By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.
A few weeks ago, Ottessa Moshfegh, the author of the new short-story collection Homesick for Another World, sent me a video of the Scottish-born singer Lena Zavaroni. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her: Zavaroni’s performance of Neil Sedaka’s “Going Nowhere” is so charismatic and emotionally affecting that she seems destined for the brightest fame. Then I read the story of her tragic, too-short life. A child star with a grown-up voice, people once thought she’d be the next Barbra Streisand. But anorexia, a lifelong struggle that started in her early teens, drew her inward and ultimately away from public life. Zavaroni’s final, most dramatic attempt to save herself was to request experimental brain surgery—the exact details are unclear. Some accounts suggest the procedure was successful, but we’ll never know: She contracted pneumonia in the process, an infection her starved body couldn’t handle, and she died at 35.
In a conversation for this series, Moshfegh explained how the lyrics to “Going Nowhere” recall her own struggles with depression, eating disorders, and ennui. We discussed how writing helped her find purpose and a place, and how the creative process brings her into occasional contact with something even more transcendent: the state of heightened receptivity you glimpse in Zavaroni as she sings, a feeling good enough to guide a life and give it meaning.
The protagonists of Homesick for Another World are alienated outsiders, desperate to find home somehow but not sure how to get there. (Maybe the child narrator of “A Better Place” says it best: “Earth is the wrong place for me, always was and will be until I die.”) As her characters—a motley assortment of weirdos and grotesques—seek solace in romantic infatuation and sexual debasement, Moshfegh’s frightening, funny, and oddly tender portraits explore the ways some people come to love the things that most disgust them.
Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize; her stories have been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications. She spoke to me by phone.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I discovered the singer Lena Zavaroni online in 2012. When I saw her performance of “Going Nowhere,” I was completely stunned. The lyrics don’t especially move me, the way they’re written on the page. It’s her performance—you’re watching a woman who is so clearly struggling to find a reason to live. And her delivery elevates the lyrics somehow, helps you realize the words are just so honest and true.
It’s a TV program, probably one of those variety TV shows. The music starts, and then it pans over to her onstage. She’s wearing this long-sleeved, skin-colored gown, and looks so fragile—but absolutely self-possessed. Like she’s carrying the entire weight of the world inside of her. Her eyes are totally clear. When she’s singing you can see into her mouth, which looks like the mouth of a child. I find that really moving, somehow. She’s not a woman, though she's certainly not a child anymore. She’s something else. Like an angel of pain.
When you’re performing onstage, you can’t see anything. The lights are in your face, and it’s total darkness. So she must not have been able to see the audience—she belted out this song from the bottom of her heart into the abyss. As the song goes on she gets more and more into it. You can see her working herself up. Not in the Mick Jagger, I’m-losing-my-mind kind of way. You just get the sense she’s feeling every single word. “Most of you would tell me that I’m crazy, yes I’m crazy / I can’t help it,” she sings, and you believe her.
When the song ends, she’s kind of stunned. She blinks as though she’s coming out of a trance. Then people start applauding—which has always seemed ridiculous to me, to politely applaud this brutal song that grapples with the deep-down meaningless of everything. But she responds so sweetly, and you can tell it makes her feel wonderful—the way she almost giggles, placing her hand on her heart.
I always wonder what happened once she went offstage.
Her story just breaks my heart. She was one of those terrible cases of anorexia. There was nothing anyone could do to help her. Eventually, she insisted on having what sounds like a partial lobotomy in an attempt to cure her depression. Also electro-convulsive therapy, and drugs. I don’t think Lena ever had the appreciation from the world that she deserved, because she was so ill mentally and physically, and because she died so young. She was something of a mystery to people.
I can’t imagine growing up in the spotlight the way she did. She was discovered in Scotland at a very young age. Wasn’t a beautiful, pretty child or anything—her incredible spirit and ambition made her stand out, and her phenomenal musical talent. My sense is that her mom was insane; in 1989, she burned down the house, destroying all her daughter’s career memorabilia. Reading between the lines, it just seems like—this is your punishment for leaving me, for trying to have a life of your own. That’s all I can assume. I don’t think an artist gets this complicated and deep unless they’ve been totally betrayed by their family. Her mother committed suicide.
In this performance of “Going Nowhere,” I can see that Lena’s singing career probably saved her life and ruined it at the same time. She’s clearly tapping into the divine. She’s possessed by the spirit of the song, and speaking for all of humanity in this moment:
And still you try to hold the world together,
Make it happen, give it children
Who in turn are turning onto going nowhere.
