The Knowledge Dynasty

Chuk Iwuji: ‘My Hamlet is an ugly beast about to be unleashed’

A stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Iwuji is finally playing Hamlet, in a production inspired by Black Lives Matter and which is being performed in homeless shelters and prisons.

For the Nigerian-born British actor Chuk Iwuji, to be or not to be wasnt remotely the question when it came to playing Hamlet. He has pursued the role ever since his days as a glorified spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company, watching from the wings as celebrated actors spoke the famous soliloquies. As the ambassador Cornelius, Iwuji had one line, shared with another character.

Hes since gone on to lengthier Shakespeare parts: Henry VI in the history plays (a role he toured with for more than two years), Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Buckingham in Richard III, Edgar in King Lear. But Hamlet had always eluded him until New Yorks Public Theater asked if hed star in a Mobile Unit production. This bus and truck version, directed by Patricia McGregor, cuts the tragedy to under two hours and tours it to prisons, homeless shelters and senior centers before it returns to the Public for a three-week run.

Iwuji, who will soon return to England to star in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre opposite Ruth Wilson, spoke about how playing Hamlet has changed his craft and maybe his life.

How did you become interested in theater?

I did theater as a kid in Nigeria. But I didnt think anything of it. When I moved to boarding school in England, you have the athletes and the non-athletes. And I love sports, I did my rugby and my track, so theater went out the window. But when I found myself heading for law and economics, there was a side of me that quietly panicked. At Yale, I decided to start experimenting with theater again.

Do you have a particular affinity for Shakespeare?

Yes, I do. As soon as I became an actor and started accidentally doing Shakespeare, it became something that I loved. People seem to believe I know what Im doing! I have never been worried about who Im up against when I go in for a Shakespeare audition. I dont feel intimidated by it, I feel excited by it.

Something
Something Ill never experience again: Chuk Iwuji as Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. Photograph: Publicity image

How did it feel to live with Shakespeare so long when you spent years playing Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company?

Unbelievable. It was hard. It was non-stop. We would rehearse something, open it, start rehearsal while were running. We had dozens of roles in our head. One Guardian article started by saying shed interviewed us at the beginning and the end and the first line was, They look much older. Regardless of how tired we were, we knew the immense responsibility that was on our shoulders. We were going to deliver. It was exhilarating, something Ill never experience again.

Does it feel different to play Shakespeare in America?

I do feel there is a real reverence for Shakespeare and reverence is a good thing, but it can also be a very dangerous thing. There is sometimes a very thin veil of intimidation that has to be broken through when Shakespeare is being done in this country. And I think Americans like to applaud more. They like to give a standing ovation.

Have you always wanted to play Hamlet?

Yes, for a very long time. And I was pretty certain it wasnt going to happen. Ive always wanted to understand what the big deal is.

So they approached me to do it and I was like, of course! Yes! I started working through the speeches the five great speeches and I realized that every speech takes you through the whole emotional canon. Every speech, you have to go through it all. Theres anger, theres remorse, theres fear, theres passion. Its not only the greatest role Ive played but also the most exhaustive role Ive played.

Christopher
Christopher Ryan Grant, left, and Iwuji: Were holding a mirror up to nature for the audience and theyre also holding it up for us. Photograph: Joan Marcus/2016 Joan Marcus

What sets your Hamlet apart?

Patricia McGregors vision is to reflect the Black Lives Matter question. I actually phoned Patricia and I was like, Look, are you sure Im the guy you want to play this Hamlet? I know where youre going with this, the anger on the streets of America, the disappointment. Am I the right guy? Because Im not sure I embody that. Im not African American. I went to boarding school.

She said to me, The very fact that were having this conversation is exactly why youre the right guy for it. That guy who finally throws a brick at the police, he doesnt want to be that. Hes not born that way. That is Hamlet. He doesnt want to be a revenger. Hes saying, Dont make me have to do this.

