It’s hard to make people care about your book when your characters are not particularly likeable, your settings not especially comfortable, and your plots not terribly dynamic. Somehow (black magic, perhaps?) L.A.-based Ottessa Moshfegh manages to pull it of, producing gripping stories with protagonists both alien and oddly familiar. Take her latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which tells the story of a New York art gallery assistant who spends 12 months or so mostly, uh, sleeping.
“Did you think it was funny?” Boston-bred Moshfegh asks, grabbing us a table at an Echo Park café, iced coffee in hand. Poised, intense, and a bit wary, the baby-faced author ran a punk bar in Wuhan, China, for two years between stints living in New York. She arrived here seven years ago on instinct, drawn to L.A. for its “creativity and weirdness,” as she puts it. The city has seeped into her writing style: Just as Moshfegh’s Man Booker Prize-nominated 2015 novel, Eileen, echoed James M. Cain in its bleak, noirish plot, this one evokes Charles Bukowski’s self-destructive wrecks through its glimpse at the psychology of inertia. Though Relaxation takes place mostly within a dingy apartment and the office of a phenomenally incompetent psychiatrist, the novel is impossible to put down—the feel-bad book of the year (so far).
Moshfegh also credits California with helping her hone her voice, a combination of alienation, insight, and deadpan wit. “It was something about leaving the East Coast and the intellectualism that let me be a storytelling comedian while also keeping a respect for language,” she says. “There’s room to breathe in L.A.” By contrast, this novel, set on the Upper East Side, offers no air at all. But the moments of humor—a good-natured but annoying friend, a satirized art world, and the narrator’s incongruous obsession with Whoopi Goldberg—make it go down easier. (Turns out Moshfegh is a real-life Goldberg fangirl.)
At only 36, Moshfegh has a long and seemingly illustrious career ahead of her. But ask her about being a writer, and she’ll give it to you straight. “It’s brutal: You live your whole life alone,” she says. “As for me, I have to do it, or I’ll die. Unless it’s your direct line to God, don’t fake it.”