Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Society by S. Mattison, October 4, 2022
In 2020, I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018). A local bookstore recommended it to me, and I could buy it from the comfort of my room, while the world was in lockdown. I couldn’t put it down – it was funny and melancholy and weird. That lead me to read Death in Her Hands (2020), which was also a page turner, although it didn’t end as well as it started. I was hooked – I thought I was a great fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, an exciting new writer. When the theme for CWLC was announced – I jumped at the chance to explore this author and was relieved no one had selected her.
So, I read Eileen (2015) and Homesick for Another World (2017). Remembering that this year’s theme is not “my favourite author”, this is the result of my year of trying to appreciate Ottessa Moshfegh.
About the Author
Born in 1981, Ms. Moshfegh is the daughter of a Croatian musician mother and an Iranian musician father. She was raised in Massachusetts and trained in classical music. After high school, she attended Barnard, followed by gap years of travel and working with the former editor of The Paris Review, Jean Stein. She then completed an MFA at Brown, followed by a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.
About the Books
I will discuss the books in the order I read them, which I think will highlight what I liked and what I came to struggle with.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a story of an attractive, well educated artistic young woman who decides to use psychopharmaceuticals to hibernate for a year – the book is set in the year 2000 and ends on September 11, 2001. This book is a funny send up of the a genre of book that was popular in the late 90’s, typified by the works of the late Elizabeth Wurtzel. It also takes a good poke at the contemporary art scene (like the film Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)) and popular characterizations of NYC such as Sex and the City. Yet, the melancholy feels real and the narrator’s blythe unawareness of how her friend’s problems mirror her own captures the reader. The terror of 911 is hinted at throughout the book, with the sense that all will end badly. The use of a familiar style layered with Moshfegh’s graphic use of language made this seem very new.
Next, I read Death in Her Hands. This book is also in a familiar genre – a little like Nordy noire, a little like Girl on a Train (Hawkins, 2015). Again, a page turner, but I found the narrator a little to “cringey” in her habits and obsessions. So, again Moshfegh takes something familiar, layers on the graphic language and catches the reader.
After I adopted this author for a CWLC presentation, I dove into Eileen, her first novel (McGlue (2014) is classified as a novella). While in a different genre, Eileen is again the recollection of a faulty narrator in a style reminiscent of a Shirley Jackson. Filled with foreshadowing and with a gloomy New England setting, you are aware from the start it all goes horribly wrong. The language is scatological, filled with the narrator’s body shame and disgust. Again, the narrator is a ‘sad girl’ whose obsession with another causes a cascading series of terrible events. It’s a page turner, but the language didn’t work for me, and the characters seemed unbelievable.
Next, I tried Homesick for Another World, a collection of short stories recommended by my local bookstore. Again, Ms. Moshfegh seems to try a few styles and settings, with horrible unlikeable characters, gritty language and cruel, ugly thoughts and actions piled on. I liked some of these stories, and others less so. I think in general the plot lines could be described as ‘lonely, self-loathing people do things that isolate themselves from love or friendshop’.
I did not read McGlue nor Lapvona. Reviews and excerpts I read from these works suggested that the historical settings allowed Ms. Moshfegh to really unleash the body disgust language and human cruelty themes that I do not enjoy.
In her 2018 essay Jailbait, Ms. Moshfegh describes a relationship of convenience she has as a 17 year old with a much older literary figure. She paints a picture of her, in a sense, leading him on so that he will critique and improve her work. She describes him in scathing terms, and revels in the fact that she gets what she wants and he doesn’t not get sex. She is making the point that she won’t apologize for ambition – something she feels she was criticized for after a interview in the Guardian discussing Eileen.
In 2021, Moshfegh published The Painter on the Street, an essay about her 9/11 experience.
The Press Gang (Art House Writer, Ambitious Popular Novelist or Misunderstood Artist?)
Since 2014, a great deal has been written about Ms. Moshfegh in traditional press (the Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times), arty magazines (Interview, Fanzine), intellectual magazines (Granta, the Atlantic, the New Yorker), GenX press (Vice) and other sources. She can be high handed in her intellectualism, honest in her ambition, self-righteous when criticized, and pretty Southern California depending on the publication and how it fits into her literary ambitions. She is often interviewed by other writers who are admirers – indeed she met her husband after he interviewed her.
So, manipulator or the great new artist of the literary world? I say canny manipulator of popular themes to include some arthouse touches – and that’s a whole lot.