book review

Ottessa Moshfegh Is Praying for Us

The author has been hailed as a high priestess of filth. Really, she wants to purify her readers.

Art: JWCollage
Art: JWCollage

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If you have ever worked with one, you’ll know that assholes don’t respond well to input. “Coaxing something up there, into the light, can take all day,” reports the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Brom,” a 2017 short story about a shut-in feudal lord who spends his days easing foreign objects into his rectum. His name for this practice is illumination: “A few things I’ve managed to illuminate are worth noting: a small bottle of sherry, my sister’s confirmation crown which I snatched from its velveteen case and hammered down straight and flat, a rabbit’s foot, a brass corkscrew, an ivory penknife.” Brom, you see, believes his colon houses the light of God, safely concealed from his serfs, whom he torments, and his servant girl, whom he imprisons and feeds horse manure. But no man who lighteth a candle hideth it under a bushel, and in the end, hoping to work a miracle on his dying mother, Brom will demand his anus be cut open with a sword.

Moshfegh has dedicated her career to writing about assholes: cruel, pathetic people who do cruel, pathetic things. But the acclaimed author has also spent the last decade writing about the anus. Her early literary fiction is dotted with scatological detail: a smear of bird shit, an anal dildo, buckets for defecating in; ass-to-mouth play, sodomy with a broken bottle, a colostomy bag full of digested Mexican food. Moshfegh’s 2015 debut novel, the noirish Eileen, follows a laxative-abusing secretary at a boys’ prison who stumbles into a mystery involving nightly enemas and anal rape. The book won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; critics praised it for being a Trojan horse, a study in human depravity hiding in the bowels of a commercial thriller.

Mainstream success did nothing to soften Moshfegh’s stomach for bodily functions. If anything, it made her cheekier. The beautiful protagonist of her 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, embarks on her quest to sleep for a year by shitting directly onto the floor of the fancy art gallery that employs her. It’s tempting to chalk up the butt stuff to a fixation that Moshfegh says dates back to her 20s. The “Marquis de Sade says anal sex is best when the ass is full of shit,” she once wrote to a man who had asked her out for ice cream. “What do you think?” Like Sade, Moshfegh also has a philosophical interest in human waste. She finds in it not just pleasure and shock but a serious analogy for the literary act, which she has described as a cycle of defecation and coprophagia. “In writing, I think a lot about how to shit,” she once advised her fellow fiction writers. “What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat.”

Moshfegh’s latest piece of shit is her new novel, Lapvona, a dark medieval farce about a woebegone hamlet in quasi-historical Eastern Europe. In the village of Lapvona, shit is everywhere: in the air, in the earth, splattered onto clothes, and crusted onto bodies. “Lapvona dirt is good dirt,” the villagers tell each other, referring to the fecundity of the local soil, but when drought strikes, they will resort to eating dried-out cakes of animal dung as well as the dirt itself. Meanwhile, at the manor on the hill, servants fertilize the lord’s vegetables with fecal matter from the lord’s chamber pots and feed the lord’s livestock hay grown in his own ordure. The lord himself, a pervert with no interest in governing, makes his servant girl catch shit-stained grapes in her mouth and present her rump for sniffing. “Cabbage, and something a bit worse than that. Shit, I guess,” he discerns. His priest offers the less vulgar term excrement. “Excrement,” the lord ponders. “Is that like sacrament?”

For Moshfegh, the answer is “yes.” These days, the leading coprophage of American letters is seeking the sacred. This is no contradiction. “The sacred world depends on limited acts of transgression,” wrote the French intellectual Georges Bataille, himself a writer of smut. Think, for example, of the Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, in which the faithful take the body of God in their mouths. Moshfegh’s own sacraments involve a different orifice, so you will forgive her if her search has led her up her own ass. Like the Hebrew holy of holies, the anal canal has two veils—an outer sphincter and an inner—and its interior is known in formal anatomy as a lumen, the Latin word for “light.” More than ever, Moshfegh wants to illuminate us. The question is if we’ll fit.

