Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned to despise every new fiction writer that The New Yorker celebrates. Can you blame me? The magazines that once gave us Pynchon, DeLillo, and Roth now contributes to the erosion of literature and its detachment from the broader history of art. The writers it celebrates are so pre-packaged, preening, and mired in the contradictions of their liberal worldviews that no one outside a small class can be bothered to care. Least of all, people who actually believe in the artistic potential in fiction to spiritually challenge, emancipate, or horrify the reader.
So, when Ottessa Moshfegh was absorbed into the mainstream literary hype machine, I fully intended never to read her. But certain things I saw about her work wore my defenses down. Finally, my interest was sparked by a Moshfegh profile written by Ariel Levy in which the novelist refuses to define herself as a feminist because “it requires too much allegiance to a group.”
Later, Moshfegh appeared on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, making cracks about the industry tendency towards throwing awards at black writers at all costs and jovially claiming that she was writing a book with a “cross-dressing Chinese” protagonist, hoping it would exonerate her from the censorious fervor of the mob. Later I noticed that a colleague had a copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and borrowed it. I returned it two days later, after devouring the entire novel. I was sold. Moshfegh, I concluded, is the real deal.
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a young, petty bourgeois New York woman with model good looks works soul-sucking jobs at galleries (I feel like I’ve known this girl a dozen times over) at the turn of the millennium. Her disgust with the world becomes unbearable, and the novel chronicles her spiritual quest for oblivion. She searches for the perfect pharmacological cocktail to put her to sleep for an entire year. The majority of the novel finds her blacking out on a weird drug, but perpetually waking back up and realizing she’s done strange, compromising things. Finally, she gets the long hibernation she longs for, and she does wake up renewed. She’s still disgusted, but somehow can compartmentalize that disgust. This is what amounts to moral growth in the macabre world of Moshfegh.
Moshfegh’s disgust is visceral, potent, and glorious. Disgust is to Moshfegh’s writing what horniness was to Henry Miller’s, or what warfare was to Ernst Junger’s. She writes about people engaging in behavior that repulses her, leaving the reader in a continuous state of alarm. The grotesquerie of her work has allotted her the unique position of being a writer every bit as accepted by the literary mainstream as she is by the underground of weird fiction (I bought her first two novels Eileen and McGlue at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences shop in Providence).
Lapvona is Moshfegh’s latest. It is a deeply strange novel, set in a vague medieval backdrop of corrupt lords and abject serfdom. Its relentless bleakness is cushioned by its humor, with Moshfegh uncharacteristically writing from the third-person perspective and shifting between the voices and psychologies of her characters, allowing the reader to see each character from both inside and outside. For example, the novel’s primary protagonist Marek—the character that the writer says she most identifies with—is a physically deformed young teen with an allegedly dead mother and a brutal, goat herding father named Jude who seems to love his son despite the vicious beatings he gives him. Marek murders his only friend Jacob, the son of the local lord Villiam, and is then forced to live as Villiam’s stand-in son in retribution for the death. The reader knows that Marek is simple-minded, pure, and mostly means well. From the perspective of others, however, he’s a monster. Moshfegh’s literature understands that there are as many realities as there are people. And yet, there is a through-line running through these often oppositional realities: They are all disgusting.
If I had any lingering doubts concerning the artistic worth of Moshfegh as a literary figure, they were bludgeoned into nothingness by the hysteric attempt at a Moshfegh takedown by Andrea Long Chu, the trans writer and book critic, in New York magazine. Chu hurls all kinds of accusations: Moshfegh uses verbal abuse and slurs like “faggot” and “retard”; Moshfegh is devoted to Ellis who is, according to Chu, “laughably unaware of his own irrelevance”; Moshfegh dismisses writers with political agendas. Yet Moshfegh’s greatest supposed sin is contempt for her audience. “The novelist continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her;” writes Chu. “As if they, unlike her, have never stopped to consider that the world may be bullshit.”
If you are as contemptuous of mainstream publishing’s ideological agenda as I am, an agenda that has reduced the novel form to an HR focus grouped set of ideas related to diversity and inclusion, then Chu’s criticisms should sound more like ringing endorsements than they do damning indictments. Moshfegh just doesn’t care. She is less contemptuous of her readers than she is of the idea that she should pander to the sensibilities and preferences of the literary milieu that she’s operating in. That is why Moshfegh refuses to reassure liberal critics that she is on their team. “A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that,” Moshfegh wrote in Bookforum during the summer of Floyd. “A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media.”
In Lapvona, the character of Grigor functions as a stand-in for Moshfegh’s own aesthetic theory. The elderly man loses his children to bandits in the opening of the novel, and unlike the rest of the characters, he realizes that his local lord is behind the attacks. He longs for armed insurrection, but soon realizes the hopelessness of that pursuit, instead finding peace in the secret knowledge that he has accrued about the world and its lies.
“He sat and rested his head and stared down at the apples,” writes Moshfegh. “They seemed to smile at him. How easy was it to see their beauty.” To think that art can or should affect political change is laughable, but it can yield the clarity of perception experienced by Grigor.
It is impossible to slot Moshfegh’s work into the typical left-liberal academic discourses surrounding race, identity, or inequality. Her success is like a callback to the time when American fiction still made room for artists who firmly believed in the artistic potential of fiction: Ellis, DeLillo, Pynchon. Her work makes much more sense alongside the names of those men than it does alongside the socially conscious drivel of contemporary writers like Colson Whitehead, Louise Erdrich, Viet Thanh Nguyen. So how did Moshfegh break through? In all honesty, I have no clue. But my hope is that there is a small part of the reading public that longs for work that shocks, offends, and thrills them. Moshfegh writes for those of us who seek the disorientation of radical art, and her success gratifies me on a personal level. I feel like one of my people has made it. Liberal critics like to say that “representation matters,” and Moshfegh represents all the weirdos who feel alienated from and repulsed by what passes for fiction in modern America.