Rest for the wicked: why new talent Ottessa Moshfegh refuses to simplify desire

She's one of America's brightest and brashest literary talents—and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is another bold assault on the status quo
August 21, 2018

Ottessa Moshfegh is drawn to characters unwilling or unable to keep to the rules. They refuse to wash themselves or brush their teeth; they binge on sex or substances; and they conceal their dirty habits from those around them.

In her first book, the novella McGlue, a brain-damaged, alcoholic sailor rolls around in the depths of an unknown ship, circling the possibility that he has killed his friend and lover. Her 2017 story collection, Homesick for Another World, teems with “wild teens, limping men, young mothers, kids scattered on the hot concrete like the town’s lazy rats and pigeons.” These are people, in Moshfegh’s words, “carrying the burden of their own wrecked consciousness”—who, placed in brutal scenarios, tend to behave in brutal ways, with selfishness, narcissism or obsequiousness.

At the age of 37, Moshfegh is one of America’s brightest and brashest new literary talents. Her characters, especially the women, are enemies to blind obedience or complacency, and have no interest in decorum. The title character of Eileen—Moshfegh’s brilliant 2015 novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—is “furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.” She has reason to be livid. It’s the mid-1960s and at 24 years old, she’s stuck in her cold little hometown, living with a drunk father in the same run-down, filthy house where her mother died of cancer. She goes to work each day, but hardly cleans herself, urinates in jars and gorges on laxatives. Her ribs stick out but she feels fat and fleshy; she chews chocolates and spits them back into wrappers—bad habits of someone navigating life through self-denial.

Moshfegh shows the mind trying to escape the body, or using the body to escape itself: bulging weight, acne scars, pimples, colostomy bags. Her characters are either starving themselves or binging: on television or on food they later throw up. Although not gender-specific, she shows how this is an especially intense struggle for women. For Eileen, living under a patriarchal system doesn’t just affect her self-esteem—it infiltrates her sexual imagination. She imagines her female colleagues with their “disgusting husbands,” or with their hands down one another’s bras, and wants to vomit. “I can still remember my mental pictures of them in sexual positions, faces poised at each other’s private parts, sneering at the smell as they extended their caramel-stained tongues.”

Moshfegh is as frank in person as she is in her fiction. In an interview with the Guardian after Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker, she suggested that the book was actually a send-up of the mainstream noir novel. She seemed amused that it had been taken seriously by the judges. “There are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? ... I thought, I’ll show you how easy this is.” Her words were reminiscent of early interviews with other outspoken female artists—Lena Dunham, Lily Allen, Adele—before they learnt how keen newspapers are on sensationalism. Well actually they’re still getting in trouble, partly because, like Moshfegh, they seem drawn to contentious opinions, and partly because our culture tends to punish high self-regard in female public figures. That interview won Moshfegh a reputation for arrogance, and (she at least thinks) lost her consideration for the prize. Of course we should also allow for the possibility that Moshfegh, like those other stars, knew exactly what she was doing—or else didn’t care.

Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, features an unnamed narrator the same age as Eileen—though she could not be more different. “I’m tall and thin and blond and pretty and young,” she tells us with old-money assurance. “I looked like a model, had money I hadn’t earned, wore real designer clothing” and has just graduated from Columbia. But despite her privilege, life is not going well. Her parents are dead, hence all the money. (Not that they were that supportive when alive). In response, she’s sequestered herself in her Upper East Side apartment with an “impressive library of psychopharmaceuticals”—Trazodone, Ambien, Nembutal, Benadryl allergy tablets, anything that will knock her out.

Contrary to what she tells her doctor, she doesn’t suffer from insomnia—she voluntarily wants to spend as little time awake as possible: “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”

The narrator is a stranger in her own life. The only people she sees are an old college friend Reva, whom she treats terribly, and Trevor, a banker in his thirties, who treats her even worse. He “would periodically deplete his self-esteem in relationships with older women, ie, women his age, then return to me to reboot.” Reva visits with sycophantic consistency, though mostly to drink and comment enviously on the narrator’s waning weight. With no roots in the world, and no obligations, our narrator is free to seek total escapism: so she begins sleeping for as many hours in every 24 as she can.

