Ottessa Moshfegh's Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh visited the Edinburgh International Book Festival and took some time out to chat to us about her new novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Feature by Katie Goh | 20 Aug 2018

Ottessa Moshfegh straddles an unusual position as an author. Despite gaining commercial success with her first novel, the noir-thriller Eileen, which saw her nominated for the Man Booker prize in 2016, Moshfegh has been skirting the margins of the American literary scene as a one-to-watch, alt writer for some years now. McGlue, a novella published pre-Eileen, and her short stories suggest an author more interested in style than Hitchcockian plot. On the surface, Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published earlier in the summer, seems a return to her earlier, more experimental style, yet her unnamed, twenty-something narrator will be familiar to readers of Eileen. Recalling 2000, her year of drug-induced rest and relaxation locked up in her New York apartment on a self-imposed hibernation, it soon becomes clear that the narrator is cracking up.

“[Writing My Year of Rest and Relaxation] did make me insane,” says Moshfegh when we meet in a quiet hotel bar across the street from Charlotte Square during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “But I think that’s probably true for every book. It was a really difficult book to figure out.”

Difficult to be in the head of someone like the novel’s narrator? Moshfegh sighs. “It sounds so stupid but the plot... I couldn’t catch onto the plot for a long time. It took the book in a lot of different directions and it ended up being wrong. Spending so much time in the negative space that that character occupied was part of why it was hard to think outside of her.”

When Eileen was published, reviewers picked up on the narrator’s obsession with her body – something similarly found in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The novel’s narrator has a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to and from her own body. One moment she’s blonde, model-thin, the perfect American woman and the next she’s labouring with grotesque flesh. When asked if she’s interested in depictions of bodies, Moshfegh answers, “it just seems so obvious. A person’s character is so much about their physicality. So to write characters without physicality doesn’t make sense. At the same time, I’m attracted to characters who are uncomfortable with themselves and in their own bodies so describing themselves through their own lens, I think things can get a bit disgusting.”

Moshfegh has become known for her signature style of retrospective narration – her narrators are always recalling the events of the novel with some undisclosed distance of time. “I feel like I’m meant to write in the first person,” she says when asked why she prefers past tense. “My writing feels more like a performance of a voice, like a monologue. There’s something about the delivery that I think isn’t necessarily just literary. I thought, ‘Okay the next challenge should be writing in the third person’ and started working on this next project and no, it had to be the first person,” she laughs. “I just can’t get away from it.”

Like the unnamed protagonist of Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s narrator is furious, disgusted, apathetic to the world around her as much as she is about herself – something with which Moshfegh could empathise. “She and I have some character defects in common. Her harsh, acerbic criticism of society and culture felt pretty natural, I just had to exaggerate it and twist it into her perspective.”

The narrator’s dissatisfaction with the world around her finally tips her into choosing a year away when she’s fired from her job at a bourgeois art gallery. “I see her as being frustrated with the pretension of society and the bullshit,” says Moshfegh. “And the heavy disappointment of living in a world that had so much promise. When you study art what you’re studying is this ineffable, magical sacred act and seeing it turned into an industry in this really ugly, greedy way is a major disappointment. That’s the most superficial disappointment in her life, the most major was being a child that was unloved and uncared for, abandoned when her parents died.”

The decision to make the narrator’s year of rest and relaxation the year 2000 – hibernating away from the world before 9/11 wakes her up, literally and perhaps metaphorically – seems like a deliberate political statement but Moshfegh isn’t so sure. “The decision was less of a decision and more of a recognition,” she explains. “When I got to parts of the book where [the narrator] was describing the art world, I understood that she wasn’t describing what was happening currently, that pre-9/11 New York was a different city. At the turn of the millennium, there was a hopefulness and an okayness. I didn’t want her decision to go into hibernation to be in response to the political or social negative weight that I think a lot of us feel now. I wanted it to be a personal decision. So it all came together and setting it coming up to 2001 and the 9/11 attack – that all kind of clicked into place in the story. I never want to make a political statement.”

When asked about the novel’s gut-punch of an ending, Moshfegh warns “no spoilers” with a smile. “It’s open to interpretation. But…” She pauses. “There isn’t anything that connects you to the feeling of being alive more than when you confront death. That’s what I’ll say.”

Published by Jonathan Cape, £12.99

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 takes place until 27 Aug at Charlotte Square