Ottessa Moshfegh: Master of Female Manipulators

todayJuly 18, 2022 82 1 5

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By Sofia Psolka
Web Content Contributor

Ever since receiving international praise for her first novel “Eileen” in 2015, Ottessa Moshfegh has raced her way to becoming a great literary writer of our generation. In fact, “Eileen” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 and is currently being adapted into a screenplay by Moshfegh and her husband. Since then, she has released five novels, a collection of short stories and several works for Joyland Magazine; her latest release, set in the middle ages, “Lapvona.

What is the Booker Prize? Why does it matter?

The Booker Prize was first awarded in 1968, with the philosophy of promoting conversations around contemporary fiction novels. 

Witnessing the love for modern prose in Francophone (French speaking) culture following the Prix Goncourt, Tom Maschler and Graham C. Greene sought to invent a similar award for Anglophone (English speaking) people, providing a platform for writers whose stories would otherwise remain untold. 

The annual Booker Prize winner is determined by five judges. The judges are given the year to read all 150 nominations, whittle the entries down to the “shortlist,” consisting of five books, and are placed in a room for deliberation until a verdict is reached. Think of it as the most prestigious book club where every member is a distinguished academic writer.

In 2013, the prize’s sphere was extended from the Commonwealth to global English publications; therefore, including the United States of America. 

The fact that Moshfegh was able to make it into the top five novels with her debut, out of every English written novel is especially remarkable.

Authors who go against the grain of old literary standards, pushing the limits of written word and embracing our multi-cultural world, is exactly what this prize seeks to award, making Moshfegh entirely deserving of the shortlist.

My Ottessa Moshfegh Experience

On the second floor of BookPeople, Ottessa Moshfegh sits in a yellow velvet chair, smiling before her audience—their postures slamted forward in anticipation. A wooden coffee table lies between Moshfegh and moderator, Genevieve Padalecki. Padalecki looks up, to her left, as a salesperson stands with a microphone, introducing the speakers of the event.
Ottessa Moshfegh (left) takes a seat before her attentive readers as a BookPeople employee introduces the author and moderator, Genevieve Padalecki (right).

Part 1: the “Lapvona” discussion

On June 26, BookPeople in Austin, Texas hosted a celebratory event with Moshfegh in honor of “Lapvona’s” release; I was lucky enough to snag a ticket before it sold out. 

A week before the event, I knew close to nothing about Moshfegh other than TikTok readers declaring her works “red flags” for “female manipulators”. However, her work must be good (or, at the very least, impressionable) if so many people can’t stop discussing it. With this in mind, I picked a copy of her most popular novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” and shuffled to the register, avoiding prolonged eye contact, hoping my meek demeanor would stave off any “female manipulator” perceptions.

Moshfegh’s writing style is nothing so eloquent and convoluted that you need extensive allegory knowledge in order to understand her message; her character development and exploration, delving into the primal parts of humanity, are the true driving force behind her authorship. Her work entranced me; like how a semi-trailer traffic collision on I-35 leaves onlookers horrified and fascinated, thinking “how could this happen?” and “I’m so grateful that I am not them.”

I was excited and nervous to learn more about the mastermind of these twisted characters.

The day of the event, seated in the front row, first edition copy of “Lapvona” on my lap and (thanks to my absentminded nature) a newly purchased journal and pen in hand, I prepared myself to retain every advice Moshfegh bestowed upon aspiring writers—such as myself. 

As she walked down to the panel, my palms began to sweat with anticipation; what secrets about writing does she have? What is she like? How does she feel knowing everyone in the room hangs onto her every word?

After a short introduction of the moderator, Genevieve Padaleckie, and Moshfegh, Padaleckie kicked off the conversation sharing her initial reaction after her first read through of “Lapvona.”

What the holy f*ck?” Padaleckie said, with a dumbfounded grin. “What the f*ck?”

Moshfegh laughs, along with the audience. We all understood this reaction was justified.

