My friend Emma and I meet to have long conversations on the novel — the novel as a form, the novels we’re reading, the novels we’re writing — but we never actually have that conversation. We just talk about our lives.
One day, sitting on grass, Emma spoke about the meeting she’d had that morning, a week after her confirmation, with her department chair. The department chair quickly said how excited she was by Emma’s research and then spit-fired the names of writers and asked, “Are you taking this all down?” For a while she kept repeating to Emma, “You should do a fellowship at Columbia. It makes sense. A fellowship at Columbia. Make it happen. Look it up.”
Every few minutes the department chair leaned over the side of her desk and looked at Emma’s feet. This happened four, five times. Emma didn’t know if she had or hadn’t been confirmed. The chair leaned over again and Emma said, “Am I confirmed?” The chair seemed confused. “Yes,” she said, “but those sandals, where did you get them? What are they? Those straps.”
All afternoon Emma Googled fellowships at Columbia. There was no fellowship at Columbia. “I’ve looked everywhere. I have no idea what she’s talking about.” When she saw the chair, later that day, the chair was walking across the quadrangle. “She was in the sandals.”
At the time, I was writing a story for a big magazine, but the story wasn’t working and the fact it wasn’t working disgusted me. That disgust led to a sense I had felt at other points in my life; a feeling of not being totally in control. This led to me mainly stalking people on Instagram, hating my body, and occasionally, late at night, submitting naked photos of myself to Tumblr sites.
I told Emma a man I knew had slept with a guy whose Instagram had over 30,000 followers. I’d heard of men with similar counts getting invited on trips to Thailand where they spent a week on a yacht, with other influencers, while drones and professional photographers took pictures of them wearing or being in the vicinity of branded products. It was like when YouTube stars took videos of themselves with other YouTube stars. They would caption posts with how they were living their best lives, lives of exploration, growth, self-discovery. The branded products weren’t really the products — the teeth whiteners, a vodka brand — the products were themselves.
As I spoke my phone vibrated with an email. I looked at it. Emma started talking but I stopped listening. The email said one of my photos had been posted. It was a photo of my ass, round in soft natural light. It was on a large site that had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. I told Emma I had to leave. I caught an Uber home. I lay in bed and refreshed the page watching the re-shares, the notes, feeling like a celebrity. At three AM it was there. Then it wasn’t. The blog had taken the post down. It didn’t get the numbers. This felt like a lot of things in my life. I lay in bed and gnashed my teeth.
In the morning, I forwarded Emma a news article about Oprah having a bathtub that was made from one whole piece of Italian marble, carved specifically for her body. The article didn’t have a picture of the bathtub and so I imagined it as just a marble Oprah or Oprah encased in marble, like Harrison Ford in carbonite, but instead of an expression of horror she radiates becoming, inner bliss.
The image soothed me.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows a young woman, an orphan, who attempts, through a course of prescription and experimental medication, to hibernate for an entire year. With enough sleep, she believes the cells in her body will have regenerated; entirely replaced themselves enough times to heal her mind. On a cellular level she will be a new person. The book charts this year, 2000 to 2001 leading up to 9/11, moving through spells of sleep, blackouts, memories, visits from her lone friend Reva, trips to Rite-Aid, trips to the bodega, phone calls with her psychiatrist, and her waking hours spent watching Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS.
Reviewing Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World for TLBRB, I mentioned an editor at Penguin initially viewing Moshfegh’s widely celebrated debut novel Eileen as somewhat of a disappointment. It didn’t quite capture the phosphorous-like flare of her short fiction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, both on a sentence level and even setting, events, is closer. The same Egyptian men from ‘Bettering Myself’ man the bodegas of New York, the freaks of ‘The Surrogate’’s LA raves are transposed as rich white kids cruising the underground clubs of Chelsea. Her sentences, like always, show a musicality, a precision and control. As the narrator lists Whoopi Goldberg films she clarifies:
Sister Act was tricky because the songs got stuck in my head and made me want to laugh, run wild, dance, be impassioned, or whatnot. That would not be good for my sleep. I could only handle it once a week or so.
