You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Ordinary Monsters

The twisted fairy tales of Ottessa Moshfegh.

Illustration by Edward Kinsella

Alienation is as old as storytelling itself. In earlier days, we used to explore our feelings of isolation and disconnection through salivating monsters, because we used to think about the monster as a figure that hovered at the edges of human society, looking in. In Beowulf, Grendel hears the humans celebrate indoors while he mopes around the moors, alone. Frankenstein’s monster lurks outside a peasant family’s house, only to be driven away when they catch sight of him. In the stories we told ourselves, we were careful to keep our darkest fears on the periphery.

Penguin Press., 304 pp., $26.00

But the monsters of today’s art are part of our world. They’re fathers or sisters or neighbors who got turned into zombies by an alien virus or a government experiment run amok. They’re normal teenagers who happen to be vampires or werewolves or mutants. Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes to our high school. These new monsters—the ones within us—represent a distinct departure from older genres of literature that were created to explore our existential terror. You couldn’t write Steppenwolf now—the word “wolf” in the title would make it seem more like a supernatural thriller than a book about loneliness.

In her new collection of short stories, Ottessa Moshfegh reverses our modern expectations of genre by connecting the estranged ethos of the existentialists with the horror of ordinary life in our time. Homesick for Another World is a compendium of 14 compulsive little tales, each powered by the sense of distance implied in the book’s title. Several of them have run already in The New Yorker, so the distinctive Moshfegh flavor—minimal, repulsive, fleshly—may already be known to you. That one about the creepy neighbor and the firm thighs through the chain-link fence—that was her. She’s also the author of Eileen, a fast-paced novel she wrote for a popular audience as a means of disseminating her special strain of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. If she made a name for herself and a little cash, she figured, people might pay attention when she published the kind of stories she cares about. “I looked at the dominating paradigm and I abused it,” she wrote last year in The Masters Review. The resulting potboiler about a miserable twentysomething caught up in a thrilling mystery with a tall redhead was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, so I suppose her scheme worked.

In Homesick, as with Eileen, Moshfegh has produced a book that abuses its paradigm. By this I mean that her stories exploit the fun, singsong qualities of storytelling while peddling a manic savagery that doesn’t fit the medium. Homesick is filled with spidery-faced women and deadly fruits, against the backdrop of games arcades and meals at Friendly’s. Like her peers—Tao Lin, Nell Zink, Alexandra Kleeman—Moshfegh writes characters who shrink big feelings into flat utterances, the kind of disaffected tone that feels born of the internet and its mechanisms for emotional distance. The overall effect is of an ancient fairytale performed by bad television actors, the kind who seem to be makeup all the way through.

Each story in Homesick features a clear protagonist, who may be young or old or male or female—the specifics don’t seem to matter. These heroes are never sympathetic, or really even close to humane. One character says nothing as a pregnant woman begins to bleed in front of her. Another forges her students’ standardized test results in between drinking sessions. But all these protagonists have desires: for sex, for an acting gig, for escape. The stories are all animated by a plot motion that muffles or perverts those desires, delivering a nice injection of twist. The protagonists may fuck or booze or laze their way through tightly choreographed plots, but they never quite dance into fulfillment.

As we tour this odd world, we meet substance-abusing women and gross men (one memorable character speaks to his girlfriend while “squatting in the bathtub and slathering the towel between his legs”). We meet children and the memory of childhood. But we are never taken quite to the beginning or end of any character’s journey. Motifs drift through these stories like bad smells on the air: They don’t organize the tales, but they characterize them in an inescapable way. Chief among these motifs are physical deformity, drugs (crack, meth, weed), would-be Hollywood actors and their agents, vague dissatisfaction, teachers and teaching, intellectual disability, sexual depravity, and poisonous berries.

These last I like the most. In one story, a stuck-up man named Charles recalls in childhood smushing poisonous berries into a pie “up under the crust” for some unlucky eater. In another, two siblings play poisonous-berry rituals. (They are the characters who are homesick for another, unspecified world, and they close out the book.) The brother puts the berries up his nose. The sister gathers them up in her skirt, so that later she can make them into a poisonous jam to kill a dangerous man whose name has sprung into her mind unbidden. In a different story, a husband puts his lips to his dead wife’s “berry-colored” lipstick mark in a final gesture of closeness. The seam of poison running through the book makes his lipstick communion seem dangerous, icky. Beware berries, love, and lipstick marks.

