On Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation
I finished My Year of Rest and Relaxation while lying on my back in a park in Harlem, sleepy with sun. An hour before, I had put in a deposit securing the apartment for which, three days later—today—I’d sign a lease. A couple on the lawn below me turned their faces toward each other, their mouths wide, twisting and lip-syncing to Lil Nas X. To my left, a girl breathed out thin streams of dank-smelling smoke, smiling as her Pomeranian intimidated a stranger’s far larger bulldog. The day was humid and hot, but softening into night. In the distance, a FedEx 777 slanted into JFK. I am not often susceptible to hope, but yes, yes—in this moment, if only for a moment, I allowed myself to hope.
That I felt this way in My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s immediate aftermath strikes me now as a minor sort of miracle. Hope, after all, is perhaps the one thing Moshfegh’s second novel does not contain, or at least does not subject to the same stark, gas-station-bathroom illumination as the rest of its depravity. On full display, by contrast, are a pharmacopoeia of narcotics and antidepressants, both OTC and prescribed; a medical dictionary of maladaptive behavior; a syllabus of ugliness masquerading as art; a catalog of self-destructive consumerism. Over the novel’s titular year of (purported) convalescence, its unnamed narrator—a mid-twenties Columbia grad, recently orphaned, more recently unemployed—puts on a masterclass of sadomasochism. Her dependence upon her script-slinging psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, is complete; her devotion to her abusive, emotionally-void boyfriend, Trevor, is total; her toxic symbiosis with Reva, her best and only friend, devours all else. It is an unconfronted truism that all good fiction’s action must be driven by choices the protagonist makes. If that’s the case in My Year of Rest of Relaxation, it is only true insofar as the narrator makes one choice: to rid herself of all others. After losing her job, she commits to a year of no commitments, no efforts toward salvation, nothing—she will sleep. It is an act less of self-abnegation than world-abnegation: “My past life would be but a dream,” she reflects, “and I could start over without regrets.” If hope informs this decision, it’s that of a stalwart atheist in an exposed foxhole. No God is on Their way, no epiphany lies in wait—and yet she will wait. Despite all else.
Part of me is tempted to ascribe my unlikely hope to Merwin, whose poetry has made up the bulk of my other recent reading. Unlike Moshfegh’s turn-of-the-century urbanism, his naturalism at least gestures toward immanence, a greater purpose encompassing and encompassed by all things. Even if all is fleeting, even if his words act not as odes, but laments, one might still find grace. In “Invocation,” he writes, “Here I am once again with my dry mouth / At the fountain of thistles / Preparing to sing.” As Moshfegh does, Merwin stares down reality without blinking. The only difference with him is that his gaze is softer, the angle of his view wider. Doom is there, is everywhere—but so too the beautiful, the good, the true.
I’m not sure the rationale for my hope is that simple, though. Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I was struck not by my many incongruities with the narrator (I am on but one antidepressant; I sleep, at most, six hours at a stretch; my love for my friends is unselfish; my romantic questing is, at best, dull), but by my similarities. A year in the life of a twenty-something is, after all, largely plotless. One goes here, there. One thinks this, that. One ticks off most hours as the epitome of ennui, the Platonic ideal of the Genuine Nice Guy. One finds oneself stumbling through LA at three in the morning, sick on free drinks from a close friend’s wedding, desperately texting some chick on Bumble whose name he now forgets. One finds oneself vowing to never do X again, to be more Y, to do more Z. One finds oneself waiting for a, any, sign. To paraphrase E.M. Forster: if for nothing else, one wants, desperately, to connect.
So why the hope, then? How? So far, I’ve said nothing about the novel’s setting in the year 2000, but I think that’s where the answer lies. At the time, I was only five, and am therefore unable to capture the era with the same particulars Moshfegh employs to such depressing effect. Most of what I know is secondhand. The century had just turned; the world had just neglected to end. The US was at war, but not even close to the extent it would soon be. Pharmaceuticals were regulated, but barely. Fashion was questionable; TV was a soul-sucking pit.
Most of all, though, it was a time at which optimism was far more possible than it is today. Al Gore was known solely as a presidential snub, not yet the deliverer of An Inconvenient Truth. The Internet, not yet a cesspit, existed as little more than an idea, a beacon of knowledge and communication and inspiration, a frontier we would finally fail to fuck up. That the novel’s narrator resents being alive to the extent she does—and that I, for the most part, do not—it’s this difference that gives me hope. Eugene Thacker, whose Infinite Resignation I’ve just begun, has this to say on the matter: “Perhaps this is why the true optimists are the most severe pessimists—they are optimists that have run out of options.” Compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist, my personal tragedies are few. But the tragedies of the world I’ve inherited are far, far greater.
So it is that the novel ends with the shot of a woman leaping from the Twin Towers: “a human being, diving into the unknown… wide awake.” So it is that, upon reading this line, I set the book at my side. I am twenty-six; I am unemployed; I am alive. And I tilted my face to the waning light.