Herman Melville said that great writers were ‘thought-divers’, who sought out depths before returning to the surface with ‘bloodshot eyes’. Ottessa Moshfegh, whose novel Eileen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, certainly dives deep, and in strange waters. She writes about self-loathing, trauma, addiction, perversion, psychoses, and, quite often, about defecation. Her stories are depraved, profound, and bleakly, wickedly funny. To read her is to be unsettled.
We have met to talk about her new book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in Newton, Massachusetts, the town where she grew up. It is a leafy and affluent suburb of Boston, home to the privileged and successful. It seems an odd fit for Moshfegh, who now lives in LA. ‘I would never want to say anything bad about Newton,’ she says. ‘But I always felt out of place here.’
Her family background contributed to her sense of being an outsider. ‘I guess I had a different perspective growing up with parents who are immigrants,’ she says: she is the middle of three children. ‘I don’t have a history here.’ Her father, Farhoud, was born in Arak, Iran, the son of a self-made millionaire. A gifted violinist, Farhoud trained in Germany and Belgium and met his wife, Dubravka, a fellow violinist from Zagreb, at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. They settled in Tehran but fled during the revolution.
Moshfegh is on the penultimate leg of the kind of coast-to-coast reading tour reserved for literary rock stars. The readings have come in the wake of rapturous reviews: The New York Times called her “superabundantly talented” and The New Yorker gave her the full profile treatment. Her story collection, Homesick for Another World, published last year, showed the range of her invention. Now My Year of Rest and Relaxation confirms her as a major writer. And she’s still only 37.
Between sips of iced coffee, Moshfegh gives a precis of the new book. ‘It’s about a woman in her mid-20s living in Manhattan in the year 2000,’ she says. ‘She’s been disillusioned and disappointed by a lot in life despite being born into a lot of privilege. In her very early 20s she experienced major trauma and maybe never really dealt with it. She reaches a point when she’s 24 and she wants nothing more to do with life.
‘But she hasn’t completely given up, so she sets out on this mission to sleep as much as humanly possible for an entire year. And she does that with the aid of a psychiatrist who prescribes her anything and everything. She hopes that she will wake up renewed and with a totally new perspective.
‘She believes that if she can sleep long enough her cells will have regenerated enough times for her to forget her negative past. And she believes the world might actually change with her.’
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a surreal fairy tale, an acerbic satire, a literary experiment and a psychological novel without ever becoming too much of any one of these things. Moshfegh’s control is masterful and hard-earned. ‘I write a first sentence and the rest of the book is just revision,’ she says. ‘Every sentence is obsessed over.’
Not that she didn’t have fun. The unnamed narrator delivers a succession of brutal put-downs about her needy friend, Reva, and her ex-boyfriend Trevor. Then there are the artworks Moshfegh invents to mock the art scene of the Nineties (“you know, back when Damien Hirst was still sawing farm animals in half”): there are stuffed dogs with lasers coming out of their eyes, and Pollock-style canvases created by methods probably best glossed over in a family magazine. ‘I loved coming up with those! It was hilarious.’
Soon after graduating, Moshfegh moved to Wuhan, China, teaching English by day and working at a punk bar at night. It was a difficult time: she was struggling with eating disorders. On returning to New York, at the age of 24, she landed a job as an assistant to Jean Stein, a member of Manhattan’s literary aristocracy who would go on to nurture Moshfegh’s talent. After being attacked by a stray cat, Moshfegh suffered numbness and forgetfulness and, on being diagnosed with cat scratch fever, was forced to quit her job for bed rest.
It was a chance to become serious about her writing. She studied for an MFA at Brown University and then won a writing fellowship at Stanford. She worked with ferocious and consuming determination. ‘I don’t know if other people love [writing] as much as I do. If you do, you are not going to sacrifice anything for it.’ In 2014 she published McGlue, a novella about a 19th-century sailor. The following year she published Eileen.
Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize took her by surprise. ‘It was kind of nuts,’ she says. ‘I understood that it was a major literary award but I didn’t understand that when I went to England people were going to be buying 12 copies of my book at a time. Literature is important in the United States, but people aren’t fanatical like that. It was shocking.’
Did she think about winning it? ‘I thought about it a lot. I think I knew I wouldn’t win but I still read all the other shortlisted books. I hope to be invited back one day, just to revisit the weirdness and intensity.’
In some ways Moshfegh is like her writing: serious, even intense, but also self-aware and funny. There is an uncompromising honesty about her that can result in her coming across the wrong way.
Some critics were put off by Eileen because they found the repressed protagonist disgusting. That helped motivate My Year of Rest and Relaxation. ‘When I was just sketching out the character a lightbulb went off. What if I actually made her really beautiful, like untouchably perfect looking? And what if I made her white, blue-eyed, blonde? Are they still going to think she’s disgusting? I’ll show them. They didn’t like Eileen because they thought she was ugly, but this perfect-looking woman is, psychologically at least, a lot more troubling than Eileen.’
My Year of Rest and Relaxation was conceived while Moshfegh was staying with Stein on the Upper East Side. ‘I watched these incredibly wealthy people walking around and how they conducted themselves and my first instinct is that they must be vapid. But then I thought, how could that be true? They are probably really weird. To have to fit into a society that is so scripted? You must have a really strange inner monologue. You have to censor so much of your own humanity. So that’s how the character came to be.’
Moshfegh has a strong sense that she is fated to write the books that she writes. Anything else is a distraction. She had even sworn off relationships before the novelist Luke Goebel came to interview her for a literary magazine in 2016 and they ended up in a relationship. They wrote the interview together (it’s worth tracking down) and got engaged soon after. She even allows him to read her work-in-progress. ‘He’s brilliant. He’s the most fun person I have ever met.’
She has adapted McGlue into a screenplay and is researching her next novel. ‘It is the story of a Chinese teenage girl who emigrates to California,’ she says.