Very often in literature and film, beautiful women are objects to be desired or enchanted by, but never really understood. In her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, (Penguin Press, 2018) Ottessa Moshfegh gets inside of the ineffable beauty trope and then smashes it before your eyes with a literary ball peen hammer. In so doing, she turns a one-dimensional character into an authentic, interesting and not necessarily nice person. It is glorious.
“So much of a woman’s currency is how cool she is, how irreverent she is,” Moshfegh told The Current in a recent interview. “And being beautiful allows you to be irreverent without being gross. I think that’s one thing that this character is good at being — totally irreverent.”
Moshfegh’s protagonist (the character remains unnamed throughout) is a bit lost; something is wrong that she cannot name. She lands on the idea that she needs to hit the reset button by sleeping away a year of her life. It will cure what ails her. She will emerge from her cocoon of sleep transformed. Moshfegh herself laughed about the guilty pleasure of falling asleep with something familiar on the television.
She is no stranger to damaged, difficult protagonists. Her first novel, Eileen, (Penguin Press, 2016) revolved around a young woman’s dark interior life and spiritless work and home life. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. A frequent contributor to the Paris Review, Moshfegh has become known for her mordant, observational humor, but her take is deeper than a mere well-timed acerbic burn.
Disappointment, callow beauty culture, the malaise of the leisure class, the hubris of wealth, the merits of analog TV viewing and Whoopi Goldberg’s entire oeuvre all get a thorough examination under Moshfegh’s skillful pen. As well as a sickening sense of loss. Early on, she writes:
“I wanted to hold on to the house the way you’d hold on to a love letter. It was proof that I had not always been completely alone in the world. But I think I was also holding on to the loss, to the emptiness of the house itself, as though to affirm that it was better to be alone than to be stuck with people who were supposed to love you, yet couldn’t.”
This unnamed character interacts with a few key characters who expand her world beyond her sleeping sofa. Her friend Reva, with her constant doubts about being pretty enough or trendy enough of thin enough provides a perfect counterbalance to her effortless cool. Then there is Ping Xi, whose stock in trade is shock art and who she met while working as a Chelsea gallery girl, “[a] job tangential to do something she once was passionate about, but also represented the disappointment of the art industry as having very little to do with the impetus to really make art.”
The only other person she has any real contact with is Dr. Tuttle, the idiosyncratic psychiatrist through whom she obtains sleep meds. Some of the medicines are quite real, like ambien, but as the book takes life, they become fantastical. Moshfegh knew she had to tread a tight path in this regard and the scenes where the protagonist visits Dr. Tuttle are the most trenchant and hilarious in the book.
“Dr. Tuttle is sort of the apotheosis of everything that is ridiculous about psychiatry for me,” Moshfegh said. “The premise of the book is so heavy in this certain way. And medication abuse is so scary. I knew Dr. Tuttle was going to be funny. She kind of came to me as a whole entity.”
Though My Year of Rest and Relaxation is often discussed as a 9/11 book (the time period the story takes place in), it is perfect for the period in which we live now, when it wouldn’t be unreasonable to want to crawl into bed and just wait it all out.
“The more the story developed, or seemed too true that this was a different period of American history and culture and that the whole conceit of sleeping away a year was much more peculiar if you set it in 2001,” Moshfegh said, well-aware of the unique circumstances of 2019 America. “Whereas if you set it now, it’s sort of predictable. It’s a common complaint that the world sucks right now. We’re in this period where everything sucks and we can’t wait for it to be over. That’s not how it felt in the year 2000. At least not to my knowledge.”