Hey guys! It’s Annie again, back for another Book Journey this hot August Tuesday. I am super excited to send this column out to all of you, because this week, I want to talk about the name that’s on everyone’s tongues: Ottessa Moshfegh.
When I went on a socially stunted date a few months ago, just about the only thing that we could generate more than a couple sentences on was a recent encounter with her novel, Eileen. Where language lapsed in the face of awkward silences, Ottessa kept us going for the duration of our couple hours knowing each other, a blip one spring afternoon.
When I went into a friend’s room a couple floors up in my building, I glanced at his shelf and saw Homesick for Another World. I was immediately whipped into a verbal frenzy, and my friend, often reticent to discuss things he actually likes, reciprocated. We spent the next hour mirroring excited hand movements and facial expressions, singing the praises of these unforgivable characters gracing the pages of her novels. We saw a bit of ourselves in them, but just enough not to cause alarm.
I posted a picture recently on my Instagram story, as I am wont to do when I need someone to comment or commiserate or theorize about a book that I’m reading. Usually it’ll generate one or two responses, a little red dot appearing next to the paper airplane, signifying that someone has something to say. I’ll have a brief chat about the cover art or the story arc or our dearest character, but never have I received so many responses as when I posted a picture of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Perhaps it was the dog in the background of the video, or perhaps it was a testament to Ottessa Moshfegh’s sheer magic and effortless, heart wrenching prose, but the world warmly welcomed this text.
As you can already tell by my effusive praise, I have had the recent pleasure to possess a trifecta of free time, a comfy couch, and a copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I purchased my copy at the Hudson News in OAK airport after missing my flight by just a hair and resigning myself to the tiled floor in front of security. My eyes tore through the opening pages of a book I hadn’t even bothered to read the back of, having been drawn by the neon pink on the New York Times Bestseller stamp lining the front cover. From the moment I opened it, there was a deep joy and disgust woven within one another according to Moshfegh’s delicate pattern poisoning me, propelling me forward.
What I mean by this dichotomy is that there is something so beautiful in the way Moshfegh is able to construct these completely unforgivable characters. It is so delicately handled, the way in which she draws us to a person, rationalizes their behavior, forces us to side with them in the way that you would an old friend whose self-destructive tendencies seem tolerable just because you know exactly the emotion behind it.
It is hard to watch. It is hard to see a dear companion push you away along with all of her fictional friends. You are forced to feel for our main character like family.
The premise of the novel is this: A beautiful, well-liked Columbia graduate finds herself soured by years of dissatisfaction and overpowering feeling, and trauma long-time suppressed and now shockingly more so. In the early pages, she rejects her best friend, asking her not to come over so much, in favor of her psychiatrist who provides her with a never-ending slew of multi-syllabic pills, although she never remembers what her patient’s condition even is. Our narrator lies herself in and out of a drug-induced state as her past and future begin to haunt her. She is filled with a deadened apathy, and although her behavior is never anything but self-destructive and hateable, for some reason I find myself loving her, relating to her, rationalizing her behavior just as she does. Moshfegh brings you so psychically close to our narrator that it is simply impossible to separate your train of logic from hers. As you become more and more aware of her history and her trauma, you begin to think like her. You are forced to see her hardship through her own eyes and warped reasoning, and take it as your own in a truly impressive showcase of immersive writing.
A common point is floating on the lips of reviewers and peers of mine, and that is this: Ottessa Moshfegh has written the Millennial novel, proving to a generation of boomers and beyond that an altered attention span and interactions through virtual facades has created something which is, at heart, literary. We still have the dialogue to talk about these things with metaphor, with imagery, with a powerhouse of rhetorical fuel. The chance to brush off an entire generation of academics and writers and creators is over. In our main character’s battle for peace in the face of over-stimulation, over-emotionality and pharmaceutical terror, we see something that is quintessentially modern, innovative and deeply inspiring.
In Homesick for Another World, we read a series of short stories that dictate lives similar to those of her novels. The opening story is reminiscent of our main character spoken about above, a predecessor archetype with the same attitude but different situation. One of my favorite experiences is to find these pieces in an author’s repertoire, to perform a side-by-side analysis and basically nerd out about this fossil of a treasured story. Each of the stories in this book features someone like this, someone deeply distrustful of reality, out of sorts in their own skin and within the walls of their home, a modern take on the schizophrenic literature of the 1960s. Ottessa Moshfegh commands the human condition, critiques it, makes us long for and reject it all at once.
My final recommendation is Moshfegh’s novel Eileen. The character’s hyper aware understanding of herself as an archetype as a reflection of those around her is striking. She gives such a visceral descriptions of her physicality and her status, opening the scene on a city bus. She explores the threshold between the self and others in the environment of the prison at which she works. She is a young woman, facing this depressing liminal space of hallways and cells in the pits of a bitter winter. It is written with such an enticing clarity, sparser prose than some of her later work, really letting the detail carry the reader through the story. A reminiscent tale in which Ottessa Moshfegh takes your heart in her hands, clenches and releases, pulling on the strings of your emotion.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!