Ottessa Moshfegh’s Year of Anything But Rest and Relaxation
The Author of Death in Her Hands Talks to Kristin Iversen About Isolation, Self-Awareness and Cancel Culture
It’s been just over three months since the lists of books started proliferating. There were lists of short books (“read it in one sitting”), lists of long books (“you’ve got nothing but time on your hands”), lists of dystopian books (“they suddenly seem all too real”), lists of disease-filled books (“you’ll never want to leave your home again”), lists of escapist books (“everyone deserves the chance to forget All This for a little while”), and lists of books about solitude (“let’s figure out how to live without ever seeing anyone else again”). The sheer volume of these lists made clear that, though society might be on the brink of total collapse, well, at least there’s good stuff to read.
Perhaps no book was more represented across these pandemic reading lists than Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a perverse paean to self-isolation as a coping strategy for when the world is somehow both too much and yet not enough. Moshfegh’s prior books—particularly the twisted, body horror-saturated mystery, Eileen, and the longing-filled short story collection, Homesick for Another World—have also been recently singled out as particularly emblematic of a culture that feels hopelessly fragmented, one where community isn’t reliant on actual human interaction, but rather is coordinated via online platforms, while users sit at home—alone, together.
Moshfegh’s latest novel, Death in Her Hands, further explores the effects of isolation on a person, the way in which extreme solitude warps our perceptions of reality, and maybe even shifts reality itself. Though Death in Her Hands was initially set for an April release, it was among the many prominent spring titles pushed back to the summer; it now enters a world in which we have all been enduring varying degrees of solitude, and reconstructing our understanding not only of the world around us and the once-solid institutions that suddenly seem so frail, but also of ourselves.
In this way, we are not so dissimilar from Vesta Gul, the elderly widow at the center of Death in Her Hands, who lives alone in the woods with her dog, Charlie, and who, while taking Charlie for a walk in those woods, comes upon a note that alludes to the violent death of a woman named Magda. There is no body, no crime scene; Vesta is at first dismissive: “The story is over just as it’s begun. Was futility a subject worthy of exploration? The note certainly didn’t promise any happy ending.”Moshfegh’s work is notable for her ability to unsettle the reader, and then to leave the reader trapped in that place of discomfort.
Neither does Moshfegh. But happy endings aren’t what her readers are interested in, and it’s not what they will find in Death in Her Hands, which is instead a provocative exploration of what it means to create a new life from scratch, the complications inherent to grieving something it’s better that you lost, and the ways in which solitude forces us to be self-reliant, even as it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the once-clear narrative thread of who that self even is, or ever was.
“This book came out of me in a weird way,” Moshfegh told me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, when we spoke on February 27th—before the lists began to multiply, before the effects of coronavirus would be felt fully across the United States, before the word “weird” would be redefined over and over and over again, in a vain effort to match the weirdness that had become our new normal.
Initially written five years ago, as she was waiting for Eileen to be published, Death in Her Hands was, Moshfegh told me, an experiment in moving forward; she wrote 1,000 words a day, and never looked back at or revised any of her work until she was finished with the novel as a whole. Death retains echoes of that odd urgency and propulsiveness; even though there isn’t much that actually happens, there is a sense of rapid collapse, of the kind of dark revelation that comes with the destruction of societal veneers. It is an apt reminder of what happens when people prioritize politeness over the truth.
“[Vesta] is and has been somebody who’s been avoiding analysis, and living in the present tense in its most gentle and superficial form. And as someone who doesn’t think of herself as gentle or superficial as an author,” Moshfegh said, laughing, “the author in me pushed the story into a violent and deep place.”
Moshfegh’s work is notable for her ability to unsettle the reader, and then to leave the reader trapped in that place of discomfort; confinement—whether temporal or spatial—is always an underlying theme, all the expansiveness within her work comes courtesy of the imagination. What’s so impressive then, is just how far Moshfegh manages to go with her characters, even as they stay resolutely within themselves.
“Part of the ecstasy of creativity is feeling bigger than yourself and outside of yourself,” she told me. “My relationship to wanting that is something I think about a lot… I feel like my life is mostly an effort to connect with myself, and what my purpose is on earth—and that could have been anything, it just so happens that I’m a writer.”
Talking with Moshfegh feels like talking to an author from the days before social media existed; it’s not that she isn’t deliberate about what she’s saying, it’s more that she knows there’s no point in trying to control how what she says will be interpreted. She’s already been on the receiving end of social media criticism for things she’s written before; she’s done interviews where every “like” has been transcribed and left into the final story; she’s aware that there’s a fine line between being perceived as brilliant or a braggart.“If you’re at home and not actually learning and growing or helping anyone while you’re doing it, you might as well be shooting heroin. It’s just more escapism.”
Despite it all, or maybe because of it, she remained candid when talking about the complications inherent to participating in a world—and an industry—where she doesn’t always feel at home.
“I’m not on social media, but I have a sense of what’s happening on social media with censure and this almost fascistic sense of policing and political correctness,” Moshfegh said. “Having an opinion feels kind of dangerous right now, because having any point of view can be labeled as sexist or misogynistic or racist—or, privileged is the thing… If I were a younger person today, I don’t know if I would have the guts to be as outspoken as I allow myself to be right now. Just out of fear that I’m going to be canceled, I guess is the word people are using.”
Moshfegh said she knows people who have been canceled: “I feel for them, and I also understand that the tide has turned. The tide can turn against me too. All it takes is a group of people to start picking out things I’ve said in the media, build a case against me. I hope that doesn’t happen, because I really have the best intentions.”
The ultimate value of having good intentions is something that has been under a lot of scrutiny as of late, as more and more people interrogate the ways in which good intentions that are not followed up with corresponding actions have helped to perpetuate systemic inequalities, especially concerning race and gender. But, for Moshfegh—no matter how static the lives of her characters often seem—it’s clear that she views action as the key to moving forward.
“I don’t find connecting with people in an email very enlightening,” she told me. “L.A. has problems. Talk about isolation—the number of people who are homeless in the city are baffling. I shouldn’t be complaining. I live in a house. I make a living. When I’m hungry, it’s because I feel like being hungry. So, sitting at home and engaging in this emotional and hormonal masturbation online, getting involved in disputes, and getting myself upset by reading the news? That feels like shit. It feels like a complete waste of humanity. It doesn’t do anything. It’s great that we have platforms through which we can communicate, obviously. Obviously. But if you’re at home and not actually learning and growing or helping anyone while you’re doing it, you might as well be shooting heroin. It’s just more escapism.”
Of course, Moshfegh understands the appeal of escapism—both My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands revolve around protagonists who can’t face the world anymore, and find a curious kind of release not only in isolation from the world, but in a destruction of the self. “A lot of people’s coping mechanism is self-destruction,” Moshfegh said in February. “And I don’t condemn that. It’s heartbreaking, but I don’t think it’s a moral issue. And I don’t think it’s a moral issue when people decide to be reclusive and anti-social. Like, why should anyone have to participate in this society?”
Freedom for Moshfegh—and freedom for her characters—does not come because of superficial connections, whether online or in real life. Rather, she told me, even though she recognizes that her form of “dissociation” comes from “putting boundaries around my identity and sense of self, and also trying to break out of it. Not,” she made clear, “break out of it and into something like social media, but break out into the vastness of imagination and all of the other things that we can be a part of in a more cosmic way.”“I realize that my aloneness is only really productive when it’s a pushing-away of distraction.”
This is the kind of freedom Moshfegh gives Vesta, whose inner liberation, at home alone in the woods, leads to places both unexpected and terrifying, places that are bound to discomfit Vesta, places that are unlikely to allow her to relax. In isolation, Vesta deteriorates, even as she becomes free. Moshfegh reminds us that we will all have to confront those things we have been led to think it’s better to ignore. We can’t hide behind a persona forever.
If anything, it’s this last lesson that has become ever more clear for Moshfegh over these last few months. When I reached out to her this June by email, to ask her if her thoughts on the value of online interactions had changed as we’ve all become forced to interact almost solely via Zoom and FaceTime, she demurred, emphasizing the importance of the “‘visceral’ reality, because it’s the reality that really matters.”
She also wrote: “I miss the world, and I miss people. I miss strangers. I miss my friends and family. I realize that my aloneness is only really productive when it’s a pushing-away of distraction. When it is deprivation, it begins to starve my heart of necessary nutrients, and I lose focus.”
Moshfegh said, “This time has been depressing, recently, for me as a writer. My creative process feels stunted at the moment, although that could change by the time I hit ‘send’ on this email. Promoting Death in Her Hands might feel vain and frivolous right now, considering the incredible weight and force of change we are currently experiencing as a culture. But I am happy that I can let this book have its life in the hands of readers. It’s yours now.”
And it’s a strange, but welcome gift indeed. A reminder that there’s no happy endings, but that there can be freedom in isolation, and the possibility of knowing ourselves—and others—a little better. We might not always like what we find, but likability has always been overrated anyway.