Ottessa Moshfegh Is Only Human

Ottessa Moshfegh Is Only Human

Vesta knows paranoia all too well. The novel opens with a cryptic letter, which she discovers while walking her dog in the woods: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no body, no evidence at all that any of this is real. Yet Vesta proceeds to spin an entire life for Magda in her mind, itself unraveling. This amateur criminal investigation becomes so absurd it verges on comedy. (“‘Is Magda dead?’ I Asked Jeeves. … Well, that didn’t help me.”)

But Moshfegh doesn’t find it funny at all. “What kills me about Vesta, she’s really trying so hard,” she said. “She’s done everything her whole life just to keep it together and do the right thing, and then she can’t hold it together anymore.” The death in Vesta’s hands is not just Magda’s, or even Walter’s, but the prospect of her own. Her insanity — like the narrator’s chemically induced “hibernation” in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” — is not a surrender, but a means of survival.

As unreliable as Moshfegh’s narrators are, as unstable, insecure and full of hate, they are also hellbent on pulling themselves out of their wretchedness, on saving themselves. What makes Moshfegh’s characters most human is that they don’t give up.

Sound familiar? On that February afternoon, Moshfegh, a self-described workaholic, reported she was already halfway through her next novel, about a woman who emigrates from China to San Francisco in the early 1900s. And she’s come up with a concept for the novel after that, which she plans to write in “several years.” In the meantime, there are multiple film projects she can’t yet speak about. (Is she adapting one of her novels for the screen? “I might be doing that,” she replied coyly. “I might be doing a lot of that.”)

So is she as self-assured in person as she comes off in print? Yes, but “if there was anything that I would want to correct for the record,” she emphasized, “it would be that I never said it was easy.”

It takes hard work, she said, to find “that deeper connection to myself and to the greater power out there.” Quarantined or not, that need “makes my work really specific. Like, I’m not finger painting with my eyes closed.”


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