Ottessa Moshfegh’s first two books are, as she tells me, very different from one another. But despite the contrast between McGlue (2014) and Eileen (2015), she acknowledges that ‘they come from the same imagination’. For one, both protagonists are New England misfits. Moshfegh herself grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, where her parents immigrated after meeting in Belgium. She descends from Croatian partisans on her mother’s side and a dispossessed Iranian billionaire on her father’s. Newton is a town she has described as being the safest in America and possessing the highest number per capita of psychiatrists. She now splits her time between Los Angeles and the California desert.
The titular antihero of McGlue is a nineteenth century sailor with a hole in his head. McGlue’s brains are spilling out and his memories too, the unpleasant consequence of enforced sobriety after he wakes up bloodied and befuddled to find himself accused of murder, possibly at the victim’s request. The deceased in question is Johnson, McGlue’s friend, patron, beloved. The novella lurches along a path of hallucination towards the moment of death. McGlue‘s prose evinces the concern of a former classical pianist turned experimental writer for sound and rhythm above elaboration of plot.
Eileen, by contrast, arose from an attempt to appeal to the mainstream and Moshfegh’s desire to make writing a practice that could financially sustain her. The result is a noir-by-numbers – literally written according to a manual – put through the Moshfeghian machine. Eileen is a young woman in 1964 living in an unnamed town with her alcoholic father. Eileen appears unassuming, but, she warns us, don’t be fooled. She wears lipstick ‘not to be fashionable, but because my bare lips were the same color as my nipples. At twenty-four I would give nothing to aid any imagining of my naked body.’ Eileen is a kind of mutant creation in whom the damaging imperatives of patriarchy emerge in almost exclusively unintended and comedic ways.
But Moshfegh’s gambit certainly worked. Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and has been optioned by Scott Rudin for a film adaptation touted, in somewhat baffling whispers, as the ‘next Gone Girl.’ Moshfegh’s frankness about her process, has, however, occasionally landed her in trouble: one Guardian piece ran with the headline, ‘Eileen started out as a joke – also I’m broke, also I want to be famous.’ ‘They made it a little sensational,’ she later told Fanzine. It failed, she felt, to communicate that if she can be flippant about the literary marketplace, it is only because she takes writing and creating the circumstances in which she can continue to write so seriously.
Most recently, she published Homesick for Another World (2017), a collection of short stories, all except the last of which had appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, VICE, Granta or The Baffler. I had time to read it only briskly before we met at the end of May, when Moshfegh was in London to promote the UK publication of McGlue, but that was long enough to catch some of her typical dark humour. ‘Most people have had anal sex. Don’t look so surprised,’ says a teacher to her high school seniors, to avoid teaching calculus. The day we meet is the warmest of the year so far –portent of summer – so we sit facing one another with the windows flung open. I forget to ask only one question: whether Moshfegh feels the way Eileen does about Frank O’Hara, whose name she lends in her story to the X-ville town pub, whose work she ‘always felt shut out of, even after I’d learned to read like a grown-up.’