Dirty realism is back.
Coined in Granta in 1983 by the writer Bill Buford, “dirty realism” refers to fiction that focuses on, as he put it, “the belly-side of contemporary life—a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict,” described with “disturbing detachment” and “understated, ironic” prose that is “sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s propulsive debut fiction collection, Homesick For Another World, is populated with characters right out of this tradition: a widower who works at an inpatient facility for the developmentally disabled; a pregnant teen in a poor country town who runs a discount home cleaning service to pay the bills; an alcoholic teacher in a parochial school; a man in China who is obsessed with the woman at his local arcade.
While many have praised the “unique” quality of Moshfegh’s stories, they do not come from nowhere; she is working within a long tradition. The spirit of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, for instance, hovers over much of Homesick. Her diction is steeped in that of Johnson, of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Her characters confront issues that plague Johnson’s protagonists, as well as Chuck Palahniuk’s or Maile Meloy’s. Their grotesqueries occasionally ring of the work of Flannery O’Connor as well—although their fates rarely do.
What distinguishes this volume is how its author tweaks these traditions. Moshfegh, who is part Iranian and part Croatian, has noted that she was worried her collection might become simply “a book about white people.” But while most of her protagonists are indeed white—and many are men—it’s clear from the get-go that Homesick ranges across diverse cultural backgrounds. In one story, a white woman poses as vice-president of a Chinese-owned company. Her gender and sexuality are almost as important in the story as the meals she habitually shares with her employer and his family—but not quite. Moshfegh’s gritty and realistic stories feel lightly, yet eerily, untethered from reality—partially because her characters seem to view the world they occupy as if it’s different from the one that’s really there.
This disconnect from the real world isn’t limited, either, to the couple of failed actors in the precisely-titled “The Weirdos” and “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” who continue to labor in Hollywood in brazen denial of their minimal prospects. It’s present in “An Honest Woman,” in which a prototypical suburban man, who turns out to be a predatory grotesque, fails in wooing the neighbor he obsesses over. Faced with recognizing his own inadequacies or shifting the blame for his loneliness to her, he opts for the latter, as if anyone who cannot see through his warped lens cannot see at all. It’s present, too, in the rationalizations of the eponymous lead of “Mr. Wu,” another lecherous and lonely soul who vacillates between loving and detesting in equal proportions. It’s also present in the final story, “A Better Place,” the only piece to exchange a well-worn and well-warped realism for a dreamlike vision of the collection’s titular promise: another world. Moshfegh’s stories are made and broken by her characters, whose quirks—an obsession with crystal skulls, say, or a penchant for heavy drug use confined to a single town during the summer season—seem simultaneously symbolic and symptomatic of their failures.
Each of the characters in this collection holds a desperate desire for something that will change their world. Each chases that intangible grail in the wrong way. In “Mr. Wu,” the titular character, a downtrodden john, pines over the woman holding down the counter at his local arcade. To secure her affections, he insults her via text message, hoping that preying on her perceived insecurities might draw her closer to him. It doesn’t.
Jeb, the vitiligo-afflicted misogynist neighbor from “An Honest Woman,” is another scion of toxic masculinity caught in a labyrinthine and ill-advised search for romance. Lusting after the “girl” next door—a woman Jeb describes as “pretty and soft of flesh” and “sturdy, in her early thirties”—he attempts to woo her by presenting his nephew as a potential love interest, manipulating her into letting her guard down so that he, at the opportune moment, can slide in with a glass of whiskey and what he thinks of as his silver tongue. After her inevitable rejection, he convinces himself that the still-unnamed woman, “honest” as she is, has “no substance, no depth. Full of herself for no good reason.”
Jeb and Wu might call their obsessions “love.” Readers, of course, know better. These men are wrong, not just in their intentions but in their being. It is a testament to Moshfegh’s authorial clarity and precision that she manages to paint average white men like Jeb—the standard to which all people are typically held in the post-colonial social order—as “other.”
Homesick for Another World is Moshfegh’s first book since 2015’s Eileen, her widely praised but divisive debut novel. The collection, in total, took Moshfegh four years to write. The advantages of the time spent are obvious: these stories are devastating and droll in equal measures, and their characters make firm, if unsettling, impressions. The disadvantage is a sense of sameness across these stories, leading to the impression that the collection might have packed a bigger punch had it included, say, three fewer selections. This may be more of an editorial problem than a writerly one; either way, it is unavoidable. The stories are admirably thematically consistent, but at some point, the slighter pieces inevitably blur with the others because of it.
As a result, the surprising heft of the closer, “A Better Place,” feels slightly diminished, even though it may be the collection’s best, and darkest, tale. The story is told in the first person by Urzula, a young girl who seems like a human child but who comes from “some other place” than Earth, “not somewhere or anywhere” yet “not nowhere either.” Urzula and her brother, Waldemar, seem as strange as the otherworldly place from which they come—a place they can only return to if they “die” or “kill the right person.” The resulting tale adds an otherworldliness to the otherness that permeates these stories. If only it came just a few stories sooner, before a sense of numbness from all the realistic filth sets in.
Then again, the mild dissatisfaction of this almost rhythmic repetition of character and theme may be the point. Like Moshfegh’s characters, her readers will find themselves on the outside looking in, through a lens lightly warped or a smudged window slightly cracked.