“Lapvona” is a fictional fiefdom in the late Middle Ages, set in an Eastern European landscape. The story is told through seasons, beginning on Easter and ending the following spring. Marek, a God fearing, thirteen-year-old boy, is the central figure; however, in contrast with her previous titles, there is a plethora of idiosyncratic characters who each get time in the spotlight. “Lapvona” relies heavily on world-building and outside forces influencing the characters’ actions, pushing the story way beyond our social norms.  

Giving away as little as possible, the novel reads like a literary analyst’s treasure trove, everything seems to mean something; it must be connected to a “bigger picture”. However, this isn’t what Moshfegh had in mind, when writing “Lapvona.” 

“Why did I begin with the fallout of an invasion by bandits and the slaughtering of, I think, like several men and women and some children and the bandits steal a bunch of stuff?” Moshfegh said, looking up to the ceiling. “I didn’t even think about the symbolism of killing people on Easter… it was just the intuitive move. It was spring, I was like, what’s a significant day? And that’s the way this book came out.”

As a novice writer, Moshfegh’s organic storytelling technique fanned a dying flame in me; extensive knowledge of symbology, religion, academics and culture wasn’t necessary to produce a great work of fiction—anyone can write!

“If I got too caught upon in analyzing the meaning of what I was doing, or if I looked at things (actually I’m not really capable of looking at things this way) but if I looked at things too allegorically, or metaphorically, the magic of the story would start to disintegrate,” Moshfegh said.

Like everyone else in 2020, Moshfegh found herself locked inside, with nothing to do. She needed an escape—anything to get away from the dumpster-fire of reality. Naturally, like all escapists, she invented a new world. “Lapvona” was a pleasure project tagged with extensive research over the Middle Ages. Moshfegh, found comfort in the surreal automatism of her mind.

“I have to kind of forget everything that exists. Really focus on what I’m trying to create and let it be what it wants to be,” Moshfegh said. “I like thinking about people’s associations with the Middle Ages. We think of fairy tales. And that brings to mind, for me as a fiction writer, a lot of possibilities, like, this is a world that can be gritty and visceral and just incredibly cruel; and yet, it also has this aspect of the fantastical… I liked that aspect of the fairytale genre.”

And although her content is controversial, Moshfegh never fails to throw in a bit of humor to lighten the mood. The king will request a hot-dog eating contest, blindsiding the reader from a servant’s entrails splayed across the floor. 

“I think of my work as like 25% stand-up comedy,” she said, with a smile. “I always want to bring humor to the story.”

Part 2: Questions from the Readers

Following the discussion of “Lapvona,” the audience was free to ask questions for the remainder of the evening. 

What is your best advice for new writers?

“Honestly, write about your family,” she said. “Like if you write about your parents, if you have parents, I find that if we can tap into the people that we have most primal feelings about, maybe we can access a voice or a feeling that can make our language really specific. And we might feel charged with a desire to get our vision across, you know? Because everybody’s family is crazy. But you’re like, ‘No, listen’.”

Why Demi Lavato’s lyric (“I feel stupid when I pray”) from “Anyone”, as “Lapvona’s” epigraph?

“No reason at all,” she said, to which the audience laughed. “So, I first heard the song when I watched it on YouTube. They started performing, I think it was at the 2020 Grammys, and they had just come back from a near-death experience with a drug overdose. It’s an emotional song calling out to, you know, anyone to ‘help me’ in this moment, or ‘I feel so powerless’ and just, unscrewed. And during this performance, they started crying and they were crying and singing, which are sort of mutually exclusive things, so they stopped, pulled themselves together, and then started again. 

“So, just that act of strength felt moving to me. And that line, ‘I feel stupid when I pray’; when I heard that line, I was shocked, like there’s something like arrestingly scary about it. And I watched that YouTube video like a hundred times, trying to figure out ‘what is this it’s making me feel?’ It sort of was the lyric to whatever was sort of driving me in the book,” she said. “It’s not that I wanted to answer the question of ‘what does it mean?’ But just the feeling that was important.”

