A Quarantined Reading of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Cover: Penguin Press/Background: Twenty20

The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel should be interesting. After all, her art-industry peers in My Year of Rest and Relaxation are ejaculating onto paintings, keeping murdered dogs in freezers, and jet setting on a dime definitely not earned through their day job. Day jobs, held by trust babies for performative purposes at art galleries, are places to be seen while looking bored. At least, this is how the suffocatingly self-aware protagonist, who remains unnamed, describes her role as a gallery assistant in Chelsea. In her case, looking bored requires curating outfits (“my wardrobe is probably my best professional asset,” she quips) but little acting. Our protagonist is bored, and though her character solicits little sympathy, her pathway to self-renewal fails to follow the stereotypical story arch.

A Mayflower princess with the inner monologue one might ascribe to the Unibomber, she enacts self-loathing rituals whilst ensuring the reader knows she looks like an off-duty model and who makes references to important works of art. Her only friend is former college roommate Reva, a Long Island tornado of faux-Fendi bags, spin classes, and Cosmo (the novel is set in the early aughts, after all). Though the narrator speaks of Reva in openly loathsome terms, an affinity breaks through her stupor, and (spoiler alert) when her goal of soul-renewal is achieved, she is moved to tell Reva how deeply she loves her.

The narrator, self-described as thin, blonde, and beautiful, inherits a sizable sum from her deceased parents. A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in a Manhattan apartment building with a doorman and initially gains employment at a reputable art gallery. Her sense of self-importance without self-regard could strike one as doubly obnoxious. After all, the majority of our daily marketing deluges are focused on getting rich, thin, and comfortable, no matter how cloaked they may be in terms like, “financial security”, “wellness”, and “optimized.” If our narrator is neither interesting nor happy, we could be moved to consider that achieving such subjective states may not result in our ultimate “made it” moment, either.

Through the eyes of a free market capitalist, the narrator’s unhappiness could seem sin-like, as the economic and social privilege bestowed to her is ostensibly the result of the country’s deeply ingrained principles of striving. If she’s not happy, what is going on here?

The novel takes place before two major pivotal events that permanently changed America’s landscape: The attacks of September 11th and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Rather than claiming to tune in, our narrator unabashedly tunes out. If she had preached the benefits of processing her trauma, practicing daily yoga, and meditating, would we consider her any less self-absorbed?

Flaunting wealth was the norm then. Today, there is a market for performative wokeness. Both imagine a world that revolves around the consumer. Consider the fame of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Their popularity didn’t need today’s minimalist packaging of entrepreneurial-ism and female empowerment to retain a fan base. Yet, are the #BossBabes who started companies with the help of familial investment and connection really any different than the Louis Vuitton toting Hiltons of the early 2000s?

The narrator exhibits a preternatural instinct for what Holden Caulfield might call “phonies.” Having firmly decided her own presence is unacceptable, the narrator fully commits to the insane notion of self-renewal through near-death. Through the aid of inept psychiatrist Dr. Tuttle, the narrator stockpiles enough drugs to keep her mostly unconscious. Rather than a path to self-destruction, our author yearns for a new soul entirely. This non-traditional journey of the self-lighting phoenix is hypnotizing, lulling the reader into the narrator’s timeless universe of pills, VHS tapes, and Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the narrator reveals a strange affinity, a rare breakthrough in her otherwise emotionally muted monologues.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

In her relationship with Trevor, a passively sociopathic banker in his early 30s, her appearances warrant comparison to a commercial break. Her attraction to him appears an act of revenge on herself, as she decries building his self-esteem after it is crushed by women his own age. Trevor may lack art-world pretension, but he more than makes up for it with his calculated-to-seem-cavalier abuse. Unlike many protagonists in coming-of-age tales, one is not inclined to feel protective over the narrator. She describes such episodes with as much color as a sepia photograph, such that hearing her traumas objectively could feel shocking. Her upbringing by a dry scientist father and definitely-not-dry alcoholic mother lacks any warmth whatsoever. In college, she fails to retain any lasting friendships except for Reva, the latter of which is upheld almost entirely by Reva’s actions alone. Through her self-awareness, the narrator is stripped of all self-hood, all meaning, and becomes a vessel which she attempts to fulfill with a soul.

Coping wears many colors and is often colored by our race, class, and cultural background. Perhaps we aren’t so far removed from the superficial solipsism of the early aughts as we thought. Whether we tune into Headspace or turn up the white noise may have more to do with what’s around us than what’s within us.

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