Here’s My Freak Book

Reading Homesick for Another World isn’t unlike the experience of walking through a Diane Arbus retrospective. In Susan Sontag’s words, Arbus’s work “chooses oddity, chases it, names it, elects it, frames it, develops it, titles it.”

On Ottessa Moshfegh

Photograph by Mugley.
  • Ottessa Moshfegh. Homesick for Another World: Stories. Penguin Press, 2017.

Reading Homesick for Another World isn’t unlike the experience of walking through a Diane Arbus retrospective. In Susan Sontag’s words, Arbus’s work “chooses oddity, chases it, names it, elects it, frames it, develops it, titles it.” The same could be said of Moshfegh’s writing. Her characters have developmental disabilities, swollen genitalia, a colostomy bag, cystic acne, vitiligo. One cuts off his eyelashes and draws on a French mustache; another wears a red teddy, with pennies taped over her nipples and a photo of Charlie Chaplin’s face on her pubis.

But Moshfegh’s stories also resist the idea that you need to be visibly odd to be pathetic or pitiable. Rather than providing relief by assuring readers that the stories are normal while the characters are weird, they question the idea of normalcy. What Arbus found in circuses and the sexual underground, Moshfegh locates in schoolteachers, lawyers, neighbors, aspiring actors, part-time magazine employees, dermatologists. White-collar society is undergirded by oddness and perversity. Under Moshfegh’s gaze, ordinary bodies become strange and repulsive—fingers are “pale and swollen, like the hands of a waterlogged corpse,” genitals swing “like a fist”—and cis-gendered, heterosexual men seek to be pegged, defiled, and sexually satisfied in unusual ways.

In interviews, Moshfegh has explained that she thinks of herself as “a lurker on the edge of society,” watching and commenting on the “weird show.” If the literary world were a high school, she has said, she “would be with the goths, looking at everyone, being like Whatever.” This high-school goth sensibility permeates her writing. Last fall, she told the Guardian that she had written her debut novel, Eileen, with the explicit goal of becoming rich and famous. In her words,

there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and . . . talented: did I say that already? . . . I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.

The novel, which Moshfegh claims to have written with the help of a guide called The 90-Day Novel, is a fast-paced noir potboiler that takes place over a six-day period in 1964. Its eponymous protagonist is a 24-year-old woman who lives with her drunken, paranoid, gun-toting father in a stifling unnamed suburb of Boston and works as a secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. The narrator is a much older Eileen, now distant from but still sympathetic to “that angry little Eileen” of her past.

According to Moshfegh, and as is apparent to anyone who reads it, Eileen is about its protagonist’s troubled identity as a person in a female body, her relationship to her dead mother (whose clothes she wears), and the abuse she suffers from her father (who pees in children’s sandboxes and throws books at her from the top of the stairs). But because Moshfegh knew that these dramas weren’t enough to make her book commercially successful— because, in her words, “I couldn’t be like, Here’s my freak book”—she “disguised the truth in a kind of spiffy noir package,” which involves a beautiful femme fatale, a vengeful murder, and the kidnapping of a witness.

Eileen administers an intricate system of self-punishment—shoving a “fistful of crystalline snow” down her underwear after enjoying the sight of a couple kissing; watching the toilet bowl fill, “torrential, oceanic,” after taking her nightly dose of laxatives to reverse the consequences of eating; picturing, as she leaves her house, that “one of those icicles overhead would have surely cracked off . . . had I tilted my head back, perhaps it would have soared down my throat, scraping the vacuous center of my body . . . and followed through to my guts, finally parting my nether regions like a glass dagger.” Eileen’s relation to her body appears violent, hateful, self-denying; but according to Moshfegh, Eileen’s body is “her lover . . . the thing she knows most intimately.”

