Ottessa Moshfegh’s excellent short story collection “Homesick for Another World” contains a darkness that feels almost cancerous in spots. Author of the breakout 2015 novel “Eileen” (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and picked up a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award), Moshfegh chronicles folks who aren’t sure what rock bottom looks like because they might already be there.
We start with Miss Mooney in “Bettering Myself.” She is 30 and divorced, a math teacher in a New York Catholic school. She’s a drunk and recreational user of low-grade cocaine, can’t stop calling her ex, can’t quite stand her students (“the dummies”) even though she is completely inappropriate with them: “I had one student, Angelika, who came and ate her lunch with me in my classroom … she was one of two girlfriends I had. We talked and talked. I told her you couldn’t get fat” from unprotected sex. She sleeps in the office and dates a guy who is still in college. If Cameron Diaz’s “Bad Teacher” was the cartoon, “Bettering Myself” is the grim and gritty reboot.
Like most of the folks in “Homesick,” Miss Mooney is at the edge of revelation, of a breakthrough, of a glimpse of the sublime (it’s to be expected, what with the title and all). It’s almost a sucker bet to assume she makes it there.
There’s also a streak of everyday body horror — scabs are picked at, sores weep — mixed in with the general misanthropy throughout the stories. In “Malibu” — Moshfegh switches back and forth between New York and Los Angeles with ease — an unemployed young man with acne, prone to sticking his finger down his throat because he can’t stand his body, makes a date with a woman over the phone whom he calls almost by accident.
He is observant and obnoxious and funny about the bodies around him. Of a clinic doctor, he says, “His eyes hid behind folds of skin and raised moles and eyebrows badly in need of plucking. … I had a thing about fat people. It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts.” About the uncle with whom he has a minimal if regular relationship: “He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristic some smart people have.” About a date he dislikes: “I liked her but she was always talking about herself … ‘I’m not a character in a television show,’ I explained. ‘All I want to do is see your naked body, then reevaluate.’”
Then again, that date he makes ends in Bret Easton Ellis territory.
Speaking of “Malibu” and that onetime Los Angeles bad boy, Moshfegh, who grew up in New England and lives in LA, is a blast about grimy California. Pools have stains and dead wildlife, malls are full of aging windows. “I liked how ugly it was, how trashy,” a character says in “The Weirdos,” a refrain that East Coasters have been mumbling to themselves since Nathanael West. And yet, it never feels like cliche when Moshfegh does it, such is her control of language, the precision of her sentences.
In the stunning “The Beach Boy,” an elderly couple — a dermatologist (who sees a lot of terrible skin) and his wife — return from vacation. The opening is Upper West Side chatter, a life of door-manned buildings, until something life-changing occurs, quietly and completely. Soon after, the doctor tells a group of people, “Why tell stories? As soon as something is over, that’s it. Why revive it constantly? Things happen and then more things, inevitably, happen next. So?” His attempt to answer his own story ends far differently than he hopes.
It’s that “so?” that Moshfegh explores with grim precision in “Homesick.” There is no hugging, no learning. Moshfegh knows there is no distant ancient god driving us to sadness; there is only us, the mistakes we insist on making and the lessons we choose to ignore, sometimes willfully. But she is sometimes funny about it, which is nice.
“Homesick For Another World”
Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, $26)
Moshfegh will read from, discuss and sign “Homesick For Another World” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing.