By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 2018
Like many readers of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), Moshfegh’s second novel after Eileen (2015), I was intrigued by the premise of a young Manhattanite trying to “hibernate” for a year, as a way of resetting herself emotionally. There’s good potential there, and it didn’t take me long to glean one of the story’s major themes: how (cringingly) far wealth and physical “hotness” can take someone who literally wants to put no effort into life beyond refilling prescriptions and watching old movies. The theme is illustrated very effectively, and Moshfegh’s writing throughout the book is sharp. The question a reader might start asking is, Do I actually want to spend 300 pages with this (unnamed) narrator and this theme?
I can see how some readers might toss the book aside after a while, but to Moshfegh’s credit, I did finish it, and I’m not a reader who has to finish what I start. It’s an entertaining enough novel—breezy, yes, but not shallow, with clever details and funny insights, like when our hermetic narrator muses that having a trash chute is one of her favorite things about her apartment building. “It made me feel important, like I was participating in the world. My trash mixed with the trash of others. The things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting.” Or during her somnambulist phase, when she’s told by the blasé Egyptians running a nearby bodega that she owes them for the “seven ice creams” from the night before. At first she thinks maybe they’re scamming her, but she dutifully pays, and when she gets home: “I found seven pints of old Haagen-Dazs on the kitchen counter.” There’s something about her simultaneous trust and distrust of the Egyptians that feels charmingly human.
There were other things I liked, too, about how Moshfegh draws her heroine (if someone whose main goal is to drug herself and watch movies can be called a heroine). In particular, her disdain early in the novel for a contemporary shock artist, “Ping Xi,” works well. Since the narrator works as a gallery assistant, we might have expected her to appreciate and praise Xi’s art of taxidermized dogs with red lasers shooting from their eyes, or splatter paintings made from his own ejaculate with titles like “Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City” or “Decapitated Palestinian Child.”—“It was all nonsense,” our narrator says with refreshing simplicity, “but people loved it.” Another high point of the novel are the vibrant details about her gallery job, though she quits/is fired fifty pages into the book.
My fundamental disappointment with the novel is that it felt like something of a bait-and-switch. Our narrator isn’t so much interested in naturally divesting herself of waking life—sleeping—as she is in ceaselessly drugging herself into unconsciousness with pharmaceutical downers. For me, this was a downer itself. I wanted Moshfegh to explore extreme sleeping and nihilism, but very quickly the novel starts (and continues) to read like yet another memoir of addiction, with nonstop pill refill errands and pharmacy inventory lists. Her trying to genuinely sleep for a year would have been more intriguing because it would be much more challenging to write. Yes, I know that humans aren’t built to hibernate. But it’s a novel, and Moshfegh could’ve taken a bit of literary license to explore what it would mean to sleep for a year, instead of just filling pages with pharmaceutical brand names. I was reminded of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 2001 memoir (cautionary tale, really) of her Ritalin addiction, More, Now, Again—a train wreck of a book, though it does offer the same morbid fascination as watching a real train wreck.
Moshfegh’s novel was also reminiscent of a typical Bret Easton Ellis novel, in which every tenth word is a brand name, a pop singer, or a movie title (twelve of the latter on one page (72) in Rest and Relaxation!). Another reason the novel felt memoir-ish is that the only remotely complex character is the narrator, whose backstory, if a little twice-told, is a nicely-painted picture of absentee workaholic professor father + an inebriated beauty queen mother = an emotionless blah of a daughter who’s skated through life on her looks and winds up addicted to pills. The clingy frenemy Reva feels accurate enough, but I might just as well have eavesdropped for five minutes on any image-obsessed airhead whining to her friend in Starbucks, for all I actually learned about humanity from Reva. (There might be a lesson here, fellow writers, about trying to sell what readers can get for free.) Moshfegh’s other characters aren’t much better. Dr. Tuttle, the harebrained psychiatrist (read: drug dealer) isn’t much more than a plot device to connect our hypersomniac to prescription sedatives. And Trevor, the narrator’s off/on fling, is a typical soulless yuppie, as superficial as Reva and only interested in our narrator because she’s “hot” and willing to give him (arguably) degrading blowjobs.
This brings me to another gripe. By the time I was halfway through the book, I started to wonder if Moshfegh’s strategy to keep her readers’ interest among all this willful ennui was to repeatedly mention female genitalia and/or use the word “vagina.” By page 2, we’re hearing about dirty panties and going commando. Not long after that, she’s shitting on the floor of the art gallery and wiping herself. (Two different times, the narrator tells us how she wipes herself after peeing or pooping.) Then the narrator has a dream about lathering up her mother’s pubic hair and extracting a tangle of hair out of her mother’s—what else?—vagina. About halfway through the novel, we get a graphic (but boring) scene of porn-watching. Later in the book, our hero describes her pubic hair puffing out her panties. Now, I have no problem with explicit bodily details, and maybe this is astute characterization: a woman whose life is so devoid of stimuli that using a garbage chute feels like “connecting” and “contributing” might indeed be endlessly fascinated by her own genitals. But I wonder if all these vaginas are a little “poker tell” of Moshfegh’s insecurity that people would actually care about her story and protagonist.
I also wonder if Moshfegh knew that her premise was better suited to a short story or a novella—but also knew that shorts and novellas aren’t nearly as marketable as novels. As a fiction writer, I can very much empathize, but speaking as an objective reader, the story of My Year of Rest and Relaxation simply doesn’t require a novel. The padding and repetition are dead giveaways. We don’t need to hear that the narrator likes Whoopi Goldberg a dozen times. We don’t need tedious accounts of dreams, and we definitely don’t need all the pointless capsules of movies the narrator watches (instead of sleeping). I like movies, too, and it might be fun to write up synopses for all my favorite movies from the 80s and 90s—but that doesn’t mean they belong in a novel.
Let’s say I’m wrong, though, and the story really is fit for a novel. Even so, time and again, Moshfegh takes the easy way out and evades conflict by keeping her narrator in her miniscule sphere. When the narrator drags herself to Reva’s mother’s funeral, she spends most of the time “resting” in the basement, rather than being forced to interact with Reva’s family, which might’ve been dramatic and illuminating. And why make Dr. Tuttle such an obediently inane human pill dispenser, instead of someone that actually challenges our narrator? There’s no life, no collisions—just drugs and movies and “sleep.”
These shortcuts are disappointing, and that’s why the final section of the novel, with its somewhat clever plot twist of a collaboration between the anesthetized narrator and the shock artist Xi, and the modicum of growth our narrator experiences, and then the 9/11 coda—it didn’t do much for me, even though all of it’s competently written and it feels like something is happening. But by then I’d had to wade through 250 pages of pills and vaginas and movie blurbs to get to a solid short story. And after all that time in the shallow end of the pool, I didn’t know if the deep end really was deep, or whether the author was just in over her head.
Marc Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His short fiction has been published in New Pop Lit, Pif, Literary Orphans, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. His essays have appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, the Submittable blog, and other venues. He currently lives in New Orleans and has taught creative writing at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. His website is www.marc-elias-keller.com