A Person Alone: Leaning Out with Ottessa Moshfegh

Leaning in doesn’t work in real life. When I was writing, I kind of hoped that it would. I think I hoped that the answers are always within me. And when I reached the end of the book, it was like: there are no answers.

Hope Reese | Longreads | July 2018 | 9 minutes (2,416 words)

The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a 24-year-old New Yorker, wants to shut the world out — by sedating herself into a near-constant slumber made possible by a cornucopia of prescription drugs. In various states of semi-consciousness, she begins “Sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep-online-chatting, sleepeating… sleepshopping on the computer and sleepordered Chinese delivery. I’d sleepsmoked. I’d sleeptexted and sleeptelephoned.” Her daily life revolves around sleeping as much as possible, and when she’s not sleeping, she’s pretty much obsessed with strategizing how to knock herself out for even longer the next time, constantly counting out her supply of pills.

Her behavior is so extreme — at one point, she seals her cell phone into a tupperware container, which she discovers floating in a pool of water in the tub the following morning — that a New York Times reviewer dubbed Moshfegh’s work an “antisocial” novel. Moshfegh, the author of Homesick for Another World and Eileen, which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, has a knack for creating offbeat characters who don’t fit into neat categories. Like other women in Moshfegh’s stories, the heroine in My Year of Rest and Relaxation is unsettling. She is beautiful, thin, privileged — and deeply troubled.

Moshfegh’s work has earned praise from critics for her unflinching portrayal of characters who can make us uncomfortable, and she has become an author to watch. I spoke to Moshfegh on the phone while she was at home in Los Angeles preparing for her book launch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted there to be a slow-burn wake-up call…. I was hoping that this book would lift people a little bit out of their everyday consciousness.

Hope Reese: In a 2016 interview for The Guardian, you said you “wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game.” Are you still playing that game?

Ottessa Moshfegh: I don’t know if I would really say that it’s true that I was playing a game. I think when I was getting attention for having written Eileen, it was such a weird thing and I couldn’t really go back and explain why I had done what I’d done. I had to talk about things in retrospect.

The only way that it would make sense to another person is saying that it was a game. But I don’t think about my work that way — as tricks or games or anything. My new novel [My Year of Reset and Relaxation] was a really difficult novel to write. I didn’t feel like I was playing a game. There was an underlying frustration with our collective false innocence, I think.

I wanted there to be a slow-burn wake-up call. I didn’t really know how I was going to do that. It sort of revealed itself. If there was any kind of game, meaning an intended movement by the author, in the sense that you’re asking, it was I was hoping that this book would lift people a little bit out of their everyday consciousness.

Some novels, like Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, have been put in this category of autofiction. What do you think of that as a category? Do you feel that your novel falls into that in any way?

I don’t even know what autofiction is so I will refuse the category outright and let scholars and critics do the categorizing for themselves.

It’s been used to refer to fiction that has a strong autobiographical foundation. Is that true of this novel? Was that why, in part, it was difficult for you to write?

I think the thing that I have in common with this character is that I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die. It’s kind of like vigilant awareness of mortality and mindfulness.

I don’t know how other people feel, but I’m assuming that that feeling is the thing that triggers personality traits and reasons for being certain ways.

The secondary character, Riva, has all these obsessions and issues that she’s filled her life with in order to keep herself from feeling that oceanic dread of emptiness, which is just like you are an enclosed mind in a mortal body that’s going to die. All of that frustration is really what motivated me personally to take an interest in the book.

I’m also interested in the timing of the book. It’s set in New York City, leading up to 9/11. Why did you chose that time period?

I chose that time period because I think New York City before 9/11 was very different. The effect of 9/11 on the entire geographic location — which was experiencing major trauma and then also being abused by the media and politics to believe that this was the reason we were making violence in the world — the way that 9/11 shaped our national identity, I think, was really fucked up and not the proper way to deal with trauma. Just psychologically for the people that experienced it. I don’t know how much healing we actually did.

People talk about 9/11 like a tragedy, but it was also celebrated every time we went to take some action in the Middle East. It became a justification for a lie. I think that’s really exploitative and evil. I think that it’s American evil. That’s what people don’t want to look at.

I mean, sure. People want to look at it now and we have all these neoliberal fascist people taking that to the next level. I don’t know how to reconcile those kinds of images with my reality. I don’t know how to be in New York City without thinking that over there somebody had to make a decision to either choke to death on toxic smoke or jump 70 stories. How the fuck am I ordering my latte? You know?

I don’t know how much New Yorkers are aware of that on a daily basis. I’ve certainly thought about it a lot. In some ways it’s this sort of teenager-y angst. Why is everybody always pretending that everything is okay? Nothing is okay.

In that sense it is about my life. But if people are talking about the connections between people’s fiction and their own life why is that a new concept? That’s been happening since the dawn of storytelling.

I’m interested in how objects and places can keep us beholden to a self that isn’t who we want to be, and who maybe wasn’t who we ever were.

So what did you want to capture about pre-9/11 New York?

