The protagonists of Homesick for Another World are alienated outsiders, desperate to find home somehow but not sure how to get there. (Maybe the child narrator of “A Better Place” says it best: “Earth is the wrong place for me, always was and will be until I die.”) As her characters—a motley assortment of weirdos and grotesques—seek solace in romantic infatuation and sexual debasement, Moshfegh’s frightening, funny, and oddly tender portraits explore the ways some people come to love the things that most disgust them.
Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize; her stories have been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications. She spoke to me by phone.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I discovered the singer Lena Zavaroni online in 2012. When I saw her performance of “Going Nowhere,” I was completely stunned. The lyrics don’t especially move me, the way they’re written on the page. It’s her performance—you’re watching a woman who is so clearly struggling to find a reason to live. And her delivery elevates the lyrics somehow, helps you realize the words are just so honest and true.
It’s a TV program, probably one of those variety TV shows. The music starts, and then it pans over to her onstage. She’s wearing this long-sleeved, skin-colored gown, and looks so fragile—but absolutely self-possessed. Like she’s carrying the entire weight of the world inside of her. Her eyes are totally clear. When she’s singing you can see into her mouth, which looks like the mouth of a child. I find that really moving, somehow. She’s not a woman, though she's certainly not a child anymore. She’s something else. Like an angel of pain.
When you’re performing onstage, you can’t see anything. The lights are in your face, and it’s total darkness. So she must not have been able to see the audience—she belted out this song from the bottom of her heart into the abyss. As the song goes on she gets more and more into it. You can see her working herself up. Not in the Mick Jagger, I’m-losing-my-mind kind of way. You just get the sense she’s feeling every single word. “Most of you would tell me that I’m crazy, yes I’m crazy / I can’t help it,” she sings, and you believe her.
When the song ends, she’s kind of stunned. She blinks as though she’s coming out of a trance. Then people start applauding—which has always seemed ridiculous to me, to politely applaud this brutal song that grapples with the deep-down meaningless of everything. But she responds so sweetly, and you can tell it makes her feel wonderful—the way she almost giggles, placing her hand on her heart.
I always wonder what happened once she went offstage.
Her story just breaks my heart. She was one of those terrible cases of anorexia. There was nothing anyone could do to help her. Eventually, she insisted on having what sounds like a partial lobotomy in an attempt to cure her depression. Also electro-convulsive therapy, and drugs. I don’t think Lena ever had the appreciation from the world that she deserved, because she was so ill mentally and physically, and because she died so young. She was something of a mystery to people.