I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh’s work in 2009. The story, “Medicine,” was about a young American woman alone in China, who visited a masseur and allowed him to give her a hand job. The prose was vernacular and plain. But when the man touched the narrator’s underwear, and she realized what he was doing, her relief, loneliness, and fear were encoded in the quickening cadences, and in the precise description of the act.
From 2012 to 2015, the Paris Review published seven of Moshfegh’s stories. Once I’d read a couple of them, I found myself tearing the plastic off of each issue as I pulled it from my mailbox, and thumbing to the table of contents to look for her name. In nearly all of these stories—classics like “The Weirdos,” “Slumming,” and “Dancing in the Moonlight,” wherein an impoverished hipster becomes obsessed with a woman whose face is “pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting”—first-person narrators were in charge, speaking for themselves. The author never protected them or forced them to make sense. As a consequence, they were funny: “I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood;” “I often wondered whether Paul understood what it meant to make love to a woman, just the basic practicality of what goes where, what it would mean to begin and finish;” “I thought I heard someone call my name, some sweet angel descending from heaven just to appreciate me—I was that great.” Candor gave the sentences their peculiar sting.
Moshfegh earned international acclaim for her second novel, Eileen. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize; Scott Rudin picked up film rights. Two of her stories appeared in the New Yorker, and most of her short fiction was collected in Homesick for Another World, published last year. I spoke to her over the phone in April, not long after I read her third novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Its narrator is a rich, conventionally beautiful WASP in her twenties, unemployed and recently orphaned, who hopes to improve her character by sleeping as much as she can. In her waking hours, she watches videos and loafs with her friend Reva, who drinks, frets about body fat, makes herself throw up, and recites self-help homilies. When I called Moshfegh, who lives in Los Angeles, she was in California’s low desert with her fiancé, the writer Luke Goebel.
Benjamin Nugent In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator says to her foil, Reva, “Let me be dumb.” It reminded me of what you said in your 2014 BOMB interview about becoming dumb: “My mind is so dumb when I write. Each story requires a different style of stupidity. I just write down what the voice has to say.” It made me wonder if that’s the state the narrator of this new novel is trying to attain. She wants to dismiss the calculating, ambitious, rational part of herself.
Ottessa Moshfegh I think so, though she’s not a writer and doesn’t even seem like a very creative person, unfortunately. So there isn’t a platform for that kind of mind, and it drives her crazy. When she says, “Let me be dumb,” she’s also being a little sarcastic, because Reva’s poking at her. But I do think she wants to return to a more innocent consciousness, something free from what we call the intellectual mind, which is itself sometimes completely idiotic, of course. It’s a mind that’s constantly analyzing, making up stories to explain what we see. And this takes us out of everyday reality, which we tend to see as mundane. But it’s actually magical in its banality.
BN Is that the reason your work is so grounded in the physical, nitty-gritty details of the real world?
OM I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t see any other way to do it. If I’m not writing about things and people, then I’m writing about abstractions, which are difficult for me. I think other people write about them really well, but I can only get at them through wrestling with physical reality. And we have these beautiful words to describe our world. The world of ideas is a language that’s less interesting to me. I like using descriptions to evoke ideas, rather than describing the ideas themselves.
BN I found a poem you wrote when you were thirteen called “A Night in a Morgue.”
OM I know that poem. (laughter) I wonder if I can recite it verbatim? There’s some line like “cold slab against cold flesh.” The word “muffled” might be in there. I remember the feel of it because it was the first thing I wrote that scared me. The last line is “time passes.” That’s so funny.
BN I was struck by that ending, actually, because it seems like a move you’ve made in more recent work, like the story “Slumming.” It’s almost like the darkest thing you can end on is the passage of time or the stasis of routine.
OM I know what you mean. The terror of the prospect that my consciousness will exist after my body dies is the reason that poem scared me, and it’s probably something that comes through in my work. It almost feels unethical to end a book and tell the reader, “That’s it. You’re done. The story is dead now, so you can walk away.” That’s never the end of the story. These people continue to exist. If the narrator was dead, she wouldn’t be able to tell it in the first place, which is interesting because my next book is narrated by a ghost.
But this is part of what’s so attractive about fiction, and film especially. We experience the lives of these characters and then there’s closure. We don’t have to worry about them anymore. That’s the illusion many of us are fed from a young age: the happily ever after, where all you have to do is get to a certain point in life and then just be in a state of bliss, without consciousness. You won’t have to do anything anymore; you’ll be done. I remember as a kid understanding that this idea was bullshit but also desperately needing it in order to move forward in my existence without complete anxiety. I can’t really put my finger on when the delusion was smashed. These days it feels more and more true that this, right now, is my life—not later when everything is okay. Maybe you can relate?
