Ottessa Moshfegh received more acclaim and attention than ever in 2018. It was also, she says, the most painful year of her life. The two factors would seem to be mutually exclusive: The former is a result of the July release of her brilliant second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a book so beloved by writers on this site that it’s Jezebel’s unofficial book of the year. The latter has to do with her brother Darius, to whom Moshfegh was intensely close, who died in November 2017.
But there was at least a sense of connection between the two when Jezebel spoke to Moshfegh by phone from her home in Los Angeles in November. “A lot of my acerbic, cruel wisdom seems really irrelevant now,” she said. That cruel wisdom fuels Relaxation’s unnamed narrator, a narcissist in pre-9/11 New York who pops downers like Tic Tacs and is brimming with insightful observations about life, the people she associates with, and pop culture are as precise as they are savage. The character’s intelligence and wicked sense of humor ultimately renders her charming, despite her radioactive toxicity.
But that attitude, which Moshfegh said was based very much on her own, is in the past. Or so it would seem. When I called her, she was organizing the books in her office, attempting to mold the space into one she found welcoming. She’s getting started on a new book, this one told from the perspective of a ghost, and it’s time for renewal.
For about an hour, Moshfegh and I discussed her much-discussed book, which Jezebel loved but somehow managed to slip through the cracks of our coverage. Since it’s so widely read by now, I picked her mind on its ending, which I initially found incongruous with the tone of the rest of the book to the point of feeling like a copout. (Her explanation for her authorial decisions, though, gave me a new appreciation for a book I already loved.) We talked about the joy of falling asleep in front of a television, and Whoopi Goldberg, with whom Relaxation’s protagonist is obsessed. (“Whoopi Goldberg was my main hero,” narrates the protagonist, who watches VHS tapes as she falls in and out of drug-induced sleep. “I spent a lot of time staring at her on screen and picturing her vagina. Solid, honest, magenta.”) We talked about the absurdity of the literary world, and of life, really. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
JEZEBEL: Are you sick of talking about this book yet?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: Am I sick of talking about it? No. In some ways, it feels healthy to talk about it so it’s not just this dead thing, but I certainly have different feelings about the book now than I did when I was writing it. When something is over, you start seeing it less as a part of you and more as something that exists in the world that has actually very little to do with you anymore. I feel detached, which makes it in some ways easier to talk about.
Are there specific feelings you once had about the book that you no longer do or that have changed as a result of it being out in the world?
Yeah. When I was writing the book, I was so completely immersed in it. It felt maybe not directly in terms of its storyline, but ideologically and musically, an expression of what was happening to me in my life and what my concerns were. I feel like the book was successful in that I graduated out of a lot of those concerns by writing the book. When I wrote the book, my passion and anger were located much more outwardly and so the tone of the narrator, who I think a very angry person, is not something I relate to anymore. Since that book and since starting this new book, I’ve become a little less satirical and bitchy and more inward.
Is that a direct result of feedback and things people have said about the book, or is that just personal development?
Personal development. Maybe this is a different thing, but when people read your book and your book becomes alive in other people’s lives and not your own, it does change the book. It starts to define what the book is, which is not what it was for me. I’ve kind of given it over to interpretation. I’m not really interpreting it for myself anymore.
How much of what’s written about it do you pay attention to? I was going over reviews on Book Marks and Googling your name. So much has been written about you and your work this year alone.
I don’t read reviews. I did read The New Yorker profile of me. I read it once at like three in the morning when it got posted online, with my partner. We read it out loud to each other because it was kind of an ordeal. The process of spending time with the journalist who wrote it, I grew totally love her. Reading it was kind of juicy, like, “Oh, let’s see what Ariel Levy actually said about us.” It’s intense spending days with somebody who’s really trying to understand who you are. Other than that, I haven’t read very much. I don’t read reviews, but you get a sense of what the common consciousness is when you go on tour and give readings and hear what the questions are for the audience. I got a sense of what the conversation was about the book.
Was there anything within that conversation that surprised you?
No, not really. What stands out to me is the absence of certain things. I thought so much about the art world and about art in general and had so much fun writing the satire of early 21st century New York art galleries and coming up with all the crazy art that was in this gallery. Also, the project the protagonist takes on with Ping Xi, this artist, was like such a hard element for me. It took me so many wrong turns to figure out that that’s what would have to happen. So for me, it’s a really big deal, but I think for other people, it maybe wasn’t such a major theme for them in their reading.
I noticed in some of the writing about this book that people couch their appreciation for your protagonist with a sense of guilt. A lot has been made about the sort of women you write—that they don’t behave the way people expect from depictions of women. I wonder what your relationship to that notion is. Are your motivations reactionary or matter of fact?
That’s a complicated subject. I have a big chip on my shoulder, basically, in a lot of areas when it comes to other people and what other people think. I have a tendency to just not want to participate in groupthink, period. I feel like there are certain things that, as a woman, are inextricable from the group experience of being a woman. Certainly, there’s overlap between what’s being spoken about in this wave of… I don’t know if you call it feminism or just, like, social politics. I didn’t feel like I was corresponding to that in any deliberate way. I felt like I was just really imaging the lives of these women and the irritation in limitation that they would experience. That’s kind of it.
Would you spend time with the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation if she were a real person?
I don’t know if it would be a real nourishing friendship, but I have a feeling that in my darkness there would be a bond. I think I would maybe understand her too well. I don’t know if I’d want to spend a lot of time with someone so self-centered. I don’t know, I have a feeling that if I was friends with her, I’d find her intimidating. And that might be seductive.
Was the character at all informed by the image or writing of Cat Marnell? Even the physical description aligns, though Cat isn’t tall. Are you familiar with Cat?
She’s blonde and conventionally pretty and wrote a lot about her drug use. It’s interesting that there’s something zeitgeisty there if you aren’t aware of her.
I think that kind of attitude and lifestyle…it’s like a form of belligerence. The late ’90s and early ’00s were really ripe for that. It doesn’t surprise me that much that there’s a real-life person. But yeah, I don’t know who that is. I’m curious, I’ll look her up.
Cat’s a lot sweeter than your narrator. [I texted Cat earlier this year to ask if she had read the book. She told me she had not but was aware of it because a review of it that referenced her landed in her Google alerts. She also told me that she admired the book’s cover: “I would have killed for that font,” she wrote.] Were there other advantages to setting this in 2000-01?
Definitely. It feels like it was in some ways an age of the innocent for those who were rebellious. It was right when alternative was becoming mainstream. Coming out of the grunge period, which is when I realized I was an artist, and then watching mass culture appropriate everything that was counterculture. That was part of it. Also, there was an advantage of being free of all of the technology that’s developed since then and how difficult it is to be isolated now because of technology. She didn’t have a smartphone. She has a phone. I don’t know if it was a cell phone, I can’t remember.
I thought the setting made her narcissism purer in a way. Even though she’s obviously narrating her story and putting herself on a sort of display, it feels more aligned with oral tradition. You don’t get a sense of her posing for a camera the way you do with people now. Also, and I know this is fiction and that people haven’t really changed that much over the past 20 years, but socially acceptable discourse within the liberal elite has gotten very sensitive and the stuff that your protagonist says—even though she stays mostly focused on her friend, Reva—is so caustic that I don’t know if it would really jibe with present-day sensibilities. There’s a certain belief I think that people don’t think like that or don’t talk like that anymore. So the sensibility felt very early 2000’s.
I totally agree. This was pre-fascistic political correctness. We’re not even allowed to think that someone is pathetic unless they’re violent. Her judgments of Reva, they’re pretty sophisticated. I guess if the character was being written now, you’d have to be more compassionate. There’s all this victim stuff that she would resent.
I think it’s a great thing, on one hand, for people to have more outward respect for each other, but on the other hand, what I suspect the frequent product of the public shaming people into gestures of anodyne benevolence is that it pushes their cynicism under the surface. People still are who they are, it’s just they know better than to express it, so what we’re crafting is this societal ideal of a facade. I don’t understand that. I think people should be allowed to be assholes because it makes it easier to filter them out of your life or at least know where you stand.
That’s very true. Personally, speaking, instead of continuing to be an asshole now, I’m just an asshole more privately. The other day, [writer Luke Goebel] and I—Luke’s my fiancé—were talking about our mutual friend who’s on the shortlist for the National Book Award. I was like, “Oh I’m really happy for him.” It was understood that I wasn’t happy for him because he’d written such an excellent book that he was being given this honor. I was like, “Oh I’m really happy for him that the social environment has come to a place where he’s getting this privilege” because he’s not a white man. Oh okay, things have turned in his favor. I was asking Luke, “What did people think when Eileen got shortlisted for the Booker Prize? Were you all just like, ‘Well of course she did, her name is weird. She’s not a whitey.’?” I don’t know, I’ve come to completely accept that the literary machine doesn’t necessarily reward genius or great work, it’s there to perpetuate a projection of culture. I’ve never read… what’s that guy’s name? Tom Wolfe? Wasn’t he a super racist?
I think he was? [Note: Indeed, many people made this point after Wolfe’s death earlier this year.]
Somebody like that would just be totally ostracized now. Whatever value that he had would be mute. But a lot of writers are getting a lot of attention for saying popular political things but they’re not necessarily brilliant authors. I accept that at this point. I’ve been disillusioned. There’s a machine, it’s all about making money, and the way people make money is they play on a sense of responsibility. Like, “Oh, you haven’t read that book? What are you racist?” It’s so weird. Most of the writers that I’m friends with, who I think are really great, just have a sense of the absurdity about it, which I think is really healthy.
Have you completely reconciled the machine with your own work? Do you feel underrated? Do you think in those terms at all?
I have a sense that I have a public persona that people are a little bit tepid about—like, they don’t know if I’m really an asshole. I’m not in this really mainstream club, where I’m a safe person. I think people just aren’t really sure about how included I should be. I really don’t know. All I know is I’ve been trying very hard to enter into a sphere of society that I have a lot of problems with, without being a complete jerk about it. It’s a delicate thing to be writing in criticism of others and then to talk to those people I’m criticizing about why they like my book so much.
Are you talking about criticizing specific individuals or society?
I feel like my books are in a lot of ways criticizing the way people are. The flack that I got for writing Eileen, I didn’t even understand it until this year, like, why people were upset that I’d written a disgusting female character. I thought that it was because they felt like women should not be disgusting—like women should be nice. Now I understand that it was that I was representing a woman negatively. In a time where she should have been this hero, I was showing the underbelly of her darkness, and that was a bad role model or something. I’m super confused about what people think. I’ve never been really good at mixing into a group, although I really love to do that. I just don’t always know what people are thinking.
I suspect that when people critique art based solely on politics and representation, it’s because critiquing aesthetics is very difficult and people simply don’t have the vocabulary for it. It seems to me that to portray a “disgusting” woman by probing her inner life is to broaden representation, anyway.
I think people also like to talk about books, TV, and movies or any kind of media… I get a sense, and I think this is an effect of social media, too: People are processing things in a way that is supposed to fit into their current trajectory of political thinking. It’s not like, “I can experience this as an individual experience of art,” but, “How does this add to the conversation that I’m already having on social media?” And if it is in opposition or makes them irritated, it’s like, “Oh this is that again.” It’s like a call to arms: “This is bad.” I don’t do that. Sure, if I read a book that is totally un-self-aware about its racism, I’ll be like, “Well, that author is an idiot because he or she couldn’t see what they were doing.” But I feel like I was pretty self-aware.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation really spoke to me, right down to it being in part an ode to the joy of falling asleep in front of the TV, which is something I fucking love.
Why do you love it?
I don’t know. Every single boyfriend I’ve had has told me it’s annoying: “Turn the TV off, you’re keeping me up.” There’s just always been something really soothing to me about falling asleep while the TV is on. I remember my mother watching soap operas and falling asleep on the couch, so maybe it’s rooted in my childhood. But I don’t know, I find it to be a really good sleep aid.
I do too. I think it has something to do with the way we experience the conscious parts of our minds. They’re always narrating a story, you know? And there’s something about checking out into somebody else’s story that can quiet your own mind. A lot of what I wrote My Year of Rest and Relaxation I was unknowingly entering a period of intense insomnia. I didn’t have that much trouble sleeping when I was writing the book, but as soon as it was over… I’ve had really bad insomnia at various points in my life and it’s hard to say, “Oh, it corresponds to this or that.” I’m not the most balanced person, but I have certain tools that are an unhealthy remedy to battle insomnia. Falling asleep with my computer playing Netflix right next to my head is one of them.
How much do you share with your narrator in terms of the Whoopi Goldberg love?
Probably like 75 percent.
I figured that it came from a real place.
She’s always stood out as a very, very different figure than everybody else I see on TV and movies. I don’t know her very well in terms of what she’s up to now. I don’t think I’ve ever watched her on The View. But my mom hoarded VHS tapes in the basement and I spent a lot of time alone in the basement usually jumping rope and watching these movies over and over and over again. It was sort of the soundtrack of my childhood, these movies from the ’80s and Whoopi Goldberg was like somebody I knew. She became a friend. So did Harrison Ford, who has a lesser status in the book, but was also a kind of live-action VHS friend.
But yeah, everything that she says about Whoopi Goldberg came out of my own introspection. Like, “Why do I find her so comforting and interesting?”
