Ottessa Moshfegh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018) (narrated by Julia Whelan) – I don’t know, man. I tried. I really do try with these works of recent literature, especially those written by women. It used to feel kind of good, thinking I was above contemporary literature- now the sheer lack of interest to be found there gets me down. It doesn’t help when it makes me think I’m just not capable of relating to the experiences of people different from myself, even if I know that’s a way publishers guilt people into buying their books…
A gloomy start to this review, I suppose, but this one wasn’t all bad, not as bad as some other recent examples of capital-L Literature I could cite. For one thing, Moshfegh’s prose isn’t bad. A little typical at times- a lot of lists of three items separated by “ands,” but hell, it’s only three, compared to the great galloping mock-heroic and-lists we’re used to seeing that’s downright restrained. And for once, a somewhat interesting concept: a young woman in turn-of-the-millennium New York tries to zonk herself out for a year, on the idea she’ll come out the other side better off.
The unnamed narrator is a woman in her twenties living in the fancy Upper East Side. She has an art history degree, conventional beauty, inheritance money, and an annoying best friend named Reva who’s enough of a “Jewish American Princess” stereotype to be borderline antisemitic. Her parents are dead upper middle class jerks (probably not actually rich enough to have left her enough money to live in the LES, but who cares, it’s the early aughts). Mossfegh depicts her as having taste. She certainly sees through the pretensions of the art world when she works for a gallery downtown, in what are probably the book’s best passages. For the most part, though, all her sensitivity gets her is an increased sense of disdain for everything and everyone around her. No wonder she wants to xanax herself into sleep for a year, though the assumption that that will help somehow is at least as delusional (or anyway should be seen as such) as Reva’s crash diets to attract a man’s attention.
Look… I’m persnickety enough to by now be a little bit sick of the “I’m so tired of hearing about privileged people in literature!” thing. It’s not like writing about the underprivileged is some magic ticket to good writing (and how many of these same people gatekeep people away from writing about people other than themselves?). But… there’s a reason, above and beyond political bullshit and posturing, for why that critique rings out so often. I’m reminded of Tocqueville talking about how what pissed the sans-culottes in the French Revolution more than anything wasn’t the power of the nobility, which had been declining for years, but the perks and privileges and swanning around the nobles still did, even as they were completely useless even in their own terms. The ultimate perk of the world elite at this moment is for their individual pain to matter. That they continue flaunting this perk as they do nothing — show that they’re capable of doing nothing — while the world burns…
I mean, I get it. I get that rich and beautiful people get depressed and that depression sucks no matter who it happens to. I’ve known enough rich kids to know their lives aren’t all great. I’m not a preacher looking for a moral, a charitable foundation looking to means test those I’d dole out my reading fee-fees to, or a consumer looking for stronger jerks on my tear ducts. What I am is a reader looking for something interesting. This has a reasonably interesting premise- world-despising privileged lady tries to blot out world. I can get down with that. But it becomes a lot less so when you realize the shape of its arc: family-inherited trauma to extreme behavior turns to crescendo to bliss-out.
Spoiler alert- the narrator’s quack psychiatrist (the voice actress makes her sound a good amount like Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos) gives our heroine a made-up drug that takes away time in neat three day black out chunks. After some neat planning, the heroine takes enough of these to black out several months without dying or doing anything that fucks her up too bad. Then she feels fine, enjoying the little things, except a little sad that Reva dies in 9/11. Maybe the point is that the rich and the pretty always bounce back? Reasonable enough, I suppose, but it still feels like something of a waste.
I wonder if what’s really going on here isn’t a certain finickiness. The narrator does gross things — pukes, blacks out, lets various bad men grope and have sex with her — and is generally “unlikable” in a respectable rebuke of the reader-whine you hear so often about “likable” characters. But maybe I’m just missing something here- I think blotting out life, I think three things. I think suicide, I think the Internet/video games, and I think opiates. The narrator does consider suicide at various points, but only if her restoration-through-sleep plan doesn’t work. The Internet (and the really addictive online gameplay it allows) was much less of a thing when this book was set. But for all the narrator’s outrageous drug abuse, Moshfegh is very leery about opiates, having the narrator only pop one or two “stray” vicodins. That’s interesting to me. The woman wouldn’t need all of her complicated prescription cocktails if she got Doctor Feelgood to give her oxys. It’s almost as though that’s too dirty, though, or would make this an “addiction” book (it’s not as though the drugs she does take are so “clean” or non-addictive)… you get the feeling that Moshfegh avoids them, and suicide. This book dips a toe in the sort of world-abasement that even the New Yorker crowd can get down with, all things considered, but steering clear of the stuff that’d really scare them… anyway.
I’m probably making this book sound worse than it is. It beats Sheila Heti, Moshfegh’s cousin in high pointlessness (another problem with both books- they expect me to care about visual arts, when the visual arts have been instructing me not to care about the visual arts since before I’ve been born). It beats Bret Easton Ellis, creator of the narrator’s sibling in New York-based rich kid madness, Patrick Bateman. Moshfegh doesn’t try our patience with lousy writing and stupid tricks like Heti or Ellis, which is a shame, as all of them wind up in the same netherzone. ***