Are you fearful of judgement, considering your content, following your novel’s release?

I think I’m inherently horrified,” she said. “I remember feeling horrified as a child. I don’t really have to reach very far for what feels like, to maybe a gentler person, or gentler imagination, disturbing. But, I just feel like there’s so much that’s so incredibly disturbing that when people are like, ‘Oh my God!’ it’s like, ‘have you read a newspaper?’ Like watch the television for more than five minutes… It’s funny; these people seem to be really comfortable with true life horror. And it’s easy to ignore [the critics], but it’s, somehow, more upsetting when it’s fabricated.”

Moshfegh trails off, a moment of contemplation, but pulls herself back to narrow her response.

“About like, other people thinking about me in a certain way: it has an effect,” she said. “When I have a book that’s about to come out, I feel an incredible psychic weight. And it’s not that I get really depressed, but I feel trapped, and exposed, and super anxious, and uncomfortable. And it’s not because ‘oh, what if they don’t like me’, it’s that I put everything I can into something. And I’m just one person… and all of these people are going to see it… And it can be easy to dismiss.”

Part 3: the Encounter

Once the conversation was over, we all lined up to get our books signed. I wished I could have squeezed in more of her work before attending, but I was still thrilled to stand before her. 

When it was my turn to hand the book over, my mind went blank. I failed to organize words into coherent sentences, fumbling out: “I really liked hearing you speak tonight… My friends really like your work. They rave about you…”

“Thank you for coming out,” she said, looking up at me from the signing table with an awkward smile.

I need to say more than that, I didn’t say anything relative to my thoughts, I thought, during my scramble.

“It was really cool seeing how down to earth you seem,” I said, looking everywhere but her. “I often feel like authors like… of well renowned books… are like… super…” 

I pathetically waved my hand overhead, symbolizing the magnitude of an author’s work.

Finally locking eyes, hers dart to the side, then back at me.

“To be honest,” she said, in a hushed voice. “It doesn’t really feel real.”

I was starstruck.

She handed back the books, wished me a good night, and I left BookPeople. The entire drive home, I berated myself with “what ifs”.

Inside, on the title page, with lovely, loopy script, she wrote: 

“To Sofia: with warmest wishes.”

What that entails, I’ll soon find out…

Taken outside of BookPeople, my copy of Lapvona is raised to the center of the frame; the cover features a lamb with a halo above its head, resting in a position like a puppy pose. “Lapvona” is printed above the lamb in bright blue text; a bright blue outline of “a novel” is subtitled. Below the lamb, in the same color, is the by-line “Ottessa Moshfegh”; just below the author's name, “Author of MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION” is below.
Leaving BookPeople, I raise my very own copy of Lapvona and take a photo for “aesthetic” purposes.

Hearing Moshfegh recount her anxieties as a contemporary writer changed my perception of her; she became a person, raw, wandering, lost, rather than the hoity-toity figurehead decorated novelists like to boast. Ironically, her authenticity earned my idolatry.

Moshfegh indulges in being the puppet master of her creations. She tinkers away, keyboard as her tool for dissection, with the inner workings of the human mind, reconfiguring the wires, tossing unimaginable obstacles, until they drop dead. (Whether literally or figuratively, depends on the day.) Her uncanny mastery of manipulation is not to be trifled with.

I am already halfway through “Lapvona”, and it is impossible for me to predict what direction Moshfegh will pioneer her characters next. If I catch myself wondering “There’s no way humanity’s depravity can fall any lower”, she makes it so. 

Ottessa Moshfegh has rightfully earned a position on my “Automatic Buy” list; although her work is not for the faint of heart, it is all a work of fiction. There’s nothing to fear but the ink stains from the page.


Featured Image by Sofia Psolka. 

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