Photograph: Krystal Griffiths
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her stories in the Paris Review, and granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford. MCGLUE, a novella, was selected by Rivka Galchen as the winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose 2014.
Her debut novel, EILEEN, was published by Jonathan Cape in March 2016. It was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Gordon Burn Prize 2016 and the Man Booker Prize 2016, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. A collection of her short stories, HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD, was published by Jonathan Cape in January 2017, followed by MCGLUE, published in the UK for the first time, in May 2017.
Ottessa's new novel, MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION, was published by Jonathan Cape in July 2018.
Praise for MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (2018):
'Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible. She has a freaky and pure way of accessing existential alienation, as if her mind were tapped directly into the sap of some gnarled, secret tree. [...] Moshfegh is known for writing characters who are repulsed by themselves, or who are themselves repulsive. [...] In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she instead builds a façade of beauty and privilege around her characters, forcing the reader to locate repulsion somewhere deeper: in effort, in daily living, in a world that swings between tragic and banal. The book is set two decades ago, but it’s tuned to a hyper-contemporary frequency. [...] Moshfegh’s merciless writing builds the case for her narrator’s solution. I momentarily considered giving up on human relationships after reading the sentence “She probably wanted to pretend to want to cheer me up.” [...] Painful, funny.' Jia Tolentino, New Yorker
'Because this is a novel by the superabundantly talented Moshfegh [...] we know in advance that it will be cool, strange, aloof and disciplined. The sentences will be snipped as if the writer has an extra row of teeth. [...] If [the narrator is] on downers, the prose in My Year of Rest and Relaxation is mostly on uppers. Like its narrator, this is a remorseless little machine. Moshfegh’s sentences are piercing and vixenish, each one a kind of orphan. She plays interestingly with substance and illusion, with dread and solace on the installment plan. [...] Moshfegh writes with so much misanthropic aplomb that she is always a deep pleasure to read. She has a sleepless eye and dispenses observations as if from a toxic eyedropper: “Caffeine was my exercise”; “Rejection, I have found, can be the only antidote to delusion. [...] Though this novel is set nearly 20 years ago, it feels current.' Dwight Garner, New York Times
'One of the pleasures of reading Ottessa Moshfegh is that - unusually these days - she rarely writes in the present tense. Instead, the sense of immediacy, the sense of being inside a character, the sense of things happening and having psychic value, both to the writer and her reader, is provided by the structure and content of her sentences. Matter of fact, full of bravado yet always wryly observational, these stack up steadily to construct the brisk interior landscape of [My Year of Rest and Relaxation]. [...] One of the other pleasures of reading Moshfegh is her relentless savagery. All this is delivered as comic - it is comic - but it's not exactly funny, though of course we laugh. [...] [By the end] it has been viciously and decisively witty; and it has demonstrated the author's intellectual and emotional bona fides: now it needs to wake from its own dream and offer conclusions. When it does, almost as an afterthought, the shock is profound and disorienting.' M John Harrison, Guardian
'It's a knockout. [...] The boldest literary statement of passive resistance since Herman Melville’s scrivener famously declared “I would prefer not to”. [...] [E]nnui has never been so engrossing. It speaks to Moshfegh’s storytelling skillsthat an account of someone sleeping for a year is as gripping as My Year of Rest and Relaxation reads. [...] Today, “apathy” is often understood as a listless indifference that’s considered at best unwelcome and at worst dangerous. In this deliciously dark and unsettling modern fairytale, however, Moshfegh offers us a portrait of passivity as rebellion. As Slavoj Žižek once wrote, “Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”' Lucy Scholes, Financial Times
'The most exciting book of 2018 [...] ingenious, darkly comic [...] The novel speeds to the best last page of any book I've likely ever read. It completes Moshfegh's bridge between the time we live in today - the politics, the apocalyptic tint to our lives, the impulses we indulge in and desires that we have - with the numbing chaos of the months surrounding 9/11. Two periods of time when it feels like everything's ending, but maybe everything's starting all over again too. [...] My Year of Rest and Relaxation could easily swing into a memory-bending thriller, or a dark odyssey into the dangers of the pharmaceutical industry - but instead Moshfegh anchors it to her premise of a girl who's simply, truly, lost - a perfect portrait of someone who desperately wants to be asleep, in order to finally feel awake.' i-D
'[A]t once a jumble of influences - Oblomov by way of Tama Tanowitz and Elizabeth Wurtzl, Bartleby with a touch of Bright Lights, Big City, a lunatic psychiatrist who melds Ayn Rand and William Burroughs - and unnervingly original. It takes guts, after all, to spin a yarn out of a rich Upper East Side orphan who decides to put herself to sleep for a year in an attempt at rebirth. [...] Above all, Moshfegh is a merciless comedian of vanity and frailty. [...] [F]or all her wise-cracking, the history of parental neglect, bereavement and social savagery that has brought [the narrator] low is genuinely affecting, and it's hard not to endorse her desire to be rid of it.' Alex Clark, Spectator
'Moshfegh writes crisp, cutting prose, yet her syntax softens like a Dalí clock as it tries for a residue of happiness [...] My Year of Rest and Relaxation is whip-smart, continuously compelling, and acerbic in all the right ways.' Telegraph *****
'I can’t remember the last time I read a book that gave me such nonstop pleasure. The narrator is self-absorbed, arrogant, broken, and determined to medicate herself into a coma. That’s pretty much the whole premise: she evades the affections of her despised best friend and scams various drugs out of her psychiatrist, working towards the combinations she’ll need to achieve her dream of sleeping for a year. That either makes sense to you or it doesn’t. If you read Twitter, or the news in any form, it probably does. Either way, you should read this book.' Lit Hub
'[Moshfegh] is adept at crafting dark, compelling female characters who violate the rules of femininity. The unnamed narrator of this novel is no exception: she’s an anti-charismatic, agoraphobic Holly Golightly—a visitor passing through her own life, a self-impersonator who looks the part but has no real fondness for her own performance. [...] [MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION] serves as a reminder that there is something to life outside of the economic exchange of time for money and money for goods, even if that unnamed thing is obscure and perplexing and just a bit monstrous—particularly in a woman. Literature may not have all the answers, but it can show us the power and allure of saying “No.”' Vanity Fair
'[Our narrator is] like Carrie Bradshaw reimagined by Fassbinder for the age of big pharma. That the novel is set in 2000 doesn't make it feel less queasily resonant. [...] What does it mean that one of the funnier, more refreshing novels to appear so far this year is about a woman who is either in a fugue state or doing everything she can to get there? [...] Call it the antisocial novel. This new, less dilatory mode doesn't ask to be understood, but haunts us with a bleakly dead-on, diffident humor about the pain of being alive. It doesn't perambulate, but plummets with the graceful inevitability of a shot bird. [...] [It] pulses with a different kind of noticing, the kind that shows us things that we might not want to see with a doomed clarity' New York Times
'Though the details of Moshfegh's books vary wildly, her work always seems to originate from a place that is not quite earth, where people breathe some other kind of air. [...] [Her] characters tend to be amoral, frank, bleakly funny, very smart, and perverse in their motivations, in ways that destabilize the reader's assumptions about what is ugly, what is desirable, what is permissible, and what is real.' Ariel Levy, New Yorker
'As arresting as [Eileen], My Year of Rest and Relaxation displays [Moshfegh's] inimitable style [...] A steady supply of mordant wit and snappy dialogue help sustain momentum, as does Moshfegh's memorably original phrasing. [...] Even readers who anticipate the final sting will still be affected by the poignant end-note. A study of alienation and dislocation, Moshfegh's compelling novel is filled with warped desires and reckless pursuits, but also with wisdom and warmth.' Economist
'This book isn't just buzzy and maniacally entertaining - it's a mean-spirited, tenderhearted masterpiece. [...] I finished the book in two unsettling nights. Reading about her pursuit of everlasting sleep easily came before my need to get the requisite eight hours.' New York Post
'[Moshfegh produces] gripping stories with protagonists both alien and familiar. [...] Though Relaxation takes place mostly within a dingy apartment and the office of a phenomenally incompetent psychiatrist, the novel is impossible to put down.' LA Mag
Praise for HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD (2017):
'Moshfegh's dark, confident, prickling stories are mostly about youngish men and women not so far out of college. Some are schoolteachers, some unemployed. One is a Yale graduate in debt, another a callow young actor from small-town Utah who is about to be devoured by Hollywood. They've taken a wrong turn somewhere and find themselves hunkering down in nowhere towns, dismal cabins, shabby apartments. Often they are recently divorced or separated. They have little money and no support systems. They are in flight from, or feuding with, parents and siblings... If her work has echoes of other writers, her tone is her own. At her best, she has a wicked sort of command. Sampling her sentences is like touching a mildly electrified fence. There is a good deal of humor in “Homesick for Another World,” and the chipper tone can be unnerving. It’s like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood.' Dwight Garner, New York Times
'An irresistible read... [Moshfegh] writes terrific, attention-grabbing openings, and impactful last lines that don’t strain for a lapidary effect. Her damaged-girl deadpan snark is second to none, but she inhabits other character types with ease — among them a middle-aged Chinese ogler, a lunkheaded would-be Hollywood actor, and a creepy old man in Anytown, US. Her sentences seem casual and close to spoken language in a way that conceals considerable artistry. And the authority of her storytelling means that she’s able to bring the reader along with her on some surprising paths to her typically desolate destinations... these [stories are] immaculate calling-cards.' Financial Times