I hope this Hamlet shows that. Hamlet has become this status performance, this cerebral thing. People have forgotten that at the core of it often is this thriller, this ugly, relentless beast thats about to be unleashed. Thats my Hamlet.

Does the play feel different when youre performing in a prison or a homeless shelter?

Being on the road has made me realize the true difference between being a storyteller and being an actor. Often we want to be actors when actually our job is to be storytellers. The audiences, theyre listening. Theyre cheering when Claudius gets killed, theyre crying for Ophelia.

On this tour the nature of performing has changed for me. When I go on to do the next play and the next play, its all going to be about trying to find that sense of storytelling. Inasmuch as my art is my life, it has changed my life.

Youre told every performance should be fresh, it should always feel new, all that stuff. Youre told it theoretically. But to be in the Mobile Unit is to experience that happening organically. Every room is different. Sometimes the conditions are different. Sometimes the inmates dont want to be there and you have to win them over. Sometimes theyre so there with you. It changes your delivery. It changes why youre saying it.

Were holding a mirror up to nature for these guys and theyre also holding it up for us we see the humanity thats in front of us. Were giving them this gift, but Id argue that theyre giving just as much back.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/21/chuk-iwuji-hamlet-shakespeare-black-lives-matter

Kevin Can Wait: Is Kevin James an acting genius or a one-trick pony?

His new show Kevin Can Wait is about to hit screens this week and his everyman schtick has divided opinion. Two Guardian writers argue the case.

The case for: He gives a masterclass in screen acting

Before I begin, let me say this. The trailer for Kevin Can Wait, Jamess new sitcom for CBS, looks awful. The script is lazy, and the chemistry between him and Erinn Hayes is nonexistent. Equally, if you detest him on the big screen, I can sympathize. Whether hes playing the irritating Paul Blart in Mall Cop or Adam Sandlers aw shucks sidekick, I get it. Hes not your cup of tea. But hear me out: Kevin James is hilarious, you just need to dig a little deeper.

Jamess career began in improv and standup, when after making appearances in Star Search and Jay Leno; his big break came in 1996 at the Just for Laughs Montreal comedy festival. It was then when Ray Romano gave him a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond, which led him to create his greatest character, Doug Heffernan. The King Of Queens, to this day, remains my favorite network sitcom of all time and I watch it every single day. When the pilot was aired in 1998, Variety was less than kind: Fat guys with big mouths are back in primetime, said TV critic Ray Richmond. He called it The Honeymooners minus the charm of Jackie Gleason, but once the season grew in confidence so did the writing. The show had a ridiculously talented cast that included Jerry Stiller, Patton Oswalt and Victor Williams, but its success (it lasted for nine seasons) lived and died on the chemistry between James and Leah Remini. Theres a great moment in season one where Doug and Carrie are arguing in the middle of a cello performance, and no lines are spoken and the scene is performed in complete silence. Its a masterclass in screen acting.

James is a fantastic physical performer, unbelievably athletic for a man of his size, and this is something we see throughout the show. Another great scene is when Doug shows Carrie how to pole dance and James effortlessly hangs in the air from the pole as if he was a Cirque du Soleil performer. Its one of the funniest scenes in the entire show. James, to me, remains a great comedian, blessed with great timing and screen presence. His achilles heel, however just like Chris Rock has always been catastrophic movie decisions. In King Of Queens, he had the freedom to be charmingly mischievous minus the arrogance, but once he appears on a movie screen, all that goes away as he plays 2D flatpack roles. I dont think we should blame James for that. I just wish he would fire his manager. LME

The case against: The cinematic works of Kevin James are strictly for the big boy go fall down set

Onward,
Onward, to mediocrity! Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex Shutterstock

All right, Luis. I also watched the trailer for Kevin Can Wait in preparation for this rhetorical exercise. It didnt just make my hair stand on end. It caused my hair to fall out from the nuclearly unfunny blast of crap writing. I do not argue that Kevin James isnt a talented performer. Few people ascend to his level of fame without acting chops. What I take issue with is his choice in projects.