And all the strength they’d ever need to help them
Has been wasted, remains hidden,
In the confusion of going nowhere.
The absurdity captured in the refrain of the song is something that I have felt in my own writing life a lot. It’s like, what’s the fucking point? Why do we do anything? When I’m depressed, that is the existential depression for me. It’s not like I need to be brilliantly happy all the time, and have everybody telling me I’m wonderful. I don’t need that. But if I’m not going anywhere, why don’t I just be dead?
I don’t know what the answer is, except that here’s this gorgeous song that has moved many people. If there is a reason to live, maybe it is just in the relating to one another in this way, and making beautiful art.
My nature is not to feel thrilled at being alive. I’m 35 now, but up until my 30s, I really just wanted off the planet. I also have been somebody who felt pretty helpless about my own eating disorder. Nobody came to my rescue, and it was really depressing. I think eating disorders are a way of trying to change who you are because you feel powerless to change the world. It’s a way of turning inward, telling yourself, “Well, this is the one thing that I can control.” The sad thing is that it ends up controlling you, taking you out of the world. I spent a lot of years in an anorexic and bulimic blackout. I don’t remember what my life was because I was so possessed by this devil.
Writing saved my life. It really did. Fiction provided ulterior universes that I could escape into and manipulate. It gave me a semblance of control. Then, there is the great satisfaction of getting something right. Materializing an idea. It’s not unlike music, that feeling: the way that, when you hear a piece of music, your whole body responds. There’s a chemical reaction. Hormones get released. It resonates in you, and you feel moved. When I’ve written something that I know is correct, it resonates in me powerfully. I feel blessed.
I’m not one of those writers that sits there scratching my head being like, “What should I write next?” The thing calls to me, and when I get to it, I’m in ecstasy. When I’ve hit the vein, I feel immortal. There’s a lot of pain around it too, but I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t in ecstasy 10 percent of the time. I feel then as though I’ve discovered something, and honored it—that I’ve made it happen by being a conduit. I have faith in that ability to move beyond myself, and it’s made me strong and self-reliant. This is why I believe in God. I usually write in the first person, and when I’m channeling a voice, I really do feel there’s part of me that’s just a conduit. But then there’s also part of me that’s thinking, and manipulating, and pushing. I think about the character; I look for resolutions to whatever he’s struggling with. Maybe I won’t take him there, but I do have to understand, at least. In doing that I tend to learn things about myself along the way.
Some characters in my work are willing to be changed. Some won’t be. They’ll be shown the door, and they’ll be like, “I don’t like the look of that door. I acknowledge it, but I’m not opening it.” That’s my life sometimes, too. I can’t take every opportunity for growth—it’s too exhausting.
It’s like the line from this song: “The things that tend to change you, tend to hurt you.” I relate to that a lot. Growth is painful, especially when there’s nobody to hold your hand. I had to wait until I was an adult before I could figure how to recover from my eating disorder—it took so long to learn how to take care of myself. It was a lot of work, but I don’t regret it. What do they say—no pain, no gain? My physical experience in this body has certainly been that way. Change in the body is rarely comfortable. Growing pains, all the self-destructive things I’ve done to myself to change what my body is. Recovery is painful. The ego tends towards stasis, and every time it gets hurt it does all these gymnastics to rationalize why it should remain intact and static. That’s in “Going Nowhere,” too, in these lines:
They shrug their shoulders, tell themselves that they don’t care,
And all the while they make believe they’re happy, oh they’re happy,
But not really.
That seems like the saddest thing to do. This gesture of telling yourself—whatever, this isn’t bothering me. I’m going to lie to myself that I’m happy, but I know that I’m not. That’s what people tend to do. We get stuck in our indifference to our own pain.
Waking up out of that is excruciating. I just finished the first draft of a new novel in which the protagonist sets out on this project to recover from the trauma of her past by sleeping for a year, attempting hibernation. (She finds out very quickly that this is most easily done using tons of prescription drugs.) It’s a book about putting yourself to sleep in an effort to heal. But it’s also a book about waking up, and what that feels like: intolerable, but also absolutely beautiful. It’s both. Being born, the first thing we do is scream our heads off.
Most of the time, I feel pleased that I’m living my purpose on this planet. A lot of my work confronts the devastating concepts in this song. We make art about our own ineffectuality, and in doing that, somehow we are no longer ineffectual. That’s the good news about being a human: We are creative. We feel compelled to make something new, to forge new paths through consciousness and grow. Nobody is going to save me—that’s how I’ve always felt. It’s up to me. It’s either do or die, and I decided to do. Maybe we’re going nowhere, but I chose to find meaning anyway.