'[A] darkly comical collection... [Moshfegh's] limpid, rhythmic prose, sumptuous with detail, isn’t exclusive to west coast towns: it can be aroused by all sorts of American landscapes provided they are past their best. Decay, both moral and corporal, is Moshfegh’s favourite trope and favourite subject... Mould grows best in closed areas. The miserable towns and half-built apartment blocks provide part of this containment; maze-like plots the remainder. For Moshfegh’s protagonists often retain hopes of fulfilment, albeit generally of the vaguest sort, and powered by these, they set out on bizarre quests...These quests do not fail, but fizzle: the sex with the mystery woman turns out to be so-so; the couple are let out by the janitor; the doctor gets drunk on a beach with a different beach boy. Epiphanies are never arrived at, selfknowledge never attained, because these are contemporary stories and closure is old hat. Besides, it lets the light in. Instead, in the hopeless dark, Moshfegh’s noble rot grows a new, baroque protrusion; her Stinking Bishop cheese acquires a new richness of flavour.' Guardian
'In her extraordinary, impeccably dark and terrifying novel Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, Moshfegh fused the despairing voice of an older woman looking back at a tragic incident to a thrilling plot that takes the lyrical power of the short story and sustains it for a fantastic few hundred pages. Moshfegh quickly established herself as an important new voice in the literary world, and her concerns for those isolated not only in the margins of society but within the physical confines of the body itself mirrored the work of brilliant predecessors like Mary Gaitskill, Christine Schutt and, in some ways, Eileen Myles. “Homesick for Another World” continues that exploration but with a wider range, over a larger landscape. It’s a paradox that in order to locate a sense of national character — and that everelusive American dream — art must continually probe the places where that dream seems to have all but disappeared.' David Means, New York Times
'[Moshfegh's] best stories, such as ‘Bettering Myself’, about an alcoholic teacher in freefall, have enough depth and sincerity of emotion bubbling beneath them to give substance to Moshfegh’s undeniably entertaining voice.' Spectator
'It is impossible to actually like any of the characters in these stories... But it is equally impossible not to find
their lives compelling. Moshfegh’s powerful, pristine prose shines a light on the dark side of these characters and may even force readers to face up to some uncomfortable truths about their own darker selves. Her endings are never happy, but they often contain hope — which can be more convincing.' Daily Mail
'[Moshfegh] can really write and has a pitch-black sense of humour.' Sunday Times
Praise for EILEEN (2016):
'Moshfegh's debut, already praised by John Burnside as a "modern masterpiece", fully lives up to the hype. A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven's wing, Eileen is effortlessly stylish and compelling... The realisation that Eileen is an unreliable narrator is hardly surprising (even her name begins with an anagram of "lie"), but the result is a teasing game of hide and seek, as we try to work out which secrets she is keeping from us, and which she is keeping from herself. If this is a world full of hidden surprises, like the frozen field mouse she keeps in the glove compartment of her car, it is one where a thick layer of snow makes it seem as if even nature is hiding something. That sense of revelations being witheld makes Eileen's final showdown especially chilling. It also makes the reader wonder how much more there is to come from Moshfegh herself, a writer who may be surrounded by noisy publicity, but achieves her own most powerful effects as quietly and stealthily as snowfall' Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times
'Eileen is an accomplished, disturbing and creepily funny first novel... Moshfegh's control of tone and pace is masterly, her ventriloquism impeccable, and the period detail unobtrusively spot-on. I was occasionally reminded of Nabokov and Lena Dunham, among others, but her voice is her own, and immensely promising' Spectator
'A captivating novel... Eileen [is] not just an enjoyable novel but an interesting one... That [Moshfegh is] a writer of rare talent and assurance is evident from the start of Eileen: the sentences unspool effortlessly, almost casually, though the material is dark and psychologically complex. The writing is shot through with lovely observation and detail... Although its central character isn't remotely self-pitying, there is, underlying Eileen, a sense of real sadness, a lament for something that went terribly wrong (and, one suspects, still is, 50 years later). Just occasionally, there are hints of a better, more open soul imprisoned within the brittle outer casing... It's a testament to Moshfegh's skill that she can capture such extremes of light and shadow and, moreover, make us care about a woman who is, in so many ways, intensely dislikeable' Financial Times
'Perverse, squalid and sinister, this expertly paced novel spends so much time hinting at the past crimes of its outsider heroine that I felt sure the enventual "reveal" would be an anticlimax. And that's exactly where Moshfegh wants you: softened up and read to be knocked flat by a narrative left turn of gut-curdling horror... The final scene is electric... It's also fun to watch Moshfegh nail two of the harder tricks in fiction. Her retrospective first-person narrative keeps us in suspense without ever once requiring Eileen to feign innocence about her own biography (not many writers manage that). And she delivers a thumping finish to match the build-up: a single line near the end has the effect of a thunderbolt, leaving us drumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius' Telegraph *****
