We caught up with the author to talk about her new novel and how she sees her popularity as similar to how people like cronuts.
Reading one of Ottessa Moshfegh's works is the literary equivalent of having someone hold your eyelids open and force you to stare at a battered, bloated corpse. Her writing is notable for its brutal and startling honesty, and her newest novel, Eileen, continues this tradition. It says to the reader: "Look at Eileen. Look at this woman. Look at how she has been abused and manipulated. Look what society has done to her. Look what you have done."
Since publishing her first story with VICE in 2007, about the time some crackheads stole the door to her roof, Moshfegh has been a staple of our annual fiction issue, a Plimpton Prize winner, a Stegner Fellow, and a National Endowment for the Arts grantee. Her first novel, McGlue, tracks the drunken innards of a 19th-century brain-injured sailor, and her stories, which are soon to appear in collection form, explore everything from Chinese brothels and dick-drawing New York Catholic schools to vain Malibu men with pimply-bad skin.
Last month, Moshfegh and I spoke in my Nashville home about her realization that she's neither rich nor white, and the fucked-up paradigm of a world divided between those who have won and those who have lost.
VICE: How do you understand people's love for your writing?
Ottessa Moshfegh: The affection many people have for my writing strikes me as similar to the affection they might have for cronuts—those ten-dollar donuts, or whatever the next low-brow meets high-brow fad food is. Eating cronuts makes us feel like we're slumming without actually having to eat like we're poor. It happens all the time. Like gourmet corn dogs, this obsession with bacon. My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it's very refined—the depth of it hides behind its sophistication. It's like seeing Kate Moss take a shit. People love that kind of stuff.
In McGlue there is a character, Johnson, who is very wealthy and uses his wealth to control the protagonist, McGlue. Similarly, in Eileen there is Rebecca, a wealthy, Harvard-educated, manipulative foil to your down-and-out Eileen. Do you see a connection between Johnson and Rebecca and the way they respectively hold power over McGlue and Eileen?
The story of privilege is one of the stories I am interested in. Until recently I was a complete asshole in regards to my perspective on the planet. I really felt that I was special because I was American, because I went to school. I couldn't see how judgmental and arrogant I had become about people. I had no sympathy for others. I would look at a person in trouble and think, If they were as smart as me they wouldn't be in that situation. And this was totally in response to feeling that if I didn't have that attitude I was going to be on the flip side and I was going to be a nobody. Either you were an asshole with power or you were a victim with none. Either you have privilege and power and you use it to abuse people to maintain your status or you are an abused person. My paradigm was so fucked up. And that's just not what reality is. There isn't one clear division between my life and somebody else's life in those terms. Focusing on those terms was the poison that I was contributing to the world and the poison I fed myself. It was an outward and an inward poisoning. I have had to recognize that.
The abused-abuser type of relationship that Eileen and Rebecca have is very common, where you are unsure about someone, and then because they validate you—they like what you do, how you look, and so on—you are led to conclude that you have misjudged them, because how could someone who recognizes your worth be in the wrong?
Well, sometimes it is true that you have misjudged someone. But I think we are all susceptible to seduction. We manipulate each other all the time to various degrees. Rebecca has an agenda. Her intentions come from a good place, but she is just so stupidly disorganized. And so naive. She's not a very believable character. She feels very fictional to me.
She feels very real to me. I have had many Rebeccas in my life.
I find it really hard to picture somebody being so phony.
Maybe I have just met very phony people? Rebecca is a character that spent the summer in South Africa and started a completely ineffective non-profit that sells scarves. She has a total savior complex about coming there and fixing the problems of X-ville [where Eileen lives], without knowing anything about X-ville. This "I'm gonna change the world" attitude was what was so familiar.
That is really interesting. I pictured Rebecca coming at her idealism much more ideologically. I imagined that when she was at Harvard she was studying with psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary and others who were talking a lot about consciousness. That doesn't go into the book because obviously Rebecca isn't going to talk to Eileen about Timothy Leary. Rebecca has no respect for Eileen's consciousness. Rebecca treats Eileen like a child and relates to her like she is in a TV show.
So why does Rebecca go to X-ville?
Rebecca has had a paradigm shift, but she isn't evolved enough to start liberating people the way she envisions. This is the problem with enlightenment. Anyone who has had a really deep psychedelic experience has had this experience where you come back to material reality and you look around and have to question— how can I live in this dumb world with what I now know? How can I continue to exist in this same shitty reality? I just experienced what God is. How do I now go pay my taxes and walk the dog and have a conversation with my husband who knows nothing of what I know?
I think Rebecca has had an intense spiritual experience and has become inspired to change the world. But how do you change a world you don't come from? I think Rebecca's desire to change the prison and X-ville, places she doesn't understand, is violently flawed. It is very similar to the South Africa example.
In your forthcoming story collection, do you have a lot of these Johnson and Rebecca characters that either exert power or manipulate power over someone else through class privilege?
Yes, the theme is prevalent in the book, especially in the first half. In my childhood, it was a huge issue. My father's family had once been extremely wealthy but lost everything. My mother never had any money. Class has always felt complicated to me. My parents drove jalopies around one of the nicest suburbs of Boston. It always felt so shameful. And I really hated myself because of the way I felt. And I don't know if it was me vibing everybody else or me vibing my parents or just me, period. Probably a combination of all of them. Because of the shame I also struggled with how to identify. For a long time I was like, well, the best thing to identify with is rich white people, and so I totally aligned myself with rich white people. But I am not that, it turns out. Then again, it's all relative.
Do you think your work communicates disgust with class privilege?
I don't think it's really about disgust with privilege. I don't think it's that judgmental. It's just that I am embodying these voices of people who are in certain positions of power. I've been interested in these characters because they were part of my experience in learning about myself, my values, my intentions. My new work, I hope, moves on from these issues, or at least moves beyond the polarities I've set up in Eileen. Eileen is a very black-and-white story. And ultimately, polarity gets boring. These days I'd much rather hang out in the gray.
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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is out now from Penguin Press.