Ottessa Moshfegh plumbs the absurd and the profane for the few moments of clarity one experiences under great duress. Her fiction, with memorably unreliable narrators saddled with unorthodox desires, dramatizes the manifold ways that self-deception perpetuates the conditions of our own misery—and, sometimes, a descent into madness. Moshfegh achieves all of this with pristine prose. In this way, she hews closer to Vladimir Nabokov than she does to her contemporaries; for both writers, language is simultaneously a puzzle box and a revelation.
Moshfegh’s latest novel, Death in Her Hands, was drafted between her breakout novel Eileen, which was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Hallucinatory at moments but always wry, the book begins as a mystery novel, with lonely old widow Vesta Gul finding an ominous note on the ground while out on a walk: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her body.” But there is no body or evidence of any crime, and the more Vesta lets herself hypothesize what might have happened to Magda, the more she finds herself turning her investigation inward, toward the sum total of her own life.
Before the book’s release in late June, the author and I chatted over Skype, with Moshfegh sitting in her backyard, taking puffs on a cigarette between her considered answers and an occasional whistle to her dog. We talked about divinity, her approach to art, and getting into her characters’ heads.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
RH: It’s interesting that Vesta’s performativity is instinctually literary! The novel is a very self-referential book.
OM: I see what you mean. It’s a book that writes about writing and the creative process. It’s a character going through something—i.e., investigating a murder—the same way someone might go through writing a murder mystery novel. So she is essentially being guided by writing principles rather than life principles. What that allows for is this kind of solubility in the reality of her world, where things that get written can cross over from the imagination into reality, that also mimics the breakdown of what we think is her grip on her sanity or her life itself—that maybe she’s losing her grip on her actual life. That was an effect I wanted for the book. I didn’t want for the novel to be a murder mystery; I wanted it to be an exploration of character and the dissolution of a life, to see what it would be like if that dissolution was something agented by the life itself. I guess that’s why I called it Death in Her Hands: because she dies. She didn’t kill herself, but she’s experiencing her own death in a way that is also the most alive time of her life so far, in some sense.
RH: Religiosity suffuses the book: Vesta is living in Levant, driving to Bethsmane (a portmanteau of Bethlehem and Gethsemane), listening to Pastor Jimmy on the radio, and trying to avoid a police officer she decides is named Ghod, who is hellbent on thwarting her investigation. How does that tie in with her inherent literariness?
OM: The Christianity in particular is just part of the fabric of her culture. I could have written the story in any culture, but I chose to write it in the culture that I grew up close to, which was America. She was raised in a culture that was Christian and moved to a place that is also Christian; I just accepted that was the culture that I’m writing about and that someone of her age and impressionability would have internalized. There’s this voice coming through the radio that isn’t the voice of God, but is speaking to her from some unseen place about God, that she could now question and be critical of. In its intangibility, there’s potential for doubt and criticism. I saw that element as something that she could overcome perhaps, because it had been so fundamental to her belief system. That belief system had allowed her to live such an oppressed and repressed life so far that in retooling her spiritual paradigm according to her own imagination, she was empowering herself away from a paradigm that would have her be quiet and passive and just accept whatever the world handed to her or asked of her. She was taking her life back.
RH: How does this search for freedom relate to art and writing in particular?
OM: Well, I guess that’s what I’m still searching for. Art, for me, is like an attempt to… it’s an expression of God within ourselves. It’s a transmission of our spirit. There has to be some substance that we feel out in order to know where our boundaries are and what our consistency is. And that’s why humans need relationships to grow, I think, and why we learned so much from struggle. Freedom is the ability to choose what struggle you want in order to learn what you personally desire to learn. And if you want to grow according to your own path, you can go seek out the experiences and the people that you think will help you, rather than be pummeled by external forces that you haven’t chosen to act upon you.
We don’t want to read a story about a character that just stays the same throughout the whole book. I mean, at least I don’t. Like, if the story is about that character, I am interested in how that moment changes the character through the course of the narrative. I have to think about what that character is up against and how that conflict would lead her to new thoughts, decisions we wouldn’t expect, realizations about herself and her past, where she was wrong, where she had been deceived. It would be great if we could all live freely, but we haven’t been. So I like it when people try to get free; I like those stories. Sometimes it’s really misguided or there’s been trauma, so the way that you approach your own freedom might actually be deleterious to yourself, or it might mean that you can’t live this life, actually, that you need to move on to the next one or something.
RH: Can art be transformative, then, in that sense of getting one to live more freely?