Whatever you might say about his uncanny ability to contort his face in amusing ways or his comedic timing in the context of a multi-camera sitcom is blunted by his insistence in starring in such woefully misguided films as Grown-Ups, Grown-Ups 2, Here Comes the Boom, Zookeeper, Pixels, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (a movie that aims to be progressive, but achieves the nifty trick of offending people anyway), Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and Paul Blart Mall Cop: 2. Achieving fame seems like it must be a lovely thing. What one does with that fame is something of a test. James has done crap film after crap film, even going as far as making sequels to two of his worst movies. That there isnt a Zookeeper 2 is one of Gods greatest miracles, right up there with the parting of the Red Sea.

I realize these films are not for me. To expect nuance, cleverness, cultural significance or jokes would be asking too much. The cinematic works of Kevin James are strictly for the big boy go fall down set who cackle anytime James tries to cram his hefty frame into a tiny golf cart. Whereas the late Chris Farley had a knack for wringing pathos and affection out of his weight in SNL sketches like the Chippendales tryout with Patrick Swayze or the movie Tommy Boy, Kevin James uses it as a dumb crutch.

I cannot be blamed for pointing out his weight here either, as he does so himself multiple times in the risible Kevin Can Wait commercial. He ate four hamburgers! What a cad. When James eats four fake hamburgers off-screen in a sitcom, its hilarious. When I do it at 2am, its sad. Even his good friend, the notoriously slothful Adam Sandler, has stretched his ability on numerous occasions. Sandler was fantastic in Funny People and Punch Drunk Love. Even though they were failed experiments, Spanglish, The Cobbler, and Men, Women and Children were at least experiments.

What is abundantly clear from all the promotional materials for Kevin Can Wait is that it is yet another iteration of the tired formula of wacky dad who learns valuable lessons from his patient family each and every week. Instead of a grand social trend or some bellwether of renewed interest in the traditional sitcom protagonist, its just another instance of Kevin James showcasing his lack of either confidence or interest in escaping the comfortable box he has built for himself. Im not saying that Kevin James is uninterested in stretching. Im saying that he doesnt care. DS

Kevin Can Wait starts on 19 Sep on CBS

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/sep/19/kevin-can-wait-kevin-james-acting

If George HW Bush votes against Trump, he’ll be in good Republican company | Jamie Weinstein

Bush’s opposition can be dismissed as the qualms of a north-eastern moderate. But alongside him are many with unimpeachable conservative credentials.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, as one recent visitor to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport reports, former president George HW Bush will be voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump this fall.

After all, the elder Bush president is a moderate from the north-east who has in recent years developed a close relationship with the Clintons. His old patrician sensibility is reportedly offended by Trumps vulgar style. And lets not forget Bush witnessed Trump ruthlessly and gleefully eviscerate his son Jeb during the Republican primary, often in the most personal of ways, and delve into conspiracy theories to attack the presidential legacy of another son, George W.

This is not to say that Bush voting for Clinton is a non-story altogether. When is the last time a former Republican president not only refused to endorse the presidential nominee of their own party but allowed it to get out they were actually voting for the opposition partys presidential candidate? Off the top of my head, I cant think of any parallel in recent American history.

But if you forget for a moment that George HW Bush was once was a Republican president, he is not all that different from the type of Republicans who have crossed party lines in past elections to endorse the Democratic nominee. (Think Colin Powell in 2008 and 2012.)

To understand why this story is more remarkable than notable Republicans crossing party lines to support, say, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, you have to take a look of the full scope of top-tier Republicans who have refused to endorse Trump, if not declared they will be voting for Clinton.

Yes, you have the squishy north-eastern Republicans such as Bush, Maine senator Susan Collins and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. But you also have staunch movement conservatives like Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, Washington Post columnist George Will and radio host Erick Erickson not getting aboard the Trump train.