That breathlessness of the first line, the abandon, then the ‘That’; the single clause response. The return to control.
If Eileen was created as Moshfegh says it was, using an outline provided by Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel, as something to break into the mainstream, something to make her famous, here Moshfegh does something else. As she herself says, “This new novel [is] different…I had to write it for my own life.” My Year of Rest and Relaxation shows Moshfegh revel in her strangeness, her transgressions, and use the space of the novel to deal with what’s beneath it.
The abject has been a staple in Moshfegh’s work. In her debut novel, Eileen obsessively wears lipstick because she can’t bear for people to see her lips and know that they are the same shade as her nipples. In the short story ‘The Surrogate’ a woman who looks like a young Diane Sawyer fixates on her abnormally swollen labia. In ‘Mr. Wu’ a man imagines the woman he loves using her fingers to clean herself after shitting, “lick her fingers and then ask to kiss him on the mouth”. In the new novel, the abject doesn’t leave exactly but there’s a subtle rearrangement of composition.
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation the unnamed narrator is so beautiful, so undeniably beautiful, that the vileness of the body, the abject, slides off her, leaving her always pristine. She looks like an “off-duty model”, like an image in a magazine. She looks like “Kate Moss” Reva says, “Charlize Theron”, “Amber Valletta”. Even after cocktails of Xanax, Nembutal, Zypreza, Risperdal, Ativan, Benadryl, Nyquin, lithium, Ambien, trazodone, temazepam, she wakes and can leave her apartment, unbathed, a Klondike bar half dissolved on her chin, still beautiful. “Even at my worst,” she says, “I knew I still looked good.”
She lives in a world of reflective surfaces. Her apartment is on the Upper East Side. It descends to a marble lobby. Elevator trips are “a lot of camel-hair coats and black leather briefcases. Burberry scarves and pearl earrings.” She works as a gallery assistant in Chelsea. In her sleep she orders FedEx packages, sealed parcels of Victoria’s Secret lingerie. We are in Manhattan, the same milieu as Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, only a decade or so later, everyone trying to be an image. It’s this facet of culture that’s still here, that permeates everything and gives the novel such a powerful charge, makes it feel of the now.
The narrator isn’t exactly liked for her beauty. “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else.” That is, she’s viewed as an object. Those who don’t value beauty, or maybe those who just lack it, resent her. As an undergraduate at Columbia, just after her parents have died, she breaks a heel while walking to class. She limps, late, into a seminar, ‘Feminist Theories and Art Practice 1960-1980’. The professor tells her to stand in front of the classroom as a performance piece to be deconstructed. The professor asks “simply to humiliate” her, how much she’d paid for the shoes. They were five hundred dollars, “one of the many purchases I’d made to mitigate the pain of having lost my parents or whatever I was feeling”. Someone calls out, she has been “broken by the male gaze”. Finally, she’s allowed to sit down. She drops the class.
Reva, the narrator’s one friend, worships her but maybe also “took some satisfaction in watching [her] crumble”. The narrator herself is ambivalent, often hostile: “I loved Reva, but I didn’t like her anymore.” Reva is having an affair with her boss, Kevin, an insurance broker who is so nondescript “he may as well have been moulded out of plastic”. She often speaks about Kevin. She does not live on the Upper East Side but wishes she lived on the Upper East Side. She wears a fake alligator skin Gucci tote bag, sometimes a fake Louis Vuitton. She has credit debt and shoplifts make-up testers. The narrator has “seen the tester stickers”. Reva’s interested in “life wisdom”, in getting ahead. Her mother is dying. She quotes Oprah and self-help homilies: “positive thinking is more powerful than negative thinking, even in equal amounts.” Her mother is dying. She is an alcoholic. She brings gin and wine and tequila to the narrator’s apartment and downs them, bottle after bottle. When she visits the narrator, sometimes she lies on the apartment floor and does crunches. Behind closed doors she forces herself to vomit.