In the second story of Homesick for Another World, “Mr. Wu”—initially published as “Disgust” in the Paris Review—a man with bad breath falls in love with an unnamed woman who works at an arcade. (Moshfegh does not neglect to ensure that Mr. Wu’s neighbor has “one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn,” which he later refers to as a “twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle,” and that the arcade employee has a “retarded” nephew.) Mr. Wu visits the arcade every day to spy on the woman from behind a game computer until one day he manages to get her number and sets up a blind date with her. Several hours before the date, he returns to the arcade to spy, as usual, only to be convulsed by “a horrible vision” of the woman interacting with a prostitute:

He envisioned the woman from the arcade washing the prostitute’s private parts with the hose from a latrine. He imagined her hand in the prostitute’s private parts . . . He imagined the woman’s mouth on the prostitute’s private parts . . . What if she wanted to use the latrine on his hand? . . . What if she wanted to clean herself after moving her bowels without toilet paper, lick her fingers and then ask to kiss him on the mouth?

These fantasies repulse and distress him. Later on, he goes to a brothel, which he frequently visits but always with a great deal of modesty, only removing his clothes under a sheet and keeping his eyes closed. This time, however, is different. Paired with a new prostitute, he “swiveled his tongue around her privates,” and, at her bidding, “put his finger in his mouth . . . and put it up the prostitute’s bottom.” After fingering her for a while, he “took his fingers out of her behind and put them in his mouth,” enacting the sort of vision that had haunted him earlier. His previous repulsion transforms, here, into immense satisfaction. He is so pleased that his eyes tear up. He “could not believe what joy he’d brought himself.”

Stephanie, the narrator of “The Surrogate,” who suffers from a “pituitary situation” that makes her genitals “abnormally swollen,” describes one of the many men she’s slept with: “He was intense and perturbed and smelled like motor oil and vomit, which is what drew me to him.” In “Dancing in the Moonlight,” the narrator, Nick, falls instantly in love with a woman, Britt, who owns a furniture store:

Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man . . . I turned back around to face her crotch—a tender triangle swollen and divided by the thick protuberance of her zipper fly . . . I had to marry her.

Britt’s look of revulsion awakens something in Nick, and it is her “swollen and divided” crotch that makes him confident that he must marry her.

In “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” a young aspiring actor lives with a woman named Mrs. Honigbaum who has “wrinkled cheeks” that are “studded” by “tight bubbles of sweat, murky with makeup.” At first he is put off. But “after our fourth dinner together,” the young man reflects, “I found myself missing her as I lay on my bed.” The narrator of “The Locked Room” says about a classmate whose “face was scabbed from tearing his pimples open and squeezing the pus out with dirty chewed-up fingernails” that “he had a way about him I really liked.”

These forms of attraction give an impression of characters looking beyond or beneath obvious measures of beauty. Through their erotic attention to the surfaces we prefer to keep hidden, they make this obsession new and strange, suggesting a pathway that runs from revulsion at our inescapably flawed bodies to moments of intimate contact with one another.

Moshfegh’s stories are brisk and concise; she wastes neither time nor energy in arriving at her expressions of disgust. The same pronouns are repeated obsessively, paratactically: “He had learned . . . He imagined . . . He wondered . . . He thought”; “I was thirty. I had an ex-husband. I got alimony”; “He licked . . . He straightened . . . He could still be . . .”; “He could do . . . He could buy . . . He could make . . .”

Even when the stories are written in the first person, Moshfegh conveys the most sensitive details about someone as if they were facts no more revealing than her age or the items on her grocery list. The protagonist in “Self-Betterment” reflects on her boyfriend: “He rarely poked his head into my private life. When he did, I turned into an emotional woman.” In “A Long and Winding Road,” the main character, a Murray Hill lawyer, fantasizes about his body’s deterioration in terse declarations: “I pictured my skin wrinkling and turning black and falling off my bones. I pictured my rotting genitals. I pictured my pubic hair filling with larvae.”

The formula does not always deliver. “Slumming” follows a high-school English teacher who “summers” in an impoverished town where she is comparatively rich. “You could tell just by looking—grape-soda stains on their kids’ T-shirts, cheap dye jobs, bad teeth—the people of Alna were poor,” it begins. The narrator collects short-hand indications of the town’s poverty, noting “single moms whose teenage children smoked and strollered their own babies around the graveled driveways” and “a lone bottom row of teeth rotted down to stubs, like a baby’s teeth.”