Disgusting, I know. Eileen so disgusts herself that she fantasizes about being impaled by a falling icicle: “Perhaps it would have soared down my throat, scraping the vacuous center of my body—I liked to picture these things—and followed through to my guts, finally parting my nether regions like a glass dagger.” Of course, readers like to picture these things too. This is the pleasure of reading Moshfegh at her best: letting her plunge something sharp down your throat before you have a chance to gag. She likes to file her metaphors down to a point: a discarded pair of pumps become “two dead crows,” fingers clutch a notebook “like the legs of a lizard grappling a rock.” Her observations can have the shock of ice water: “He always hid his shame and self-loathing under an expression of shame and self-loathing.” Moshfegh prefers to write in a claustrophobic first-person voice, jamming readers up against her characters’ darkest thoughts. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation sullenly accompanies her hated best friend to her mother’s funeral. “I felt as though she were a stranger I had hit with my car,” she coolly reports, “and I was waiting for her to die so she wouldn’t be able to identify me.” Even the mild-mannered widow who tries to solve a delusional murder in Moshfegh’s 2020 novel, Death in Her Hands, can’t help imagining grisly ends for the “dull heifers” she sees buying junk food at the grocery store.

As a result, critics have occasionally attempted to locate Moshfegh within the imaginary debate over “unlikable” female characters that has dribbled like a chronic nosebleed down the internet’s face since 2013, when the novelist Claire Messud upbraided an interviewer for asking if she would want to be “friends” with her rage-filled female narrator. Two years later, during press for Eileen, Moshfegh dismissed the “hoopla” over Messud’s novel and rightly declared, to the apparent surprise of one interviewer, that she didn’t find Eileen “unpleasant” to begin with. It is wrong to say that Moshfegh writes unlikable characters for the simple reason that many people do like them quite a bit; her commercial success testifies to a widespread hunger for having one’s appetite ruined. This is the premise of Moshfegh’s fiction: Disgust does not preclude delight—and, in fact, it often enhances it.

At first glance, Lapvona is the most disgusting thing Moshfegh has ever written. The novel begins with the slaughter of two small children by bandits; their devastated grandfather, Grigor, cuts off a captured bandit’s ear and throws it to the birds. Unbeknownst to the villagers, the bandits answer to Villiam, the sadistic lord whose well-appointed manor overlooks Lapvona. In the nearby forest, a slow, misshapen shepherd boy named Marek finds relief from his father’s abuse by suckling at the withered teat of Ina, a blind witch who will later gouge out the eyes of a horse to restore her own vision. But when Marek impulsively murders the lord’s boastful son, Villiam decides to adopt him instead of punishing him, setting off a cascade of misfortunes.

Photo: Courtesy Penguin Publishing Group

Yet Moshfegh’s trusty razor can feel oddly blunted in Lapvona. In part, her characteristic incisiveness is dulled by her decision to forgo the first person, in favor of more than a dozen centers of consciousness. This diminishment is also a curious effect of Lapvona itself. The author has always favored vaguely drawn settings, but in the past, with a few exceptions, her stories took place against a backdrop of middle-class America. Eileen may refer to her frozen New England suburb only as X-Ville, but her graphic bathroom habits draw their shock value from their proximity to her neighbors’ “perfect, neat colonials,” which she views with both envy and suspicion. But feudalism features neither polite society nor good taste; there is raw power but little plausible authority. Like a certain Camelot, Lapvona is a silly place, managed by a mostly illiterate priest who pretends to speak Latin and a fatuous lord whose greatest joy is forcing his servants to do comic impressions of him. There is no nice side of town; there is no indoor plumbing. You cannot épater le bourgeois without an actual bourgeoisie, and when the malnourished serfs of Lapvona start munching on their neighbors and raping nuns, it’s easy not to be offended.

Then again, that may not be the point. Moshfegh may be a cynic, but she has never been a proper satirist—that would require an ideology. Lapvona is the clearest indication yet that the desired effect of Moshfegh’s fiction is not shock but sympathy. Like Hamlet, she must be cruel in order to be kind. Her protagonists are gross and abrasive because they have already begun to molt; peel back their blistering misanthropy and you will find lonely, sensitive people who are in this world but not of it, desperate to transform, ascend, escape. True, their methods are alarming. The sleeper in My Year of Rest and Relaxation binges sedatives; the widow skitters into paranoid fantasy; Eileen skips town with a kidnapped woman in her car. But as Moshfegh’s characters sift through the shit that, like all humans, they carry inside them everywhere they go, they catch a glimpse of something stranger, beautiful even: another world, another way to live. The Lapvonians know this entity as God. They wander their bit of earth looking for God in the filthiest places: They see his love in physical abuse, his faithfulness in starvation, his creation in rape. But their belief is more than a delusion or a heartless trick of the clergy; it is, for Moshfegh, an expression of the divine within each of them, slowly churning, building bulk, until the fateful day it demands to be let out.