What’s abject isn’t Reva’s bulimia, it isn’t Reva’s hair brush, the base of its handle “all scratched up” with teeth marks. The abject is that the narrator wears a size 2, Reva a 4, and yet as the narrator says, “the discrepancy between our bodies was huge in Reva’s world”. What’s abject is the culture. A culture that idolises the image, that conditions people to believe that if they become thinner, better dressed, use a new dieting program, pair it with a self-confidence CD, they will become a fully realised person, a fully-functioning being. To work towards this and to loathe oneself while doing so isn’t exceptional; Reva’s just fitting in.
The narrator is similar to Moshfegh’s other narrators, the voices in “Bettering Myself”, “Slumming”, “The Weirdos”. They divorce themselves from the world, recognising that something is deeply wrong with it, that it’s full of bullshit. But it is difficult for them to escape from their knowledge or know how to live with it. It’s a problem of existentialism, nihilism. They are rebellious, but they can also be cruel and selfish – when Reva says her mother’s cancer has spread to her brain the narrator replies, “Don’t be a spaz”. And they are almost always unhappy. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator wants to change and sleep is her answer. She doesn’t want to hate the world. She hopes that when she wakes up, “everything — the whole world would be new again”. Under the drugs, her subconscious body resists; during blackouts it orders Chinese take-out, books pedicures, goes out dancing, takes Polaroids of her vagina and sends them to strangers in the mail. Her actions don’t scare her. What does scare her is that in some way she’ll sabotage herself, make herself fail. Her year of rest and relaxation is an attempt at reintegration, “a quest for a new spirit”; a consciousness that can see the world clearly and still be able to live within it. In that sense, she wants what everyone wants, what Reva wants too; that is, to change.
In the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes that though the novel is “a strong book”, it’s one “that doesn’t advance our sense of Moshfegh as a writer”. We’ve seen it all before. But we haven’t. The novel, even in the narrator’s close first-person voice, is about two women not one. In this sense it makes me think of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, less for surface similarities—timeframe, setting, the dazzle of her sentences—but because of what both novels achieve. With My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh has written a novel that is a novel in the deepest sense of the term. The form, as theorist Guido Mazzoni writes, is of “individual, particular beings, thrown into time, located in a world, and placed among others”. The novel, like life, is about complex beings crossing paths with other complex beings. My Year Rest of Relaxation, more so than Eileen, more so than McGlue, more so than her stories, does this. And like in Gaitskill’s Veronica, Moshfegh does so by reaching a new depth, a new tenderness, a generosity. “I sensed Reva’s misery in the room with me. It was the particular sadness of a young woman who has lost her mother—complex and angry and soft, yet oddly hopeful. I recognised it. But I didn’t feel it inside of me.” It doesn’t matter in the moment whether or not the narrator feels it. It is an achievement because the reader does. Moshfegh makes us feel for them both.
More than a year ago, I wrote that Moshfegh’s stories always approach a kind of revelatory moment, when a truth is about to be grasped, but that truth, whatever it is, is left always unclear. I thought of this, reading, alone in bed, as Reva gives her mother’s eulogy midway through the novel:
She went on for a while, mentioned the watercolours, her mother’s faith in God. Then she seemed to space out. ‘To be honest…’ she began. ‘It’s like you know…’ She smiled and apologised and covered her face with her hands and sat back down next to me.
It’s the moment of the ellipsis. It feels like the truth is about to open, but standing there, Reva falters, doesn’t have the words, and like that, it slips away. In Moshfegh’s stories the flash of illumination, the ellipsis, is where the story ends. I won’t say what happens in the end but in her second novel, with the space it affords, it isn’t the same. Moshfegh reaches for the truth, there’s the flash but it isn’t a flash. The light doesn’t fade.
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer based in Melbourne. His short fiction has appeared in Granta, Meanjin and New York Tyrant. He is currently undertaking his PhD at RMIT University researching “realness” in contemporary fiction.