Death Becomes Her: Inside Ottessa Moshfegh's morbidly chic world
Ottessa Moshfegh may have manifested this house. She’s sitting in her dining room, on the outskirts of Los Angeles — a woodsy community in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest — in an abode that was hand-built by its original occupant in 1928. His handiwork is everywhere: in the cathedral-like windows, the decorative bell plucked from a Santa Barbara mission destroyed by an earthquake. The sale listing that Moshfegh found warned that the house would “choose its owners.”
She moves to the bedroom, grabbing a few outfits for the photo shoot later that day, then starts a brief tour. The beams overhead were sourced from a Southwestern flour mill; the property had been on sale for a while before she bought it. “Nobody wanted it,” Moshfegh, 39, says. “I saw it and thought, ‘I have to have this. I need it.’ ” Given the occasion for this visit, it all seems a bit uncanny, too. Most striking here is the resemblance the place bears to the setting of Moshfegh’s new novel, Death in Her Hands — eerie, since she wrote it years before knowing of its existence.
A murder mystery (maybe) imagined by its narrator, Death takes on a more mystical, haunting quality than Moshfegh’s previous book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. That pill-popping fever dream (EW’s best book of 2018) embodied the neuroses and self-erosion of early aughts New York life, the latest in a career of wonderfully weird work. Moshfegh completed her M.F.A. at Brown University. Three years after finishing, she entered her thesis into a contest put on by a small indie press called Fence; her first-place prize was the printing of McGlue, her debut book, in 2014. The next year, the 1960s-set horror novel Eileen (published by the prestigious Penguin Press) put her on the literary world’s radar, introducing readers to her biting humor and singular brand of the grotesque.
She writes thrillingly unlikable female protagonists. In Eileen, a self-loathing prison secretary shares her bleak outlook on life and love. In Rest, her millennial New Yorker basically quarantines herself (how timely!) in an inherited Upper East Side apartment and makes a habit of reminding the reader that she’s thin and blond. Moshfegh has a habit of making sweeping pronouncements, too, often in magazine profiles, about her own talent: a woman who dares to gloat. “At this point, I feel that if I set out to accomplish something, I’ll probably end up doing it,” she says bluntly. There’s evidence to back this up: In five years, she’s gone from unpublished no-name to New York Times best-seller, Booker Prize finalist, and all-around literary star.
Moshfegh lives with her husband, writer Luke Goebel. She wrote Death five years ago to quell her anxiety about an upcoming move (a literary fellowship in Oakland was coming to an end and she was headed to L.A.), challenging herself to write 1,000 words a day, without looking back at what she’d written. The resulting narrative opens on Vesta, a 70-ish widow isolated in a New England cabin, discovering a note on her property that seems to be a murder confession, despite no evidence or body. Vesta’s investigation starts innocently enough — library visits, Ask Jeeves searches, occasional daydreams about suspicious townsfolk — but soon develops into obsession. She spirals deeper and deeper into insanity, dragging the novel’s prose along with her. (Sample line: “I’d been so pretty once. And now I was ruined, an old lady with a mouth full of dirt.”)
The book was never intended to be published. Moshfegh uncovered the draft while cleaning out her desk in 2018: “I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I wrote this; it’s so weird.’” She was writing another novel at the time, about a woman who assumes her deceased brother’s identity. She put that project on the back burner and focused on her found project. But Death itself has received a new publication timeline due to the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on the book industry at large: Originally slated for release April 21, it’s now set for a summer launch.
Moshfegh notes the parallel between our current reality and Vesta trying to make sense of her isolation. “Reading is essential therapy during this period,” she says. “I hope that when this book hits the shelves, people will find their way to it as a story they might relate to in an unprecedented way.”
True to its title, the brisk Death also explores the morbid in its many forms; Vesta often fantasizes about potential ways to die. One might assume that Moshfegh relishes this darkness. She happily consumes her fair share of horror and confesses to a deep love of true crime as well. (Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted are old favorites.) “I fall asleep with true crime blaring in my face every night,” she says. But her stories are more about a desire for answers about the things that scare her.
A brief list of Moshfegh’s fears: the paranormal. Whether an entity will possess her when she falls asleep. 9/11 (which, spoiler alert, figures into Rest and Relaxation). Her family's cabin, an abandoned Girl Scout camp in Bangor, Maine. The forests in Bangor, home to Stephen King and an inspiration for Death’s setting. The call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house scenario. Writing her own stories. (“Something will work out in a way that I hadn’t planned, and that will terrify me, because I think, Who did that?”) Whether this [gestures around] is the real world.
Moshfegh isn’t afraid of reading her own work, though. For her, writing allows a certain control. She’s particularly fascinated by Death’s story — a complex investigation that takes place almost entirely in Vesta’s head — and has a genuine fondness for the character, who leads a life starkly different from her own, structural and thematic similarities of their homes aside.
But did this house, overrun with cacti and palms and with a delightfully creepy cabin out back, in fact choose Moshfegh? It feels as if Vesta and the novel brought Moshfegh here: in complete, unyielding peace, where one has only a distant view of a neighboring property. In comparison with her old residence in East Hollywood, she may as well be in Stephen King’s Maine. She’s got company, at least. “Living alone like that must take so much f---ing courage,” she says, returning to Vesta. “You have so much life to reflect back on, all of your mistakes, things you missed. I get the chills just thinking about it.”