By Heidi Simmons
Is there any doubt that human beings are complicated creatures? A collection of 14 short stories, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 304 pages), men and women struggle to coexist and live their dreams.
The first story, “Bettering Myself,” finds a young high school teacher sleeping in the back of her basement classroom at a private Catholic school so she can recover from her nightly hangovers during breaks. Nuns don’t mind her puking in the bathroom in the mornings since they too have peculiar morning rituals.
Her students are poor, ignorant and stupid yet admire their teacher. They confess their problems, but she only listens without offering advice or correcting their misinformation. Also, the teacher changes her student’s written answers so they get decent scores on the SATs and state exams. One day she decides to resign in order to move on to something better.
“Mr. Wu” has a secret crush on a woman who runs an Internet café. He is ugly, but she is even uglier. This gives Mr. Wu hope that the two can make a romantic connection. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her out, she decides he is too ugly to date.
A young couple in “The Weirdos,” get their room for free as managers of a run-down Los Angeles apartment complex. The girl hates her boyfriend and hopes he never comes home. In the meantime, she shows an empty apartment to a strange mix-matched couple who pay for the entire year in cash upfront. She pockets the money and decides maybe she should move on.
“Slumming” tells the story of a woman who bought a little house for cheap in a poor, run-down community. She spends her summers there and believes they think of her as a “rich bitch.” Her handyman takes care of the house when she’s not there. He also shows her where to by drugs. She likes to walk into town to get a sandwich and heroine. She thinks the people are fairly nice, but gross. However, she doesn’t mind exploiting their cheap labor and services.
“An Honest Woman,” a creepy, old neighbor thinks he can get the young woman living next door to have sex with him. The man believes he has come up with the perfect plan to get her to come over and into his bedroom. But the girl confronts him.
A couple return after an island vacation in “The Beach Boy.” Celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary, the wife suddenly drops dead and her husband believes their perfect marriage may not have been so perfect.
A handsome young man decides he wants to be an actor after two high school plays in “Nothing Ever Happens Here.” When he gets to Hollywood, his eccentric landlady becomes his surrogate mother, friend — and agent.
“The Surrogate” is about a beautiful woman with deformed genitalia who gets a job working for a Chinese businessman as his surrogate Chief Executive Officer. For a while, her life is very special and she almost finds perfect happiness.
“A Better Place” tells the story of two young children who believe if they kill the right person, they will go to a better world.
If there is one common denominator in Homesick for Another World it is that each character is desperate to find his or her place in the universe. Misfits and oddballs struggle to interact with their fellow human beings, rarely recognizing their missteps and misery.
Author Moshfegh brilliantly crafts complete worlds and complex characters. There are no clichés and she boldly delves into the dark and painful reality of those who are heartbroken by other human beings and frustrated by life.
Sometimes intense and sometimes funny, Moshfegh is not afraid to visit the dangerous and frail side of humanity. Don’t look for plot or fairytale endings. These human beings have rich pathologies that no magic will change. They have accepted their fate and its inexorable path.
These stories feel like the author shed blood on the page. Like a big, bold painting that fills a wall, these stories are works of art that confront our sensibilities.