'The great power of this book is that Eileen is never simply a literary gargoyle; she is painfully alive and human, and Moshfegh writes her with a bravura wildness that allows flights of expressionistic fantasy to alternate with deadpan matter of factness... Eileen has the over-examined, twisted, self-mocking rage of [Dostoevsky's] Underground Man, and as a character study, [Eileen] is a remarkable tour de force... As an evocation of physical and psychological squalor, Eileen is original, courageous and masterful. Moshfegh never panders; page after page, she forces us to inhabit the ugliness of humanity and the humanity of ugliness' Guardian
'I thought of The Bell Jar while reading this novel. In some respects Eileen is the odd double of Plath's Esther Greenwood... [T]here is something satisfyingly unsettling about the novel - the awfulness of Eileen's life crackles throughout the air of X-Ville like static electricity, ready to discharge in some unlikely place or upon some unlikely person. And when it does, when the bell jar lifts, our heroine "open to the circulating air" and finally free, we can't help but feel the slightest bit glad' Lydia Kiesling, Guardian
'Eileen is as vivid and human as they come. And because Eileen’s favorite topic is Eileen, she does not skimp on the details. She keeps a dead field mouse in the glove box of her Dodge Coronet. She wears lipstick to hide the natural shade of her lips, which are the color of her nipples... Through Eileen, Moshfegh is exploring a woman’s relationship to her body: the disconnection, the cultural claims, the male prerogative... [Moshfegh] writes beautiful sentences. One after the other they unwind — playful, shocking, wise, morbid, witty, searingly sharp. The beginning of this novel is so impressive, so controlled yet whimsical, fresh and thrilling, you feel she can do anything. You wouldn’t care if nothing much ever happened, if it all weren’t leading up to a crime. But it is. And Eileen’s life will be set on an entirely new course because of it. There is that wonderful tension between wanting to slow down and bathe in the language and imagery, and the impulse to race to see what happens, how it happens' Lily King, The New York Times
'There is a punkish radicalism to [Moshfegh's] depiction of a mousy young woman as a perverse grotesque' New Yorker
Praise for MCGLUE (2014):
'A sextant of the psyche, McGlue works its grand knowing through the mouthfeel of language; it’s a sharply intelligent, beautiful, and singular novel. A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant' Rivka Galchen, author of American Innovations
A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?
This story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs, designed to heal us from our alienation from this world, shows us how reasonable, even necessary, that alienation sometimes is. Blackly funny, both merciless and compassionate – dangling its legs over the ledge of 9/11 – this novel is a showcase for the gifts of one of America’s major young writers working at the height of her powers.
There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories, something almost dangerous while also being delightful – and often even weirdly hilarious. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet; all yearning for connection and betterment, in very different ways, but each of them seems destined to be tripped up by their own baser impulses. What makes these stories so moving is the emotional balance that Moshfegh achieves – the way she exposes the limitless range of self-deception that human beings can employ while, at the same time, infusing the grotesque and outrageous with tenderness and compassion. The flesh is weak; the timber is crooked; people are cruel to each other, and stupid, and hurtful, but beauty comes from strange sources, and the dark energy surging through these stories is oddly and powerfully invigorating.
Moshfegh has been compared to Flannery O’Connor, Jim Thompson, Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith but her voice and her mastery of language and tone are unique. One of the most gifted and exciting young writers in America, she shows us uncomfortable things, and makes us look at them forensically – until we find, suddenly, that we are really looking at ourselves.
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s carer in his squalid home and her day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a handsome prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at the prison, Eileen is enchanted and unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.
Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England, blending true noir and the eerie, unforgettable books of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, this mesmeric, terrifying, sublimely funny debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.
McGlue is in the hold, too drunk from the night before to be sure of name or situation or orientation - he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A sail on the seas of literary tradition, Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard, a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.
McGlue was selected by Rivka Galchen as the first recipient of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose.