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book review

Author Ottessa Moshfegh attends a photocall for the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Royal Festival Hall on October 24, 2016 in London, England.Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

There are few assessments of fiction more particular and subjective than those based on a reader's relationship to a book's characters. On Goodreads, the one-star pans of Ottessa Moshfegh's novel, Eileen, tend to dwell on the main character being "difficult to sympathize with," "thoroughly unlikeable," "thoroughly dislikeable" and, for variety, "a failure and a loser and physically repellent." Conversely, the book's more positive reviewers tend to claim that these characteristics are precisely what make Eileen (and Eileen herself) so compelling.

Revulsion to made-up people can be just as palpable as any flesh-and-blood, real-world aversion, but is it a legitimate reason to dismiss a book? In 2013, The New Yorker hosted authors Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen and Tessa Hadley for an online "Forum on Likability," the gist of which was perhaps best summarized by Atwood: "It is indeed a ridiculous question." The chat inspired some pro-like kickback from, among others, the populist, self-styled iconoclast Jennifer Weiner, but most writers seem to agree fictional characters should be valued for their complexities, warts and all, and not the geniality of their companionship.

Likeability doesn't much concern Ottessa Moshfegh, either, who's disavowed it as the rubric of "cowardly readers." To those one-star reviewers (and the Weiners of the world), she's offered a further rebuke: "It's not my job to please people who can't tolerate anything but lukewarm baths." To the comfort-cravers who found Eileen to be a jolt of cold water, Homesick for Another World will be as chilling as a polar plunge. That said, these 14 stories don't merely traffic in the malfeasance of scumbags and miscreants, but instead offer insights into all sorts of people – some troubling, some simply in trouble. And some even kind of likeable.

Well, if not exactly likeable, then at least so richly drawn to, for readers willing to forgive or even appreciate their various trespasses, elicit empathy. Consider Mr. Wu, the pining anti-hero of the collection's second story (previously published as Disgust; here titled eponymously), whose naive romantic blunderings are charming and painfully familiar but whose visits to child prostitutes might complicate some readers' capacities for self-identification.

The Weirdos features a woman trapped in a relationship with an outlandish caricature of New Age masculinity, an aspiring actor-cum-property manager who prays nightly to a crystal skull and hoards a vintage yellow sports jacket (actually "a size 8 woman's blazer") for when he finally makes it big. "I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighbourhood," the narrator, whom we know only as "babe," deadpans. But that mordant surface masks profound sadness, and the story cleverly refracts the narrator's melancholy – and, likely, clinical depression – through her unforgiving view of the world. Is "babe" likeable? Not really. But certainly, in all her loathing and longing, excruciatingly human.

That same sense of longing runs through the collection, and its title articulates the anxiety of its characters: Even when they want something, they seem to crave the act of desire more than the thing itself. Throughout the book, disparate subsets of people are forced together – yuppies versus junkies is one recurring motif – and it's often their mutual loneliness or yearning that creates a dynamic for interchange, if not understanding.

Homesick for Another World complicates the idea of the "Other," offering a vast range of human experiences that share fundamental needs and struggles. Whether a clueless academic "slumming" in a meth-racked backwater, or a bereaved widower turned sex tourist loosed in the islands, these characters are all a little lost, a little messed up and in search of answers that continually escape them. What saves the book from feeling excessively bleak or hopeless is its wonderfully wry humour.

Beyond thematic consistency, these stories feel remarkably cohesive – something of a feat, considering their diversity in style and content. This seems partly a result of Moshfegh's engaging technique of taking each one to its natural ending – at least per the epiphanic requirements of contemporary short fiction – and then pushing past it. The gaps between stories then function as dialectical spaces, so that the trust-fund fashionisto in Dancing in the Moonlight starts to engage more explicitly with, say, the alcoholic schoolteacher puking away her hangovers in the collection's opening story, Bettering Myself.

Likeability implies comfort, familiarity and an obedient fulfilment of expectations. But David Foster Wallace warned against fiction as "attempted seduction," suggesting that the most compelling literary work comes from "confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you'd first used writing [and reading!] to avoid or disguise." Homesick for Another World tends to subvert likeability at every turn, populated as it is by characters who are rash, desperate, ill-advised and self-destructive. Readers will feel implicated in their foibles, often painfully. But these unflinching, brutally honest stories accomplish what fiction is meant to do: They confront us with the stuff of being a person – especially those elements with which we'd rather not "identify," and which we might not "like."