BN What I struggle with in stories is this: To what degree can a story just be a character study where we see someone going around in a circle? And to what degree do they have to cross a kind of Rubicon? Do they have to wind up a different person, or in a different situation from the one in which they started?
OM I remember an argument I once had as a creative writing student. I’d taken it for granted that the purpose of art was transformative, and so if nothing changed by the end then it was a failure. Things had to transpire, go from A to B in some sense or another. The most obvious way to do that is with a character who has an epiphany, but there are more subtle ways too. Anyway, someone challenged that notion, and it was really depressing that my idealism wasn’t shared by everyone. It seemed so pessimistic to say art doesn’t have to transform anything, that that’s outside of an artist’s responsibility. I don’t know why I’m doing it otherwise. For me, the whole ecstasy in writing is that I come out a different person. I get to change.
BN Although that’s two different things, isn’t it? Whether the story leads the author and reader to change, or whether a character is a different person by the end?
OM I don’t know. It might depend on how much you the author are faking it. I can’t convincingly write anything unless I’m experiencing what the character is experiencing—like method acting. If it’s not a profound and permanent shift, it has to at least be one I’m possessed by.
BN Your writing changed between 2011 and 2012. Those first two stories in the Paris Review, “Disgust” and “Bettering Myself,” are the beginning of a new phase. There’s a mastery of comedy.
OM I remember making a conscious decision not to continue my work in a certain way. In finishing my book McGlue I had exhausted a certain kind of writing, which involved doing it as a way to connect with God and placing importance on the sound and meaningfulness of words. I started out like a prose poet. And short stories developed out of what could be evoked, not out of what stories I could tell. McGlue was my first long work, and consciously or not, I discovered there was power to narrative itself. After that I let go of the pressure to always write beautifully. I let go of my vanity in order to allow myself to be funny and satirical.
I couldn’t go back and do the same shit as before. I was very close over email with Amie Barrodale at the time and remember discussing this with her. She said, “Just write about your own life.” Then I wrote three or four stories about things that had happened to me in China, and what came out was a rhythm in comedy and drama. Then came “Disgust” [retitled “Mr. Wu” in Homesick for Another World], which led the way to the whole collection.
BN I really loved the funny essay you wrote for VICE in 2007 about living next door to a drug den. In some ways My Year of Rest and Relaxation feels tonally and aesthetically closer to that than it does to your first novel, McGlue. Were you able to access a certain kind of wit in nonfiction earlier in your career because you didn’t think of it as this holiest-of-holies that had to blow the reader away?
OM Exactly right. I pulled back the curtain and just let myself write as though I was a person in the story. It released me from the pressure of having to dazzle in that Gordon Lish way.
BN Maybe this is because I’m also from a cold town in Massachusetts, but I associate where you’re from, Newton, with a certain kind of smugness—an air of moral and intellectual superiority. Did growing up there leave you with an interest in the drama of people trying to stay aloof? I’ve seen that in your stories—this aloofness gradually breaking down.
OM Yeah, I think it definitely started in Newton, and going to school in the Boston area. Valuing prestige, accomplishments, career, and genius over happiness, pleasure, curiosity, and love. It’s kind of a cruel world to live in, but I didn’t really become conscious of it until I left New York City. My experience there was like that times a thousand. I went to Barnard, worked in publishing and with Jean Stein, and was privy to the world of the intellectual and creative elite. I found it all so farcical. One thing that I loved about Jean was her sense of humor about all of that.
When I left, I could have more objectivity about it. The city seemed hilarious but also tragic. It’s different things for different people, but those who are part of the creative class seem disconnected in a certain way. Even disconnected from their humanity. (laughter) I just wrote a book all about it, so I’m over it. But it really bothered and disgusted me for those ten years after I left New York. I couldn’t believe people were so trapped in that rat race, chasing the glory of their own egos. The world is way bigger than New York City but, when you’re in it, it’s all you can really hold in your mind.
BN Have you been in LA since grad school?
OM I lived in Oakland for two years, but other than that it’s been LA. The film industry’s dominance here made me, as a literary person, feel wonderfully invisible and irrelevant. I felt the pressure was off. I could do whatever I wanted.
BN And you don’t feel pressure to start writing pilots?
OM No. But for the first year and a half I was so broke that I would have, if anyone had asked me. Nobody gave a shit, and I’m glad they didn’t. I spent that time eating rice and writing stories, without any anxiety about the future of my success as a writer. I felt I had gone rogue living in this place of invisible freedom. You have to have an interesting life in order to write interesting things.
