• Prisoners of Love: On Ottessa Moshfegh

    Justin Taylor

    Spring 2020

    McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (Fence Books, 2014)

     Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)

     Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2017)

     My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2018)

     Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2020)

    In my younger and more vulnerable years—i.e., grad school—my thesis advisor gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, mostly because I failed so utterly to follow it. “Don’t publish your juvenilia,” he used to say, by which he meant that the longer you wait to make your debut, the stronger that debut will be. He did not publish a word of fiction until his forties, and his first novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But those had been the eighties and these were the aughts, and I wanted to litter the internet and any journal that would have me with experimental flash fiction, bad poetry, and hotheaded blog posts—so I did. In the end, I’m not sure there were any real consequences other than a lot of wasted time and some anxiety about pages four through seventeen of the Google search results for my byline, but I still wish I’d listened to my teacher.

    I sometimes wonder whether Ottessa Moshfegh was ever given similar advice. If so, she was smart enough to take it, though it seems just as likely that she did not need to be told. After graduating from Barnard, Moshfegh, who grew up in New England, had a brief stint in the publishing industry. She decamped first to Providence for the Brown MFA program, then to Stanford for a Stegner Fellowship, and now lives in Los Angeles. Moshfegh and I are both in our late thirties, and yet with the exception of an excerpt from a since-abandoned novel-in-progress that appeared in Vice in 2007, there’s scant record of her work prior to the short story “Disgust,” which appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Paris Review.

    “Disgust” (later retitled “Mr. Wu” for publication in Homesick for Another World) follows a middle-aged Chinese man’s obsession with the woman who works the front desk at the internet café he frequents. The story is set in mainland China (where Moshfegh briefly lived), but other than that, it bears all the hallmarks of her style: cleanly and vividly told, casually and bracingly cruel, set in a world of pervasive, unrelenting ugliness.

    Mr. Wu “knew full well that any normal man in his position would simply ask her out to dinner. But that seemed to him to be the worst possible tactic to employ. If he gave her an opportunity to reject him, he was sure she’d take it.” Instead, he steals her phone number and exchanges anonymous text messages with her, while continuing his regular visits to the internet café, as well as to a brothel across town, where he picks out a teenager whose face “was covered in hard little pimples.” Mr. Wu performs a range of acts on the passive body of the girl, including penetrating her anus with his fingers and then making her lick them clean, while fantasizing about the age-appropriate woman from the internet café. When he does reveal himself to the woman, her rejection is swift and liberating: his fantasy ruined and his cynicism confirmed, he has nothing left to hold him back. In the story’s final scene, Mr. Wu is raising his arms “in victory” after setting a grocery store ablaze with an errant firework.

    Moshfegh’s debut novella, McGlue, is a bleak historical fiction about an alcoholic sailor, written in a minimalist, Lish-y, ahistorical argot. (The book is set in 1851 but makes promiscuous use of the word “fag,” which didn’t evolve into an anti-gay slur until the 1920s.) McGlue won the inaugural Fence Modern Prize in Prose and was published in 2014. Rivka Galchen, the prize judge, described Moshfegh as “a scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once” who “transforms a poison into an intoxicant.” Intoxicants, of course, are poisons by definition (ethanol binds to glutamate whether you’re drinking Jameson or nail polish remover), but Galchen’s broader point stands. Moshfegh’s primary epistemological frameworks are revulsion and emesis. A bountiful hatred howls through her work. In its finest moments, this hatred registers as vitality, a lust for life in precisely the chaotic, self-destructive sense that Iggy Pop meant in 1977 (or Irving Stone in 1934), though Moshfegh’s low-energy nihilists probably have a more natural affinity with the recent Lana Del Rey record of the same name. Moshfegh is part of a tradition of malignant dyspepsia that unites such otherwise disparate figures as Philip Roth, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Elena Ferrante, Renata Adler, Michel Houellebecq, Yukio Mishima, and D. H. Lawrence.

    The same year that Moshfegh finished her Stegner Fellowship in 2015, she published her debut novel, Eileen, a noirish meditation on the depths of human debasement cannily marketed by the Penguin Press as a literary thriller. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

    In a now-notorious profile in the Guardian, published on the occasion of the Booker nomination, Moshfegh claimed that Eileen had “started out as a fuck-you joke,” written not in a burst of inspiration but rather because “there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and . . . talented: did I say that already?” She claimed to have bought a copy of Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel and followed it for the first sixty days, before being overtaken by her own boredom with the formula. As you might imagine, this news delighted some readers and critics while enraging others. I was among the delighted, or at any rate the amused. My sense was that this was a ridiculous boast to make if it wasn’t true and an even more ridiculous boast to make if it actually was. But in a literary world hobbled by inside baseball, lazy poptimism, and art-as-therapy naïveté, Moshfegh’s refusal to demur on the question of ambition or to be demure (read = feminine) in her self-presentation, struck me as a burst of fresh air. If that air was a bit hot, so be it.

    Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh’s first story collection, was published in 2017. (Nearly all of its fourteen stories first appeared in publications such as Granta, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review, which awarded her its prestigious Plimpton Discovery Prize in 2013.) Her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a woman in pre-9/11 New York City who devises an aggressive prescription drug regimen that will allow her to “hibernate” for a year, was published in 2018. It hit the New York Times best seller list and was named a best book of the year by Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and NPR, among many others. A film adaptation by Yorgos Lanthimos—Oscar-winning director of The Favourite—is purportedly in the works.

    When her third novel, Death in Her Hands, was announced in May of 2019, I was less surprised to hear that it was a “major deal” (publishing-speak for $500,000 or more) than that she had finished another novel so quickly. I thought of something else she’d said in that Guardian profile, about the writing of Eileen: “I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it.”

    From Mr. Wu forward, Moshfegh’s characters have always pursued oblivion.

    Justin Taylor’s next novel, Reboot, is forthcoming from Pantheon in 2024. He is also the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, and the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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