In his impressionistic book-length essay Humiliation (2011), critic Wayne Koestenbaum proposes that humiliation is determined by context and scenario (he singles out markers of gender, race, and class) as much as by inner evaluations. Its “soundtrack,” he asserts, is a sickened stomach, and it “comes with its own proscenium.” The particular notes it strikes are contingent upon “what you look like, what you sound like, how much money you make, how you walk, how you smell, where you put your garbage.” A time, a place, or a glance can spark the dreaded emotion, but so can an inability to determine what or where one is, the failure to relate or be legible to others: “If we dwell in limbo, in transition, that homeless location, too, is humiliating.” The stories in Ottessa Moshfegh’s first short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, span this entire territory of mortification with precision, humor, and a pleasurable cringe. But what is most seductive about these stories is Moshfegh’s exploration of humiliation as a liminal space, where the unrepentantly rotten world brushes up against its characters’ erring imaginations—an interminable, awkward stage that generates plot, mood, and possibility.
Career-wise, Moshfegh has absolutely nothing to be humiliated about. Her novel Eileen (2015) won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, and her novella McGlue (2014) won the Fence Modern Prize. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta, among other magazines, and won her the Plimpton Prize in 2013. At 35, Moshfegh has shown that she can write across genres—experimental, noir, Paris Review story—about people coping with the shame of feeling out of place in the world. The narrator of Eileen is a champion of the abreactive, boldly giving expression to the ways she feels diminished in society. She despises fads, novels, and, above all, the ignominy of inhabiting a dirty home (the kind she was born into, in a Massachusetts prison-industry town she dubs “X-ville”). “People truly engaged in life have messy houses,” Eileen proclaims, “I knew this implicitly at age twenty-four. Of course at twenty-four I was also obsessed with death.” McGlue, also named for its narrator, is the story of a man imprisoned on murder charges who has no ability whatsoever to disguise his personal failings. His self-hatred is far less processed than Eileen’s, given to leaks rather than formulations.
The sickness to which Moshfegh’s new title alludes is frequently literal: Some of her characters yearn for home, but most are nauseated by it. As with Eileen, her characters’ shame festers most biliously where they live. Many reside in small towns, each dirty and disappointing in its own way. The narrator of “Slumming” is a divorced high-school English teacher who travels every summer to her vacation home in a small town, where she gets wasted. The house repulses her more with each passing year: “Each summer I drove up to Alna, I’d find the house altered—a new perfume lacing the humid air, menstrual stains on the mattress, hardened bacon grease splattered on the kitchen counter, a fleck of mascara on the bathroom mirror like a squashed fly.” A later story, “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” takes place almost entirely in a house in Los Angeles that the (far cheerier, greener) narrator rents a room in. (What short-story collection about humiliated losers would be complete without a couple set in LA and New York City?) He’s 18 and has left his family in Gunnison, Utah, to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. But Moshfegh is keen on turning every destination into a gruesome layover. In this instance, the character is recounting this part of his life from some undisclosed location he’s moved on to, but it’s clear that his LA excursion is over (“I had big dreams”). “The house was white stucco,” the story begins, “ranch style, with tall hedges and a large semicircular driveway. There was a crumbling pool out back full of rust stains and carcasses of squirrels that had fallen in and slowly starved to death.”