In January 2017, Penguin Press will publish Homesick for Another World, the debut collection of stories from Ottessa Moshfegh. The author of two novels, McGlue (Fence, 2014) and Eileen (Penguin Press, 2015), the second of which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Moshfegh is a young writer whose acclaim matches her talent. Like her novels, the stories in Homesick follow characters on the margins: men and women with a warped kind of beauty in America’s ugliest settings. In McGlue, the character in question is an alcoholic sailor accused of murder. In Eileen, it’s a secretary at a boys’ detention facility. Now, with Homesick, Moshfegh further articulates and expands the worldview that her novels established, expressing hard truths rather than glossing over them.
Moshfegh currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on a new novel, about “sleep and awakenings,” she says—an exploration of the New York art world in the year leading up to 9/11. “I’ve been saying that I’m two-thirds done for eight months now,” she jokes, “so at this point I’m still drafting.” The 14 stories in Homesick—many of which appeared in The Paris Review—took her four years to write.
The ideas for Moshfegh’s stories often begin with an abstract sound, like a single musical note that then morphs into a song. Discounting Eileen, a novel that she meticulously planned, Moshfegh “doesn’t prethink anything,” and one of the joys of reading her work is following the dark corridors she creates and finding false walls that turn out to be doors. The collection’s first story, “Bettering Myself,” about an alcoholic schoolteacher, begins with the protagonist puking in a nuns’ bathroom, and ends with a beatific image of sunshine. Many of the stories that follow are built on comparable contradictions, depravities that become endearments and vice versa.
“There are a variety of characters and problems in the book,” Moshfegh says, “but the one thing the protagonists all have in common is the sense that there’s a mainstream reality, and their paradigms don’t match with that reality.” If the collection has an organizing principle, it’s that abstract tension, the juxtaposition between her characters’ perceptions and reality. Like the titular narrators in Eileen and McGlue, the protagonists in Homesick tend to perceive themselves as outsiders looking in, outcasts who yearn for a happiness that seems readily available to everyone but them. This pining is what unites lovelorn arcade patrons in China (“Mr. Wu”) and bereft widows on the Upper West Side (“The Beach Boy”). It’s the self-revealing journey to an unreachable place.
Moshfegh doesn’t pity her characters. “I love my characters, but I don’t like them,” she says. “I don’t love them like family. I love them like spirits that haunt me. They’re just there, and I have to accept them.” Moshfegh views many of her characters as comic figures, especially those whom she hadn’t intended to be comedic. In “No Place for Good People,” one of Homesick’s funniest stories, a well-meaning volunteer for the mentally disabled attempts to take his charges to Hooters, only to discover that the location has been rebranded as a Friendly’s. The mordant wit recalls the films of Todd Solondz, and not a single story in the collection is without it.
Though Moshfegh harbors concerns that she’s written “a book about white people” (she is half Croatian, half Iranian), Homesick features a multitude of voices that cross class and gender lines. “The Surrogate” follows a white woman who poses as an Asian company’s vice president to appease American investors, and “The Weirdos” details a contentious relationship between an apathetic Los Angeles woman and a struggling actor with an affinity for crystal skulls. The deeply ethical narrator of “No Place for Good People” barely resembles the fatalistic recreational drug user in “Slumming,” but their exploits and voices are equally memorable, unmistakable parts of the moral universe that Moshfegh has constructed. Each story functions as a refutation of that deeply American narrative of “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” which Moshfegh calls “horseshit, and really dangerous.”
The biggest departure in Homesick—stylistically if not thematically—may be the last story, “A Better Place.” It concerns a young girl whose brother convinces her that if she kills the right person, she can return to the “other place” that she “misses so much.” Moshfegh recalls that the story’s writing felt like dictation, like “it was already formed inside me.” The final version reflects the story’s composition—it unfurls with the kinked logic of a dream that borders on nightmare. Moshfegh was thrilled when she finished it, she says, but also confused: “Finishing something, anything, is so strange. It’s celebratory and also—death. It’s not really mine anymore.”
As she nears completion of her new novel, Moshfegh has been thinking a lot about the end of the story collection, as well as the implications of the success of her work. The weeks leading up to the Man Booker were particularly strange, forcing her to look back to Eileen instead of forward to Homesick. “It’s funny having a conversation that you thought was over, because it’s not the same conversation anymore,” she says. Moshfegh was stunned by the debates that Eileen gave rise to, including discussions about women’s issues and the thriller tag. She thought that she was just creating an interesting character. “Why would anyone be challenged?” she says.
Otherwise, the impact of success on Moshfegh seems overwhelmingly positive. She feels the acclaim that Eileen and McGlue received has enabled her to expand the scope and vision of her fiction, and made her less conservative with the issues she’s willing to take on. “In general, it just feels absolutely fantastic,” she says. “Not because I have the validation of a bunch of strangers, but because I know my work is resonating, and it kind of resonates back to me.”
As a teenager, Moshfegh traveled to visit her grandparents in Zagreb, Croatia, where her uncle also lived. One day, for reasons she understood later, Moshfegh’s uncle took her on a bus ride to a cemetery high on top of a mountain. “And on the way back, he gets on the bus, turns to me, and says, ‘You see that path there? Walk down it.’ And he just left me there.” Moshfegh remembers feeling betrayed and abused, furiously planning what she’d say to her uncle as she wound down the dirt path through the forest to the city.
“Then I started looking around,” Moshfegh says. “And I thought, well, that tree is really beautiful. This is actually amazing. And when I got home I was exhausted, and I didn’t even mention it to my uncle.” She likens the experience to the creative challenge, but it’s also an apt metaphor for her fiction. Her stories and novels exhaust in a way that purifies, haunting their readers with welcome spirits. “It’s like taking a bus to the top of a mountain, and having to walk the path back down,” Moshfegh says. “You have to do it. How are you going to do it? What are you going to discover?”
Carmen Petaccio reviews literary fiction for Publishers Weekly. He lives in Austin, Tex.