Ottessa Moshfegh at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo by Krystal-Griffiths

Ottessa Moshfegh’s name is as unusual as her person. A petit, brown-haired woman, wearing non-descript clothes, one might mistake her initially for your typical book worm. However once she starts speaking, one becomes aware of a quiet confidence that informs the dry concision of her comments. Winner of the Hemmingway Foundation/ PEN Award and short-listed for the Booker prize, this is a young woman who describes herself as arrogant, in a good way.  

Moshfegh admits that she often writes about people who feel out of place in the world. Her characters are frequently unlikeable in the traditional sense of the word. ‘I think that imperfections are what make people interesting,’ she tells us. The eponymous protagonist of her award-winning novel, Eileen, is presented in a manner that many find physically repulsive. The character herself is ashamed of her own sexuality and swaddles her genitals in  thick cotton underpants, ‘like a baby in a diaper’. The writer admits that she was surprised by how difficult people found it to accept a character such as Eileen.

‘We would rather pathologize the problem, than examine its source.’ 

By way of response, the protagonist of her most recent book, A Year of Rest and Relaxation is physically attractive – tall, blonde, young and pretty. Yet happiness eludes her too. ‘Sometimes I feel dead and I hate everybody, does that count?’ the unnamed protagonist asks her would-be psychiatrist. The book centres on this young woman’s attempt to sleep herself out of her trauma. Described by one reviewer as ‘a young woman’s chemical hibernation’ (the New Yorker), the novel comments on the over-medicated society that is the US. ‘Medication has become a kind of short-hand for talking about the human condition’ Moshfegh says. ‘We would rather pathologize the problem, than examine its source.’  

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is set in New York, just before 9/11. The writer explains to us that this was a very different New York to the hyper-controlled environment that is the city today. ‘There was a sense of absurdity that 9/11 completely abolished’ explains Moshfegh. She says this, like everything else, in a flat, deadpan voice that belies the emotions that underlie what she writes and speaks about. Her demeanour also obscures the single-minded perfectionism that has no doubt played a role in her success as a writer. She admits that  in the first version of this latest novel, she had to throw out 300 pages before continuing with the final version which is set in New York. The author sees writing as a process of gradually moving closer and closer to clarity. She regards her characters as shimmering mirages, initially seen from a distance, and then slowly homes in on them.    

‘I don’t think art should be moral propaganda’

Moshfegh’s characters have been described as amoral. When asked about this, she admits that, as a writer, she dislikes making moral judgements about her characters. ‘I don’t think art should be moral propaganda’, yet she supports the idea of art as ‘truth revealing’.  Her characters are often deeply traumatised, alienated people – ‘I thought my life would be more tolerable if my brain was slower to condemn those around me’ writes the first person narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Yet Moshfegh is clear, ‘this is not my therapy’ . ‘We are fascinated by our own morality but we’re also terrified by it.’ As a writer she looks to examine those elements that prod us to greater awareness possibly even a better understanding, thereof.

One thing is clear, Ottessa Moshfegh is not merely a teller of tales, she is also naturally unconventional. Growing up as the daughter of  two musicians, one born in Iran, one in Croatia, she admits that she was reading Garcia Marquez, Hemingway and Herman Hesse at age nine or ten and practising the piano 4 hours a day. However, writing was always her first love and she admits that her decision to leave New York as a result of illness was probably the best thing she could have done for her development as a writer. ‘One loses a little bit of one’s identity in New York, because everyone else around you is so aggressive.’ Although she has been described as a writer who has a lot of compassion for her characters, Moshfegh is unequivocal in her approach, ‘I really haven’t done that much to expose the dirty underbelly of womanhood’ she tells us. ‘I could do a lot more’. Watch this space.     Souwie Buis    30th May 2019