Do you know if she’s aware of the book?
I know that she has the book. I don’t know if she’s read it. I hope to meet her one day. I don’t know what I would say. I feel like I just want to give her a hug.
[Jezebel reached out to Goldberg’s representative for more clarity on this matter. He responded, “Whoopi read the book and loved it.”]
I’m not sure what your motivation for keeping the character unnamed was, but what struck me about it was that it bespoke such a high level of narcissism. Like, “I don’t even need to introduce myself because you know who I am,” the way that narcissistic people will make assumptions that you know exactly what you’re talking about, as though you’ve been following their every thought.
I think that was probably the root of my instinct to not name her. There was a point in some scene of dialogue where I was like, “Should I name her? And maybe think of what her name could possibly be?” There was just no good name. She was too cool to have a name. She would never want a name. Names are really important. They do so much for the reader in terms of the associations one makes when you read a name. Reva, you can picture Reva. Dr. Tuttle, you can totally picture someone being named Dr. Tuttle. But for this character, what the fuck could her name be? Jennifer? That would be so dumb, you know? Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be the right name, so I was just like, “Fuck it.”
Can we talk about the ending? I felt like I had been following this character, I understood her worldview and where it came from, until the end, which seemed like such a 180. I wasn’t quite sure how to read it—if it was irony or if she did have this incredible breakthrough.
I saw it as a breakthrough, and I also saw it as her casting Reva onto which she could project all of her grief and loss and emptiness. There’s something about watching Reva, whether it’s Reva or not, jumping from the Twin Towers that somehow manifested all of the complex grief that she had been trying to eschew the whole book, around her parents. It was a place she could land safely and it was on TV and she could watch it over and over again the way that she could with her VHS tapes. She was like, “This is how I’m going to encapsulate and compartmentalize my grief.”
To back up, though, what I’m referring to is what happens after she comes out of her long hibernation-slash-collaboration with Ping Xi and wakes up renewed, not the last image of the book. She expresses a new lease on life, when she says, “The plan worked.” I feel like you have to invest in her nihilism as a reader and that part, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how after taking me on that journey and convincing me that she actually had a way of managing herself, she wakes up and is a new person. I wasn’t sure if I should take her seriously or not.
As the author, I didn’t want you to know exactly how to read it. For the last pages, I wanted you to be a little bit stunned, like, “What?,” in a way to mimic how I think she would feel stunned after waking up from her consistent drug binge on the Infermiterol.
I saw it two ways. In one way, she did have a transformation and the things that tortured her, she’s now completely divorced herself from. On the other hand, more literally, I think she probably damaged her brain to a great extent. That’s why it worked. She gave herself a lobotomy. You aren’t the same person when you wake up out of a coma. Parts of you have been starved and died. I don’t know. People ask me, “What do you think her life was like when the book was over?” I’m like, “I have no idea. I don’t really feel like she’s still alive.” After that experience with the Infermiterol, something kind of died. And then she’s sort of floating through the rest of the book. Does that make any sense?
Yes, it does and it makes me appreciate the ending more. I had been saying that I loved this book, but only 90 percent of it because the ending seemed too pat. But what you just said makes me see it in a new way. I think it’s beautiful that she had to kill what was so captivating about her in order to survive.
Yeah, to me it’s a really sad ending.
To wrap up, how has your year been? Your 2018?
My year has been the hardest year of my life. It has been the most painful year of my life. My brother died at the very tail end of 2017. I don’t even remember what I used to feel like. My heart is completely broken and I’m in uncharted territory. I feel like the map has disappeared. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I feel like I don’t know anything. A lot of my acerbic, cruel wisdom seems really irrelevant now. The last year I spent, a lot of it in pain. I’m also in a lot of physical pain, I have this back issue [the New Yorker profile discussed Moshfegh’s scoliosis in detail]. I feel a little bit disabled this year. And I really want to move into this next book project. It feels very, very different. It feels like a return to a place from which I wrote McGlue, which was 10 years ago, a place where I was wanting to create a world that was not this world and characters who weren’t frustrated by contemporary ennui, but deeper, more spiritual terror. That’s kind of where I’m going now.
The new book I’m writing is narrated by a ghost. I spend my time working in the mind of somebody who’s dead. It’s just a very different space.
How far along are you?
Oh, the beginning. I’m still in the beginning.
I can’t wait to read it.
I hope I can pull this off.
Update (Dec. 21, 2018, 9:40 am): This interview has been amended to delete a quote Moshfegh attributed to her fiancé Luke Goebel, who said he had been misquoted.