Wishing to Be Somebody Else

Homesick for Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh

Let’s face it. Nobody can be happy with their life, and even life in general, every minute of every day. You have permission to be unhappy, to have periods of melancholia. Wish you were somewhere else, or somebody else when you fall into a funk. Nothing wrong or unhealthy with any of this. But, divorce yourself from the present, obsess on what might have been, what your life really should be as opposed to what it is, carry it to the most extreme conclusion, as the characters in the final story, “A Better Place,” in Moshfegh’s collection do, and my friend, you have a serious problem. You might be a candidate for this collection of stories about dissatisfied people yearning for another world, a world, unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. If you consider yourself among the normal, you might find peeking into these fourteen lives and situations interesting. For, really, how weird can people be? Mighty weird in Moshfegh’s imagination.

The writing here can be riveting. The descriptions of ugliness and ugly features prove as fascinating as they are off putting. And as individual stories taken one or two at a time over time, they certainly can be intriguing and thoughtful. However, when gathered into a collection, they suffer from a sameness and dreariness, all sounding like the other, losing the uniqueness they probably did have when presented individually in the various publications in which they appeared previously. So, to enhance your enjoyment, or maybe to yank any pleasure from these stories, you might do best to read them at a pace of one or two a week. And prepare yourself to face up to not so much the dark side of life but its disappointment reduced down into a bunch of bitter drops, not so much seasoning, more like poison against the human spirit. w/c

Joyce Carol Oates Shares Nightmares

The Corn Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is among our best and certainly most versatile writers, one who not only can scribble persuasively in most any genre but also plumb depths often lacking in the efforts of others. You can regard this mostly very good volume of “nightmare” tales as a prime example of the extra value she injects into the common fright tale.

In “The Corn Maiden,” she reaches beyond the obvious terror of a child kidnapped by a demented classmate to explore a working mother’s fear for her child and her own fitness as a mother, as well as the effect on a falsely accused teacher. The longest, best paced, and most heart-pounding story in the collection.

“Beersheba” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” while different also share a quite ingenious connection; that is, our inability to definitively understand what is stirring in the mind of another. In the first story, a nearly forgotten daughter returns to extract satisfaction from her father. In the second, a little girl, apparently normal on the outside but horribly psychotic inside, deals with her newborn sister.

“Fossil Figures” and “Death Cup,” too, share a connection, that of two brothers of two very different natures, separated for years, who come together to end their lives side-by-side. What differentiates them and how they reach their endings together is something you will enjoy discovering yourself.

“Helping Hands,” concerns a widow trying to come to terms with the early and surprising death of her husband (originally published a few years after the death of Oates first husband, Raymond Smith). So blinded by her loss and by her need to project and receive love, to be cherished and cherish, she cloaks a war veteran working in a disabled veteran’s donation shop with virtues we clearsighted readers feel can’t be real, leading us to fear for her.

In the final story, “A Hole in the Head,” a plastic surgeon with insecurity issues, a ruined marriage, and suffering from financial desperation, allows a patient to seduce him, against his better professional judgement, into performing a bogus procedure on her, trepanning, the drilling of holes in the skull to release evil spirits. And, indeed, evil emerges, but of a quite different sort than the doctor expected.

While the stories vary in quality, overall the collection will leave you properly disturbed, maybe even give you a nightmare if you dwell on their underlying ideas. w/c