The narrator’s desensitized perspective (“I didn’t want to have to talk to them, get to know them, or hear their stories,” she says about the town’s residents), combined with Moshfegh’s grandiosely disaffected narration, makes “Slumming” frustrating. It’s hard to be curious about a character who is so uncurious, though her unjustified malice does invite more. At one point in the story, the narrator hires an extremely pregnant cleaning lady, and then watches passively when the cleaning lady seems to miscarry, a “bloodstain widening down her thighs.” The neighbors rush to her rescue (“fat hands stroking the girl’s smooth, sweaty brow”), while the narrator goes on a walk to buy drugs from the town’s “zombies.” Here, as in other stories in the collection, the minimalist economy of language encounters no resistance or tension from anything else. Moshfegh’s deadpan writing ostensibly reflects the deadened feelings of her narrator. But the constricted prose in “Slumming” ultimately seems less a reflection of a constricted perspective than itself a way of enacting this narrowing of perspective, giving us an illusion of depth but keeping us at bay.

Moshfegh once told an interviewer that it wasn’t her “job to please people who can’t tolerate anything but lukewarm baths.” But what repels in this otherwise engrossing and impressive collection of stories is that eventually we become inured to Moshfegh’s fascination with the superficially grotesque. In some ways, this is an accomplishment: these stories successfully create a world in which weird is the norm; but when freaks become ordinary, freakishness loses its value. After a while, the doctors and lawyers and teachers in these stories blur together into a uniform procession of white-collar professionals, each brandishing their own particular sexual fetishes and physical blemishes as proof of their uniqueness while ultimately manifesting their conformity.

The best stories in Homesick for Another World offer sharp commentary on the nature of obsession, mourning, and loneliness. “The Beach Boy” combines the fine-tuned plots of Moshfegh’s short fiction with the noir character of Eileen. It begins with a man and his wife, John and Marcia, at dinner with boring and conventional friends on the Upper West Side, who engage in uninspired conversation. The next morning, John wakes up to discover that Marcia has died beside him in the night. (John is, somewhat inevitably, a dermatologist who treats “boils and rashes and growths, strange hair patterns, nasty scars, pus-filled cysts, bizarre freckles, cancers, moles” and once “pulled a seven-foot coil of ingrown hair from an abscess on the tip of a patient’s tailbone.”) Following the funeral, in a scene clearly inspired by Antonioni’s Blowup, John develops film from the camera that Marcia used on their recent vacation and finds a close-up image of one of the male prostitutes—“beach boys”—that Marcia had “made such a fuss about keeping her distance” from. It makes John wonder:

Had Marcia been unfaithful? Had she been pretending, as long as John had known her, to be a prude? . . . Secretly, all along she’d been a whore, he thought, a deviant, a pervert, carousing with prostitutes right under his nose.

Excited by his wife’s secret perversion, John returns to the island, to “find the boy from Marcia’s photo and do whatever she had done with him off in the dunes while he was sleeping.” This, he decides, will be the “strange thing that gave his life some meaning at last.” Once there, John drinks too much and when he reaches the ocean, he is dragged under by a wave and pulled ashore by another beach boy. From his perspective:

The beach boy, though not the one who’d appeared in Marcia’s photograph, had indeed been young and beautiful, his eyes yellow, his lips thick and glossy . . . As [John] reached a hand out to grip the boy’s ankle, his fingers trembled. Some kind of force field seemed to surround the boy. He couldn’t be touched.

And from the beach boy’s perspective: “The boy stood and stared for a while, then yawned . . . walked away. It was clear to him and to the other beach boys watching from their perch in the dunes that the old man wasn’t carrying any money.”

The possibility that we might never really know the person we think we know best is a well-rehearsed narrative conceit. But Moshfegh goes further, suggesting that John may be excited by Marcia’s potential betrayal; that discovering his wife’s secret escapades may permit him, at last, to do something he’d always wanted to do; that he might, in consequence, even be relieved or thrilled by the death of his wife. These are ways of feeling and mourning that lie outside the conventional responses we expect from a grieving husband, and which we might, as a result, be inclined to cover up with cosmetic civility and niceties. But the only person around to witness John’s revelation, the beach boy, is not perturbed or surprised or put off; instead, he yawns. This is Moshfegh at her best—cutting past mannered exteriors to reveal our perverted thoughts and desires, but then yawning at the raw strangeness she uncovers.

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