Now, unlike Bush Sr, this latter group is probably far less likely to let it be known they support Clinton over Trump. But unlike in 2008 and 2012, there are bulwarks of the conservative movement refusing to get behind the Republican presidential nominee, not just those easily dismissed as Rinos (Republicans-In-Name-Only). Thats no small thing.

It is true that as the election draws nearer, some so-called Never Trump conservatives have come around to supporting Trump. Conservative talkshow host Mark Levin is perhaps the most famous example. But many more Never Trumpers seem to be in it for the long haul, even in the face of conservatives who argue that they have to vote for Trump at the very least to prevent Clintons supreme court nominees.

But its not only significant right-leaning politicians, activists and opinion columnists who are refusing to support Trump. The most famous conservative academics are refusing to get behind him as well, including conservative and libertarian legal scholars exactly the kind of people who understand how important the supreme court is.

For instance, you have Princeton professor Robert P George, perhaps the most noted intellectual defender of social conservatism in the country, refusing to back Trump, even as he says he cant back Clinton either. The same goes with some of the top conservative economists, such as Harvards Greg Mankiw. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reached out to 45 past economists who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers under both Republican and Democratic administrations and not one responded to say they were supporting Trump.

You can make fun of these people as egghead elitists, but the reality is most have fought the intellectual conservative fight in the most liberal of environments their entire lives. These are are not squishy moderates. They are true believers in conservative principles.

So it may be easy to dismiss George HW Bushs putative decision to vote for Clinton (his spokesman refuses to confirm or deny the report). But when you look at the scope of figures from Republican establishment politicians to leaders of the conservative movement to members of the conservative intelligentsia who still refuse to get on the Trump train and likely never will, it is hard to conclude anything other than there is something truly repellent about the current Republican presidential nominee and something deeply awry with a conservative movement that could nominate him.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/20/george-hw-bush-vote-trump-republicans

Could the Higgs boson have been discovered by accident?

A theorist says no. I say yes. See what you think.

We have a tendency to oversimplify complicated issues. Sometimes this gives useful clarity, but more frequently it gives a distorted impression of what I am stubborn enough to call the truth. Clarity can be seductive, but is disastrously misleading if it neglects important facts. This is true in politics, in history, and in science.

In a recent article on how we came to discover the Higgs boson, my colleague, theoretical physicist James Wells, puts it like this:

A terse and deleteriously incomplete history of the Higgs boson says that it was postulated in 1964 by the theorist Peter Higgs and then discovered in 2012 by experimentalists after a multi-decade herculean construction project at CERN to find it.

This is, he says, a distortion of how science progresses, and of what enables scientific discoveries.

The Higgs boson was the last particle of the Standard Model of physics to be discovered. It occupies a unique and essential place in that theory, and its discovery validated our understanding of how fundamental particles can have mass. You might think the history of that discovery would be thoroughly understood and agreed on, but Wells detects a false and seductive mythology: a Eureka moment for Higgs in 1964 followed by 48 years of experimental labour until the triumphant announcement by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations on 4 July 2012.

His article is a good read for anyone unafraid of an equation or two, and his main point is that elucidating the observable consequences of the idea conceived by Higgs (and Brout and Englert) in 1964 required a series of major theoretical advances over the intervening years, and an amount of hard graft at least comparable to that involved in building the experiments. The discovery papers of ATLAS and CMS cite 115 theory papers. Wells lists them in his article. They cover the original ideas, understanding their appearance in a particle collision, what other physics might fake that appearance, what the theoretical uncertainties are, and more. ATLAS and CMS could have cited many more papers, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

The point is convincingly made, and should be taken on board by anyone tempted by the simplistic lone theorist hero and herculean experimentalists mythology.

Wells makes another point, however, with which I disagree. He says that the theory input is so important that

The Higgs boson could not have been discovered experimentally by accident.

I think it could.

The Higgs boson is produced when particles are brought into collision with each other at high energies, as was done at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Once produced, the Higgs decays rapidly to other particles, and digging the signs of this decay out of all the other particles produced in the collisions is a large part of the experimental challenge. The Higgs can decay several different ways, and some of them would surely not have been untangled any time soon without a lot of guidance from theoretical predictions such as those described by Wells.

But one of the ways the Higgs can decay is rather striking and is not overwhelmed by fake backgrounds. This is the decay to four leptons (either electrons, muons or their antiparticles). Any experiment at a high energy collider would look for four leptons and measure their mass. In fact this is the measurement I described just last week. The bump at 125 GeV in that plot with the most physics is pretty clear – we would, I am confident, have made that plot and seen that bump, even if we hadnt been looking for the Higgs.

Now it is true that without the theory we might never have built the collider, or ATLAS and CMS. Counterfactual history is tricky. But there are good general reasons for building high-energy colliders they allow us to study the smallest constituents of matter, and we knew that was the case already without help from Higgs. So I think high energy physics would probably have got there in the end.

What is certainly true is that without the theory we would have been slower, and would not have known immediately what that bump was. Wed have been excited about it, and there would probably have been a lot of theories produced very quickly, as there were when we thought we might have another one at 750 GeV. Maybe that is what Wells means without the theory, we could not have understood the implications of the bump, or connected it to the origin of particle masses. In that case I would agree with him.

But the Higgs boson could, and I think probably would, have turned up by accident, nevertheless. And the theorists would have told us what it meant, eventually.

Jon Butterworths book Smashing Physicsis available as Most Wanted Particle in Canada & the US.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/life-and-physics/2016/sep/18/could-the-higgs-boson-have-been-discovered-by-accident

Ottessa Moshfegh interview: Eileen started out as a joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous

The books interview: the Man Booker-shortlisted author talks about writing a thriller to get noticed, exorcising her childhood and sexist critics.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me This is the story of how I disappeared. Ottessa Moshfeghs novel, Eileen, shortlisted this week for the Man Booker prize, centres on the escape of a young woman from a New England town where she has lived unnoticed and unloved. Her flight is made possible by a seductive redhead, an act of retribution, a serious crime and a gun: not surprisingly, the book has been tagged as noir and a psychological thriller.

Add its hint of unreliable narration, and Eileen might appear to be jostling to enter Gillian Flynns Gone Girl territory. Hollywood mogul Scott Rudin has bought the film rights, and the screenwriter hired for the project is Erin Cressida Wilson, who has just adapted Paula Hawkinss The Girl on the Train.

Yet Moshfegh, 35, is not usually a writer of Hitchcockian page-turners. For some years she has been touted as a crucial new voice in American literature. Her prizewinning novella McGlue (2014) is literary and experimental, and her short stories have been published in such distinguished magazines as the Paris Review and the New Yorker. The coming together of a hip young writers writer with genre fiction has contributed to the buzz that has surrounded Eileen since its appearance in the US in 2015. More significant is that this intense, singular novel both playful and fierce is not exactly what it seems.

I meet Moshfegh at her home in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, the day after she has learned of the Man Booker shortlisting. Id had a hard day, she says, and Id woken up at three in the morning in a state of panic, so went outside to smoke a cigarette and I dont smoke very much. When I came back in, I found the email from my agent. And I just wrote back: Holy shit.

Yet Moshfegh (the second syllable rhymes with leg) wasnt wholly surprised. She is candid about Eileen being a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher. McGlue and her early short stories might have won awards, but they didnt pay much, and she wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: Ill play this game. And I still feel like Im playing it.

She didnt want to keep her head down and wait 30 years to be discovered so I thought Im going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? Im smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and talented: did I say that already?, she laughs. I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: Ill show you how easy this is.

So Moshfegh went out and bought a book called The 90-Day Novel, by Alan Watt. Its ridiculous, claiming that anybody can write a great book, and quickly too. And I thought if I were to do this, what would happen, would my head explode? So I followed it for 60 days it was so boring. But it ended up as an Oulipian thing, struggling with a limitation, and it was actually interesting to conform to the rules. So it started out as a fuck-you joke, also Im broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture. Moshfegh pauses and frets though she laughs again that the Booker people will be disgusted with her revealing the origins of Eileen in such terms.

But of course this was only the beginning then it turned into a work of its own. In Moshfeghs hands, an off-the-peg novel structure was warped and elevated into something unique. For a start, the narrator, an elderly Eileen looking back to 1964, plays fictional games. And while the book has fun with suspense and noir cliche Rebecca, the redhead, is more an idea than a fully developed presence it is full of astounding and funny sentences that only Moshfegh could have written. Most importantly, the central character is an unforgettable and distinctively dark creation.

Eileen as a 24-year-old is miserable, full of anger and self-loathing. She wakes up next to her vomit after a heavy nights drinking. She hates her alcoholic father and wishes him dead. Though obsessed by her plainness, she wears her dead mothers frumpy clothes. She touches herself and smells her fingers. She hasnt yet dared to have sex, but stalks her fantasy man and believes her first time would be by force. Her house is filthy and she eats terrible food, when she eats at all. Addicted to laxatives, she tells of her basement toilet purging: torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out Those were the good times.

This isnt unfamiliar ground for Moshfegh. The wonderful McGlue is written as the internal monologue of a self-harming sailor, accused of murder, who cant keep food down and who has nearly drunk himself to death. And the stories in Homesick for Another World, her collection to be published in January, are, she says, my first attempt to impress on people how weird it has been for me to feel alive. And I do that by using these puppets who are struggling with their absurd miseries. Moshfegh told Vice magazine: My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time its very refined Its like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.

The vast majority of critics have embraced Eileen, but one used the words queasy and gratuitous. When I ask Moshfegh about the reception of the novel, she rails against those who want to know in this juicy way why I have written such an unlikable character. I just want to say: How dare you? We live in a world in which mass murderers are re-elected, she says, yet its an unlikable female character that is found to be offensive: its sexist and idiotic.

At the same time, I get it, she continues. Eileen is a character that makes people uncomfortable. She is not going to, you know, cheer you up. But might it not be liberating to hear the thoughts of someone who is completely ignored by society? Those readers or reviewers who focus on Eileens unlikability, she believes, probably felt ashamed when reading the book, and are unable to confront their own more debased impulses.

Moshfegh has said before that most people who pick up a book labelled thriller or mystery may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society I couldnt be like, Heres my freak book So Ive disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package. The great irony is that, to her, Eileen is not perverse. I think shes totally normal I havent written a freak character; Ive written an honest character.

When I mention the importance of drink in Eileen and her other work, Moshfegh tells me she drank alcoholically for five years from the age of 17 or 18, and then spent eight years in AA thinking deeply about alcoholism One of the first things you hear when you go to AA is that its not a cult, but it is a cult. I was indoctrinated, I was hard core.

And the problematic relationship between food and the body that features in her writing? Ive had eating issues since adolescence, and while I dont enjoy speaking about this publicly, I can say that theres nothing in my work that I havent thoroughly researched privately. As for Eileens body obsession, she has said its hardly surprising, even inevitable: we live in a culture of objectification women are judged by appearance first. This is why Im not putting my photo on my book jacket.

The bleakness of Eileens life is prolonged and taken to such a level its almost black comedy. In conversation, Moshfegh is funny about the trials of existence, and her short stories have been acclaimed for their comic timing. I used to be much funnier in person, she deadpans. I used to be hysterically funny. There was a period in my 20s when I was a crack-up. But she insists that even if Eileens misery and self-hatred might begin to seem absurd that doesnt mean its not real.

People are constantly being abused, enslaved, she has said. It happens all around us, every day, but weve become numb, so we do nothing. Eileen, which revolves around a juvenile prison, and the particular motivation for a patricide, is shaped by this anger. Then again, Moshfegh says she is completely fatigued and sick of having to talk about the novel as an object containing issues. For her it was an experiment, and a year on from its publication, shes very happy for it, but it is only one project among many.

***

Moshfegh has described herself as a lurker on the edge of society looking at the world and thinking: what a weird show. She was born in Boston to a Croatian mother and an Iranian father, both professional musicians. Her mothers parents joined partisan armies to fight the Nazis; her paternal grandfather owned half of Tehran before the family was forced to leave, with all assets seized, in the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. Her family was culturally rich but financially poor within an affluent Bostonian neighbourhood: Moshfegh was ashamed of their rusting car, but read the complete works of Hermann Hesse at an alarmingly young age, and was playing four instruments by the time she was seven.

My familys values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in, she recalls. As a child, she always felt removed: I had this epiphany when I was five, sitting on the carpet in kindergarten listening to Mrs Balfour trying to teach us how to read the clock. It dawned on me that time was passing and we were all going to be dead whats the point? So I had that realisation, and then people were telling me to put my crayons away. And to get in line, and to smile. And I thought this was total bullshit.

Her sense of alienation is expressed with humour, but is genuine and profound. I felt like I was living in hell for most of my childhood and adolescence and my 20s, she says. There was a brief period in my early 30s when I felt life was OK, and now it feels like hell again. The shape the hell took is precisely what my work is about.

Moshfegh gave up music when the discipline and intensity it required was channelled into her writing. After her college years in New York humiliating she lived a life in her 20s: I got jobs, fell in love, moved to China for two years, fell out of love, got other jobs. She dates the beginning of her writing career to her MFA course at Brown University, during which, in 2010-2011, she wrote McGlue: Looking back Im astonished that I wrote it, I think its an astonishing book.

Writing the hallucinatory novella which is both a celebration of rhythm and language, and a historical gay love story with exotic locations almost felt like an exorcism. Before it was published, she had already begun the series of stories to be included in Homesick for Another World, which led to recognition, awards and fellowships.

The first story in the collection, Bettering Myself, is told in the voice of a damaged, alcoholic high-school teacher, who meets up with her former husband. According to Moshfegh, it is not so far from a true story. Im not the character. But it came from very close to home. As did the fairytale-like final story, A Better Place, which concerns a young girl who, as the author describes it, feels as though shes been lied to and doesnt want to live in a world at the mercy of others. The stories in between are highly varied and hugely entertaining, but most originate from a position of hostility or a difficult personal experience. Many of them skewer egomaniacal men and privileged people unaware of their bigotry.

Even as her renown has increased, Moshfegh has expressed discomfort with becoming a literary personality. If the literary world was a high school, she told Vanity Fair, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being, like, Whatever. She has given up Twitter and Facebook tacky for a known author and tells me if I could unplug my internet completely I would I value my brain. But she is driven and ambitious what matters is the work, especially the new novel she is deep into, set in the New York art world in 2000, in which a woman hibernates for a year: In the long term, she says, I want my writing to be something important.

There may be aspects of promoting her novel that she finds wearying, but she smiles she doesnt mind being inconvenienced by the Booker, and has kept October free in her schedule in case. (If an American writer won it, she thinks, the media in the US would care more about the prize.) So what if, in some circles, Eileen gets bracketed with the bestselling thrillers by Flynn and Hawkins? Trying to protect its reputation as a postmodern work of art would not only be arrogant, but pointless. Besides, she retains a deep connection with her memorable and controversial central character, whom she grew to understand completely. Eileen is a living person, she says. And I have a feeling shes angry with me for talking behind her back.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Vintage. To order a copy for 7.37 (RRP 8.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/16/ottessa-moshfegh-interview-book-started-as-joke-man-booker-prize-shortlist

Categories

Likes

Follow us on Twitter