I think there was a lot more self-indulgent innocence. I mean, it was also the turning of the millennium. The ’90s were really, really different from the decades that preceded. At least, I felt. A lot of cultural shifts happened. You could get away with being weirder. Now things are so policed. You can’t even really express an opinion without getting haters on social media. But in the ’90s we had Nirvana. Like, mainstream hip-hop. The art world hadn’t become this sterilized, intellectual exercise. It felt to me like the art world was still a sensual world of shock and like parties. But it seemed also definitely true that it was a lot of bullshit. And the absurdity of that was something I wanted to put in my book as an example.

You know when [the protagonist in my book] asks herself what is she going to miss? Like, if you went into total retreat, what would you miss out on? And as a 20-something in New York City, I think the answer always is like, “Oh, well I wouldn’t get to go to bed with anybody.” Like, all these other people are getting to have that experience and feel like really special about themselves. And then like oh, I would miss out on the scene. Well, both of those things are a total waste of time to her, so there’s really nothing to go out for.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


You’ve said that you’re somebody who abandons things. You move or you have objects in your life and you go through periods where you purge them. That’s also something this character does towards the ending — gets rid of everything except the essentials. What’s the significance of that move?

Well, I think that the theme is about nostalgia and attachment, and how that can trap us into being somebody that we actually aren’t anymore. And I mean, I don’t want to be like an advocate for throwing everything away, but I’m interested in how objects and places can keep us beholden to a self that isn’t who we want to be, and who maybe wasn’t who we ever were.

I could have been born anywhere. You know? So I’m attached to something because I have experience with it. But if I was born in, I don’t know Madagascar, I would have a totally different set of associations. I wouldn’t be writing this book.

But maybe I would. Maybe I would be writing a book, I just wouldn’t know what New York had been like. I don’t know. But I also think that when you strip everything away, I think it’s an attempt to get at what’s true. Like, you know the feeling when you break up with somebody? Even if you’re in a lot of pain, you also go somewhere really deep because you have to attach to the core of who you are again instead of sharing some part of you that was like more in the middle of your core and your outside personality. And just like a way of getting deeper into who you really are. When you’ve gotten rid of all the accouterments you’ve used to describe your world.

I love, especially, when she puts her phone in the Tupperware in the tub. And that also seemed like something that obviously today would be a much bigger deal. We’re so attached to our phones and things like that, so it would even be more radical.

I think there’s also something really comforting about setting a book pre-wifi. And I think there probably was wifi in 2001, but I didn’t have it. Like, most people I know were still using dial-up, so we were less on the internet. And I think there was MySpace — but internet culture was really different in 2001. And writing fiction where you don’t have to deal with that is so liberating. You know, because people can still call you on the phone. Like, you still have to go meet. You know, we’ve lost something in our dependency on our phones and the internet. And to me, it’s always kind of… I don’t know how to deal with it in fiction. It feels so tacky. I don’t know. Maybe in another 10 years, it’ll suffice. I’m not really good at it. It was also just like convenient for me.

I needed to write that book to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone.

She’s pretty aware of her privilege. So she talks about her inheritance. She has checks that are deposited to her bank account. So this is something that she can afford to do. And you write about the privilege of the art world community. “The next generation of rich kids and art hags,” you write. What did privilege mean in New York nearly 20 years ago, and what does it mean today?

I don’t know if it’s changed from the beginning of time, but I think that when you’re born into wealth you’re, in some ways, at a disadvantage. Because you don’t really need to take part in that instinctual thing that’s bred into every living thingwhich is I need to figure out how to survive if your parents are just doing it for you. Some people are really good at that and I think for some people it’s very confusing.

I think that’s pretty consistent and I think it’s maybe why there’s so much room for absurdity or egomania, like look at our president. If he had to start off working in a factory, I think he would have developed into a different kind of person. Maybe he would still behe’s kind of an egomaniac.

But I think where we’re at with the discussion of privilege is getting kind of annoying. Whatever privilege you have is suddenly something to be ashamed of in liberal circles. Like nobody really wants to admit that they’re fortunate.

How have you evolved as a writer?

I don’t think I have one answer, but I think that, by the time I finished the book, I sort of exhausted my curiosity with internalism and I’m moving on to some place a little bit more contextual and plot driven.

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book. And you don’t get out of it unless you’re thinking about the past. So, that paradigm for looking at narratives — I feel a little exhausted by it at this point.

But I know I needed to write that book to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone. I mean it’s really about the isolation, you know?

And how to deal with that or whether it’s even to deal with it. I mean, you know now there’s that term “leaning in,” and I feel like she leans in, which I don’t judge her for, but I also know that that doesn’t work. It’s just real life.

And maybe when I was writing it, I kind of hoped that it would. I think I hoped that the answers are always within me. If I have a problem, the answer is within me. And I think when I reached the end of the book, it was like there are no answers. You can only kind of just try to damage your brain in a way that makes you stupid. Which is I think the release that she finds at the end.

So do you feel that you learn about yourself as you’re writing these different characters?

Yes. Definitely. I mean I don’t think that they’re all of me, but whether I’m aware or these are decisions I’m making subconsciously, I feel like I’m living something out through a character as an experiment for what would happen.

* * *

Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky