. Psychologically, you don’t see well-set dinner tables in her fiction. You see the chewed gum and crusted snot stuck to the table’s underside, the run in the hostess’s stocking.
If her work has echoes of other writers, her tone is her own. At her best, she has a wicked sort of command. Sampling her sentences is like touching a mildly electrified fence. There is a good deal of humor in “Homesick for Another World,” and the chipper tone can be unnerving. It’s like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood.
A teacher tries to convince a student that she can’t get fat from being ejaculated into. A man has a theory about how to stay fit: “It was to tense your body vigorously during everyday activities. He walked around with buttocks clenched, arms rigid, neck and face turning red.” It’s the Sean Spicer workout.
Moshfegh is a penetrating observer of class and social mores. At a hipster bar (“Joanna Newsom yodeled and harped from the speakers”), a woman stares at a bartender with a bow-tie neck tattoo and thinks: “He looked like one of those portly, nebbish types who if you shaved him and scrubbed him and dressed him in Van Heusen, you’d discover your cousin Ira, a tax attorney in Montclair.”
A few of these stories are dead ends or semi-stunts, vignettes that strain for eccentricity. More often, one by one, they click and spin like bullets in a revolver.
Moshfegh’s humans wrestle profitably with authenticity. One man thinks about his family’s small cabin in the mountains: “I loved it, or at least I thought I ought to love it — I’ve never been very clear on that distinction.”
What stays with you, at the end of “Homesick for Another World,” is less the ugliness than the loneliness and the pervasive sense of disappointment and failure. “Twenty years later,” one man thinks, “I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to somebody else.”
This same man reports an “oceanic emptiness in my gut.” Do not come to these stories if your own guts are easily stirred. I sometimes ask myself about a book: What is its most representative sentence? Here it is almost certainly this one: “My uncle emptied his colostomy bag, and then I sent that cheesecake down the toilet.”