At least, this is one explanation for Moshfegh’s animosity. There is another: animus. A few critics have complained of gratuitous levels of violence and rancor in her fiction, and it’s easy to see why. The self-hating narrator of Moshfegh’s experimental novella McGlue, set in 1851, makes lavish use of the word faggot, despite the fact that its homophobic sense is not attested until the 1910s. Moshfegh has a similarly blithe relationship to physical deformity: Marek, a child of incest, has a crooked spine, a protruding rib cage, and a distorted skull as well as what we moderns might call an intellectual disability. Moshfegh herself might call him retarded, a word that several of her characters brandish like a tiny flag of rebellion. She appears to defend the choice in her short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, in which a caregiver at an assisted-living facility reassures readers, “You can call them ‘retarded’—that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” Of course, it never is. “How does it feel to be a middle-aged divorcée living with your retarded nephew and working in a computer café?” one character texts his crush. “Is it everything you ever dreamed?”

To be fair, Moshfegh has never tried to defend her characters on moral grounds. She intends that they be outsiders, freaks, malcontents. “I let them say what they want,” she told one interviewer. “Usually they’re saying something too honest.” The effect can be powerful. After Eileen casually humiliates a young woman who is visiting her rapist, she reflects, “I suppose I may have been envious. No one had ever tried rape me.” The sentence slices through you like an icicle—the wit of it, the horror, the heartbreak, the audacity of such poor taste—and the pieces melt away before you can decide how it made you feel. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the orphaned narrator mentally flicks away her mother’s suicide note by calling it “totally unoriginal.” The quip is devastating not least because there really is something cliché about the grandeur of depression—and there really isn’t a right time to bring it up. If this is what Moshfegh means when she speaks of telling people “the truth they don’t want to hear,” then good: She is well within the remit of all the best fiction, which rightly holds up a sharp pin for our worst angels to dance on.

But then there is the matter of weight. “I had a thing about fat people,” confides one narrator. “It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts.” Moshfegh’s characters are almost universally obsessed with body mass, and their loathing for the “obese” is startlingly vicious and remarkably consistent. The author’s first short story, written at the age of 13, began like this: “I killed a man this morning. He was fat and ugly and deserved to die.” In her mature fiction, fat people—almost always women—are compared to “cows,” “hogs,” a “sack of apples,” a “clapping seal,” a “water bed.” In two different novels, they are imagined as farm animals awaiting slaughter. They have “huge bloated hands,” “swollen thighs,” and “throats  like frogs,” and they waddle around on “thick ankles” that seem “about to snap.” They eat “cheesecake” and “hollandaise” and “caramel popcorn”; they eat “a donut” (Eileen) or “doughnuts” (Homesick for Another World) or “trays of donuts” (My Year of Rest and Relaxation) or “what must have been a dozen chocolate-covered donuts” (Death in Her Hands). They are “pitiful,” “repugnant,” “miserable,” “lazy,” “idiotic” “gluttons.” They sit there stupidly, “oozing slowly toward death with every breath.”

In literary criticism, we call this a pattern. The funny thing is this level of verbal abuse could probably be justified if Moshfegh’s stories demonstrated even a passing interest in fat people. But Moshfegh, who has spoken candidly of her struggle with bulimia and recently walked the runway for Maryam Nassir Zadeh at New York Fashion Week, does not write about fat people. She writes about cold-hearted, disgusting, strangely sympathetic people slouching toward warped ideas of self-improvement who also happen to be emphatically, existentially thin. A few have actual eating disorders; the rest suffer from orthorexia of the spirit, obsessing over the purity of what they put in their souls. Their fantasies of wellness extend to Moshfegh herself, who speaks of fiction as a kind of ethical colon cleanse: “People should be as hostile as they want in their writing. Do it there, don’t do it out in the world to other people.” Indeed, if one did harbor personal animus, putting it into the mouths of a few loathsome fictional characters would be a clever way to have your cake without the calories.

Moshfegh, for her part, does not believe any topic should be off-limits. She is flattered by comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov—she would like to have written Lolita herself—and one of her favorite writers is Charles Bukowski, whom she praises for saying “the shit everybody thinks and nobody says.” She is an admirer of American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, in whom she detects a “delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness” often absent in readers. Ironically, Ellis has come to resemble a Moshfegh character in recent years: perpetually resentful, laughably unaware of his own irrelevance. In 2018, Moshfegh joined Ellis on his podcast, where he spends the twilight of his career tilting at millennial windmills. He complained to Moshfegh that literary prizes were being handed out to Black writers who hadn’t earned them; she, referring to a book project set in early-1900s San Francisco, told a chuckling Ellis, “If things continue in the way that they are culturally right now, nobody can say shit about my next protagonist because she’s a Chinese cross-dresser. You just try to tell me she’s disgusting.” (The book in question has mercifully yet to appear.)