Makeup in general is repulsive to Moshfegh: She writes about it with words like “greasy” and “spidery” and “chalky” and “caked.” Her characters often wear their grotesquery on the outside, which is a quick way to deliver drama into a story. One beautiful young lady, for example, likes to get “dressed up special on the weekends”:

I liked to wear a trench coat, an old hat like a detective’s, and large, tinted eyeglasses. Underneath my coat I wore a lacy red teddy. I’d snipped at the fabric around the crotch to accommodate my genitals, which were abnormally swollen due to a pituitary situation. Underneath the teddy, there were pennies taped over my nipples and a cutout photo of Charlie Chaplin’s face taped across my pubis.

Our heroine with the pituitary situation won’t tell us why she does what she does, but she will tell a one-night stand that she doesn’t want to “make love,” merely inviting him to peel Chaplin’s face from her engorged genitals. Why Chaplin, I don’t know. It’s probably an arcane joke I’m not smart enough to understand. “You have more than meets the eye,” her suitor remarks.

Moshfegh repeatedly subjects the human body to extreme experiences: miscarried pregnancies, intellectual disability, eating disorders. This is not a very modern thing to do, because it is cheap and sadistic. But it is a very postmodern thing to do, because no body is blank and healthy and symbolically normal in real life. An older generation of writers may have deployed this imagery out of disgust for the human body, but not Moshfegh. William Burroughs, say, reads like a man severely disappointed by an imperfect world, while Moshfegh aggressively accepts imperfection, even endorses it. In that sense her book is of its time, an age that lovingly insists we embrace the imperfect body as flawless.

Moshfegh’s stories end with heavy clangs (“I got what I wanted. I walked back home”), which makes them feel like fables. But they’re knitted so airily throughout that they also feel like advertisements. They’re infomercial versions of Grimm’s tales, acted out by mannequins. This is what life is like, often—everything means too much, and we don’t know what anybody else is thinking, which makes them creepy. Objects in the stories are at once so prosaic and hyper-symbolic that they feel like artifacts of myth. The wrap of crack cocaine, the stray dildo in the upstate cabin, the genitals thrust “into the cold steam of the refrigerator.” Life is like a horrible story, and Moshfegh’s people are at once normal and so viscerally gross (unwashed colostomy bag, cystic acne) that they’re like actual monsters.

Moshfegh also abuses the fairytale through her hard-hearted register. The stories are written in the alienated, toneless style that has dominated certain types of fiction writing in recent decades. The wax-mannequin vibe will feel familiar to you. “Then the girl kissed me on the lips. It was terrible … I wiped my mouth with my napkin.” Moshfegh writes a little like the stone-cold novelist Tao Lin—there’s the same refusal to comment, the same lack of exegesis. For a while, critics paid attention to this style and the Camusian alienation that fueled it, referring to books like Lin’s Taipei and Everything’s Fine by Socrates Adams as “alt lit.” But mostly it got chalked up to a fashion, and we stopped thinking about the meaning of emotional minimalism because the alt-lit sensibility simply became the mainstream (see: the wild popularity of Melissa Broder’s @sosadtoday). Flatness started to feel natural, even obvious.

Nell Zink writes like this, and so do Helen DeWitt and Alexandra Kleeman and Tony Tulathimutte. Such books refract ordinary life into the grotesque surreal through their insistent lack of engagement. Although they would find it unpleasant to be grouped by name, I’d call them surreal minimalists. These novelists are the grandchildren of Camus, writers who estrange and estrange until some new world comes glowing through the old, empty one. The emotions are minimal, but the worlds of these novels are colorful and weird. These writers represent the first wave of novelists who truly respond to and incorporate the syntactic and emotional influence of the internet, and our embrace of them, as readers, represents the same.

Homesick for Another World abuses its chosen genre, just as Moshfegh intended, but in the way that Dr. Frankenstein abused his raw materials. Raw and red and sutured, his monster was tortured into consciousness, to live. As the genre theorist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in his study “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” monsters are only born at “metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place.” The monstrous body, Cohen writes, is pure culture. It is a “construct and a projection,” it “exists only to be read.” Moshfegh has made berries and condos and bodies into monsters for our time, to teach us something. In the end, as Cohen points out, it’s the monsters who end up doing the asking of the culture into which they’re born: “They ask us why we have created them.”