Self-loathing women

Moshfegh’s women are as self-regarding as they are self-loathing. When they are able to they use the men who try to take advantage of them: to get money, work, anything of value. This doesn’t mean Moshfegh fails to note gender oppression. Rather she shows how, despite her character’s defiance, alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders take over her life. For her friend Reva, like many of Moshfegh’s characters, going to a bar is “therapy,” while at home for every sip of fizzy drink, she pours a dash of spirits into the can. (Moshfegh has spoken with typical candour about her own struggles with the bottle.) But suffering does not necessarily imply virtue, and pain does not necessarily entail victimhood. Though they are coerced into damaging their bodies by societal pressures, they are also terrible and ridiculous people, sometimes shockingly so.

“Sexual excitement nearly always made me feel sick,” admits Eileen, who works at a boys’ juvenile detention centre, but also tells us about her rape fantasies. She hopes the man who does it will be sweet, assuming this is the only way she will lose her virginity. Later, she rests her tongue on the glass of the window in a solitary confinement facility as she watches a 14-year-old boy masturbate. Such disturbing details make Eileen such a vivid creature.

Moshfegh is brash and talented enough to evade the sometimes censorious tendencies of the millennial generation—she refuses to simplify desire. These days we are supposed to work harder to change our culture so that it is less racist, sexist and homophobic. We police one another regarding how we communicate and behave, challenging structures that were previously deemed normal. It’s a long-overdue process. And yet, the consequences are a hyper-vigilance to any opinion that strays from the new orthodoxy, and a digital vigilantism that can be swift and savage.

Moshfegh, though, doesn’t shy away from creating protagonists who have inappropriate desires. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation cares little for consent, preferring Trevor (who sneaks into her apartment and initiates sex while she’s asleep) to some pathetic, liberal guy who’s “afraid of vaginas” and likes “masturbating to Chloë Sevigny.” Her skill lies in showing how these divisive cravings grow from the world of today. In a recent essay, she writes of how, as a teenager, she baited a much older male writer, using his sense of sexual entitlement to get what she wanted—literary mentorship. It’s a playful upending of the narratives emerging in the #MeToo era.


A new Nabakov

These off-kilter perspectives invest her writing with a freedom from received wisdom that can be plain weird, but also deeply refreshing. Moshfegh has talked in interviews, for example, that the “primordial” female reproductive system encourages flexibility of thought in women, because the mind is “transformed without their consent every month.” It’s not a joke. In the context of a modern feminism that tends to downplay biological difference in the service of equality, the idea is impish and provocative. It reminds me of Gloria Steinem’s marvellous thought experiment, in which she argues that if men menstruated and women didn’t, women would be barred entry to medical schools (“they might faint at the sight of blood”) and the priesthood (“He gave this blood for our sins”).

When pressed, Moshfegh will say her writing is feminist, “because I don’t hate women, I hope.” But she resists an outright statement of loyalty. Much like her characters, she doesn’t want to be part of a community. She resists being inducted into a female literary heritage for the same reason: “It’s hard when people want to compare me to other women writers. It’s like they’re only searching their mind database for women.” Instead, “Someone once compared something I wrote to Nabokov, and I thought that was a huge compliment. I didn’t mind that.” If we were to imagine Moshfegh under the apprenticeship of a master craftsman, then Nabokov it might be. She shares the author of Lolita’s penchant for the macabre and the deranged—what he called the “sacred danger” of the freak.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation has also been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Like Moshfegh’s narrator, Patrick Bateman is another numb urbanite alienated by wealth and privilege. But whereas Bateman deals with his anger by murdering homeless people and torturing women, Moshfegh’s narrator just wants to sleep. “I thought that if I did normal things,” she says, “held down a job, for example—I could starve off the part of me that hated everything. If I’d been a man I may have turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model. It was too easy to let things come easily and go nowhere.” Ellis pushed at the outer limit of his reader’s capacity for empathy, and Moshfegh does the same, though less violently.

Amid the gallows humour Moshfegh’s work has great optimism. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, with its archetypal characters—the smart, rich model, the dickhead boyfriend—reads almost like a parable. If there is a moral to her tale, it’s to reject apathy and emotional avoidance (a cowardly response to life’s vicissitudes), and instead live courageously by looking for meaning in a world that may nevertheless remain difficult and confounding.

As the novel progresses, one becomes sensitive to its setting (New York, the year 2000) and the foreboding association with the Twin Towers (where Reva works). It’s a bold conceit, and one that in the final pages, Moshfegh executes in tender prose, puncturing the solipsism of her narrator. For all their detached humour, her books ultimately condemn escapism—via substances, sleep, irony—and instead assert the importance of “diving into the unknown… wide awake.” Moshfegh is also unusually honest about wanting to change the world with her writing: “Sometimes it takes a god-complex to disrupt the status quo.”

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Jonathan Cape, £12.99