OM: Well, I think step one is that a story can be transportive, in that you can be in someone else’s life and experience and consciousness. That expands you, to imagine that you are not you but someone else with different limitations and associations. And if you can let go of who you are and be someone else for the course of reading, or at least be in that person’s mind, you might have an experience that you couldn’t have if you were trapped in yourself.
I don’t know if I think that the definition of art is transformative experience, but things that I like are things that make me feel like the human experience is larger than just my experience. That I can feel things that I hadn’t felt before. I can imagine ways of being that I’m not.
RH: How do you achieve that—to write about people who aren’t you, especially when you’re a meticulously interior writer?
OM: I think that it’s a really important question. If you’re a writer who wants to write in the first person, I think partly you have to allow your character to speak from a place that is their privacy, and partly you have to be the author and guide your exploration of that character toward a story in which that character can have some kind of epiphany. It’s like playing the piano; you’re using both of your hands. One of them is feeling and seeking to understand, and the other one is directing and manipulating.
That’s what so much of writing is: a surrender to language and the limitations of language, the expectations of a story, what a reader needs to feel that they’re being handled effortlessly through a narrative, and also the magic of communication, despite all these limitations that we have. All you have in a book is the written word. Through whatever combination of words, however you order them, those are the words that the reader is internalizing silently and hearing as a voice in their mind. It’s like a virtual reality experience, in a way. Once you get in there, you start leading.
But language alone can’t move someone. Like, if I just wrote one word over and over again, it’s not going to have the same effect as if I sang the same note. Like, you can sing the same note a million ways—your artistry can come through in how you do that. But I can only write words, letters. I can change the font, but it’s still going to be the word. So my job is to put one word next to another word to create a sentence or phrase, something evocative so that in your mind you’re not going to just be seeing words; you’re going to be seeing what I’m evoking with them. It’s something that emanates from the language but is not the language itself. I mean, that’s the trouble, that’s the trouble that I love: that we just have words when we’re writing, and we have to get them to do something, you know?
RH: How do you write divinity, then, to express God within your characters?
OM: Sometimes it looks like coincidence—that’s the most obvious way. As vague as this sounds, the way that I experience it as a writer is when I can detach from my own voice, or the expectations that I have for a character or a narrative voice, and hear something else that isn’t me. Divinity is the thing that isn’t me; it’s the thing that I’ve been trying to hear. So much of my consciousness is like in this one area, and when I’m writing, I have to somehow access this other area where other people’s stories and experiences can be larger than mine. Which isn’t to say that I feel like I’m writing about strangers—I get to know my characters very intimately, and sometimes they feel friendly and sometimes they don’t. McGlue [from her debut novella McGlue] was not a friendly narrator to me, and really, neither was the character in My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
RH: Really? In what way?
OM: I mean, she hurt me a lot. It hurt to put myself in her place. It hurt less to be in Vesta’s place because she wasn’t so hard. Vesta is, I think, by nature a caring person, and she’s motivated by her curiosity in a way that’s empathic and appreciative of beauty. The pain that she felt is all in the past, so it was almost like it’s safe now, because it’s over. And yeah, she’s a bit alienated from society, and her judgments can be harsh and maybe unkind, but there’s a benevolence to her relationship to her world in general. I wasn’t afraid of Vesta, and actually having to enter her mind and world and story was a relief.
RH: Can hostility be generative for art?
OM: Well, I don’t know. I mean, people should be as hostile as they want in their writing. Do it there, don’t do it out in the world to other people—don’t fucking hurt anybody, basically. Writing requires, at times, an incredible amount of self-restraint and surrender. Sometimes anger or some other very powerful emotion can help you be motivated to get past your own shit and access the bigger thing that you want this book to communicate. I’m not going to write a book about how somebody cut me off; that wouldn’t be a good book. I think intense emotions can be good energy to make us want to be creative.
RH: Why are you attracted to the novel form?
OM:The process of writing a novel, for me, feels like the most exciting thing that I do. It’s starting with nothing and creating everything. And the novels that I write, I feel like I put everything into them—they become my life. In a short story, I kind of feel like my point of view is stationary and the story just comes out like so, but with a novel I’m moving in all these directions, and I feel freer. What I’ve learned from writing each novel has been so immense and abstract, in many ways beyond the psychological. If my mind were space the way that Vesta describes her mind-space, I can feel that space shifting, changing dimensions, moving and filling and expanding in different colors… I don’t know, it’s a very spiritual experience. It’s like conquering your own ego or something, which is impossible.