This is as political as Moshfegh ever gets in public. She alludes cryptically to easily offended “people on the internet” and has refused to be called a feminist. “My partner makes the point that men have been turned into children and are no longer allowed to be angry or macho or have opinions or be lustful or masculine anymore,” Moshfegh has said of her husband, author of an awful On the Road rip-off about doing peyote with “a bunch of Injuns.” In her own fiction, the novelist is most comfortable avoiding politics altogether. Now, it is perfectly fine not to write political novels. But if Moshfegh has no distinct political beliefs of her own, this has not spared her the inconvenience of the fact that other people do. This attitude makes sense in a writer who has passionately argued that art should free the mind, not improve society. Last summer, Moshfegh made her case in a widely circulated missive:

A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. 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. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?

This is all well and good; it has the pleasing shape of radical sentiment without the encumbrance of any actual political commitments. In reality, it is very easy to oppose the banning of a book like Lolita while also pointing out that the author of American Psycho is a sundowning reactionary. But Moshfegh seems to believe that unsettling moral perspectives are better found in novels than in readers. For her, the threat to the novel is posed not by murderous corporations, which are merely window-dressing here, but by a sinister “political agenda” found, like all political agendas, in the swarming tweets of strangers. The substance of that agenda is easy to guess—social justice, both real and imagined—but what Moshfegh really means is what most successful artists mean when they speak vaguely about the value of art: the absolute indignity of being told what to do.

Beneath all the bluster, the only political enemies Moshfegh openly acknowledges are commercialism and agitprop—that is, the desecration of art by money and power. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation speaks with uncharacteristic reverence of the “ineffable quality of art as a sacred human ritual” and laments the art world’s enslavement to “political trends and the persuasions of capitalism.” She scoffs at a series of huge, ejaculate-covered canvases by an artist with the cachet of being Asian American: “He titled the abstract paintings as though each had some deep, dark political meaning. Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City and Sunset over Sniper Alley. Decapitated Palestinian Child. Bombs Away, Nairobi. It was all nonsense, but people loved it.” The narrator eventually quits her gallery job by relieving herself on the floor and stuffing her used Kleenex into the artist’s latest installation; later, well-rested, she visits the Met, where she presses her palm into an oil painting of a fruit bowl just to prove that “beauty and meaning had nothing to do with each other.” This kind of sacrilege is purifying, not destructive; it constitutes a limited act of transgression that, like a fecal transplant, only contaminates the space of art in order to restore it, now teeming with life, to its original state of health.

This is why we all shit: to be renewed. Everything else—money, political ideology, institutions of all kinds—is a distraction from the fundamental unity of shit and spirit. “We are spiritual and we’re human poop machines,” Moshfegh says. “We are divine and we are disgusting. We’re having these incredible lives and then we’re going to be dead and rot in the ground.”

But few can grasp the enormity of the truth. Out of all the villagers seeking spiritual awakening in Lapvona, only one gets close. At 64, Grigor is the oldest and most devout man in the village. When the bandits murder his young grandchildren, he grieves and asks God to protect their souls. But the summer drought, during which he survives on leeches and clay from the lake, changes Grigor. He questions how the local lord had food and water during the drought, why the bandits have never tried to pillage the lord’s manor, why God would let them steal from the poor. Angry and confused, he visits Ina, who opens his mind with cannabis and nurses him at the breast. “I finally heard the truth,” he tells his daughter-in-law. He imagines leading a revolt against the lord, but deep in his heart he knows that political remedies are a fantasy. Instead, Grigor is left with the thwarted liberation of knowing that the world he lives in is a “sham.”

Moshfegh claims to have discovered this secret in kindergarten when, during a lesson on clock-reading, she realized that she, along with everyone she knew, was going to die. “Since I was five,” she writes in a rare bit of nonfiction, “all of life has been like a farce, an absurd performance of a reality based on meaningless drivel, or a devastating experience of trauma and fatigue, deep with meaning, which has led me into such self-seriousness that I often wonder if I am completely insane.” The conviction was strong enough to form the basis of a much-noted short story in Homesick for Another World about a little girl who believes that, if she kills the correct person, she will be returned to the secret world she has been separated from since birth. “I don’t know what it is,” the girl admits. “But it certainly isn’t this place, here on Earth, with all you silly people.”

For all its technical mastery, there remains something deeply juvenile about Moshfegh’s fiction, colored in with an existential discomfort that the author has not updated since childhood. There were, of course, reasons for the young Moshfegh to feel this way. Her mother was born in then-Yugoslavia; her father belongs to a wealthy family of Iranian Jews whose assets were seized during the 1979 revolution. The couple fled Tehran and ended up in Newton, Massachusetts, the affluent suburb of Boston. Moshfegh grew up lower-middle class, and she remembers feeling ashamed of the “jalopies” her parents drove around town, one of which was so rusted that “I could watch the ground pass through the hole between my feet.” Class is a frequent theme in her fiction—that detail about a rusty car appeared in a recent short story—but Moshfegh has no interest in class critique, turning her grade-school scissors instead to a paper-thin picture of “normal people”; she is against phonies of all tax brackets, not the commodity form. She means to widen consciousness, not raise it. “I just want people to wake up,” she has said. In the shocking coda to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the rejuvenated narrator watches footage of what appears to be her unbearably normal best friend, a corporate assistant obsessed with fitting in, leaping from a World Trade Center building on September 11. This is not a searing commentary of political violence but a metaphor for the narrator’s enlightened quietism: “There she is,” she says admiringly, “a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.”

By the end of Lapvona, a different edifice has been torn down. The village church is dismantled stone by stone by a foreign lord, and no one prays anymore. Moshfegh has said that she could never belong to a religious community herself—too many rules—but she does still believe in God, whom she understands as “the intelligence of the universe.” So does Grigor: “Didn’t they know that the land was God itself, the sun and moon and rain, that it was all God?” he asks himself. “The life in their seeds of wheat, the manure from the cow, that was God.” Desperate to know if “something sacred” remains in Lapvona, Grigor returns to Ina. “Forget that church,” the healer tells him. Then Ina takes his hand and commands him to open his heart:

Grigor’s whole arm was pulsating now. His heart beat powerfully in his chest. Ina took him by the other hand, too. He could not fight. She overpowered him, and the force of God entered his body like a rash spreading across his skin, and he felt his heart surge, then stop. He waited for it to start again. He looked at Ina in the eye.

“If you don’t let God into your heart, you’ll die,” Ina said. “That’s what kills people. Not time or disease. Now, open up.”

Like the art-touching scene at the end of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ina’s miracle is a clear allegory for the very novel it concludes—all the way down to the motif of the hand, which might as well be holding a pen. Moshfegh describes her writing process as an ecstatic experience of “channeling a voice,” and she has often expressed a desire to “be pure and real and make whatever is coming to me from God.” The epigraph to Lapvona, “I feel stupid when I pray,” is taken from a Demi Lovato song about feeling abandoned by God. But the phrase also recalls Moshfegh herself, who imagines that her “destiny” is to reach into readers and transmit the divine. “My mind is so dumb when I write,” she told an early interviewer. “I just write down what the voice has to say.” In other words, there’s a reason God isn’t listening: He’s busy praying to people like Moshfegh.

That’s a nice thought. It must be convenient to believe in a God whose theological features consist in giving you divine permission to write whatever you want. But even with all the authority of heaven behind her, Moshfegh would rather preach righteousness to an empty chapel than break bread with the weak and the blind. This is the problem with writing to wake people up: Your ideal reader is inevitably asleep. Even if such readers exist, there is no reason to write books for them—not because novels are for the elite but because the first assumption of every novel must be that the reader will infinitely exceed it. Fear of the reader, not of God, is the beginning of literature. Deep down, Moshfegh knows this. “If I didn’t like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose,” observes the widow of Death in Her Hands. Yet the novelist continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her; as if they, unlike her, have never stopped to consider that the world may be bullshit; as if they must be steered, tricked, or cajoled into knowledge by those whom the universe has seen fit to appoint as their shepherds.

It’s a shame. Moshfegh dirt is good dirt. But the author of Lapvona is not an iconoclast; she is a nun. Behind the carefully cultivated persona of arrogant genius, past the disgusting pleasures of her fiction and bland heresies of her politics, wedged just above her not inconsiderable talent, there sits a small, hardened lump of piety. She may truly be a great American novelist one day, if only she learns to be less important. Until then, Moshfegh remains a servant of the highest god there is: herself.

Ottessa Moshfegh Is Praying for Us