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Ottessa Moshfegh: 'Americans are really good storytellers and really good liars'

Famous for writing about isolation, the author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation talks about her new novel, chronic pain and growing up as the child of migrants in America

“It is just kind of a coincidence, obviously,” Ottessa Moshfegh says of the importance of isolation in her fiction, from her home in Pasadena, California. “But yeah, it has been a major theme in my life.” She was due to be in the UK this summer as part of a publicity tour for her third novel, Death in Her Hands, but she had an odd sense “that something was going to get fucked up”. Clearly, she didn’t foresee a global pandemic, but her 2018 cult novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which her unnamed narrator holes up in her New York apartment, has made her the unofficial laureate of lockdown. “I guess it makes me glad that people are having a place to put their isolated misery,” she says of the novel’s resurgence in recent months.

Routinely hailed as one of the most exciting young American authors working today, she has been compared to Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson and Charles Bukowski (one of her heroes). Her characters are a miserable ensemble of drunks and dropouts, misfits and murderers, pervs and pill-heads – all loners. And she has created an inimitable band of angry, sometimes amoral, often unpleasant and always unreliable narrators, who challenge our assumptions about femininity in uncomfortable ways. Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier. But it is is also beautiful: “like seeing Kate Moss take a shit”, as she memorably described her writing; the depravity of her material matched by the purity and precision of her prose (a sort of American Edward St Aubyn, minus the aristos). Just don’t call her a millennial writer, “even though I am millennial”, says the author, who turns 40 next year. “There’s nothing flattering at all about the description right now.”

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