BN Were all seven stories you wrote for the Paris Review written during that time of being broke and eating rice?
OM Most of them, yes. And then when I moved to Oakland, where I had a fellowship at Stanford, I was less broke but still in that same mentality of wanting to use that time to write intensely because the opportunity wouldn’t last. I got lucky with Eileen and things changed, though I can’t say if it was for the better in the long run.
BN What was it like to write My Year of Rest and Relaxation?
OM I began without a plan. It led me astray in a major way. I spent eight months writing a version of the book that ended up failing. And maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was for me. I was raised by classical musicians and grew up as a pianist. The discipline and pressure I put on myself to do things exactly the way that they must be was, and still is, very intense. It can be kind of torturous. So to live for eight months in the wrong way was tough. It was a very disturbing version of the story—very sexually violent, dealing with entrapment. I guess I had to go through that to really understand what the story was. Not to give anything away, but there was an element of the plot that I couldn’t figure out and it took a year and a half to solve it.
I was extremely isolated those two years. For a good chunk of that time, I didn’t really have a home. I had left Oakland, thinking I would move back to Massachusetts. That didn’t pan out, so I drifted, living in four different places over the course of six months. When I’d finally had enough, I moved back to LA, which is where I finished the novel. What I might be saying is I didn’t have any solid ground when I was writing this book. My relationship to it became: You are my home. I identify with both of the female characters; they feel like two different sides of me.
BN Were you drifting across the whole country?
OM I was mostly in New England and upstate New York. I went up to Montreal in the dead of winter, which was clearly nuts.
BN What took you up there?
OM I took a road trip by myself, just impulsively one day. But I should also say the part of My Year of Rest and Relaxation that went off track took the character to Paris. I had applied and gotten this grant to go there for this artist’s residency in 2015. That plan got cancelled. My thinking was: If I can’t go to Paris, then I’ll go to Montreal because at least they speak French. It was a stupid decision, but I found out I really liked it there. At the time I was so alienated that it was nice to be someplace where I was actually alienated.
BN Why did you turn down the residency in Paris?
OM I was going to go, and then there was the series of terrorist attacks in November. I watched a video of that pregnant woman hanging out of the window and of the shooters getting out of their car to shoot up that cafe. It just turned me off—not because I was afraid of terrorism per se; I just thought, Why would I put myself in that energy right now?
• • •
BN For some reason people have compared you to Shirley Jackson, and that seems so wrong to me.
OM Totally wrong.
BN Are there writers you regard as literary forebears or literary peers? People who were or are trying to do some of the same things, people whose work you relate to.
OM There were books that enlightened me. One that comes to mind is Lolita, which I only read once, very quickly and with great anxiety because I was discovering the sophistication of the relationship between author, narrative, and the consciousness of the reader. I consider that book to be divine. It’s unbelievable that it came from a human being, like Mozart’s Requiem or something.
And I feel that same way about more “lowbrow” literature, like the novels of Charles Bukowski. He’s incredibly sophisticated, and the ripe humanity in his narrative voice allowed me to think it was possible to be completely honest—or at least give the illusion of honesty with a brutal sense of self-awareness and nihilism. I find his novels liberating.
Another important book was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There’s this scene right at the start where the protagonist is in a room looking at the light bulbs in the dark, feeling the boundaries of his body expand. Just beginning from there completely blew my mind.
BN Are there any editors who have been important to you?
OM My work with Jean was as her editor for her last oral history book, West of Eden. I would work on my own, and we would go through revisions side by side. Working in oral history and literary documentary with her was really influential. I learned to write narrative voice, first person. I came to understand what a voice actually sounds like, and what it’s not saying. That was really instrumental, and now I find it difficult to write in the third person because of the experience.
But the important editor has been Lorin Stein. He was the first to see the stories and understand them in this instinctual way—sometimes better than I did. Working with him was crucial to the development of my short story writing. I’m so grateful for him.
BN He told me about one discussion in which he was trying to get you to use fewer metaphors toward the beginning of “Dancing in the Moonlight.” In your stet, which he very much admired, you said, “This is the guy telling the story. That’s why these metaphors are here. This is how he puts it.” Do you often feel you change your prose to make it something the character would write?
OM That’s my primary concern—having the voice speak for itself and dictate the terms of the writing. It reveals the subconscious concerns of the narrator so the story isn’t flat.
BN Did you ever get into Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son? That book is a lot about what the narrator is choosing to focus on and what he’s choosing to leave out.
OM I read that book in my early teens and still remember being surprised by that line in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” I’ll never forget it.
Benjamin Nugent’s stories have appeared in the Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. His new collection, Fraternity, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee