The Opposite of Suicide
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Fed up with the people around her, fed up with the hypocrisy of New York’s art world, fed up most of all with her own thoughts, the nameless narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation resolves to spend a year in “hibernation”: sleeping, taking pills, staying at home, and generally doing as little as possible.
She is helped by a new-age cat-lady quack called Dr. Tuttle, who somehow has the authority to prescribe massive catalogues of pills. Our narrator takes enough of them to kill a herd of elephants. Once her brain has been dulled, she passes her time in a stupor, watching terrible movies, browsing fashion magazines, and bitterly ruminating over the art-world hacks she hates.
After getting fired from her job for sleeping during work hours, her only contact with the outside world—apart from the Egyptians at the local bodega—is Reva. Reva is her relentlessly positive friend, a bulimic who comes around to chat and fuss about the narrator’s health:
I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide. Not that what I was doing was suicide. In fact, it was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought it was going to save my life. (7)
Friendship, love... these things need people to be vulnerable around each other. The narrator’s caustic attitude to everyone around her prevents this from ever happening. Her friendship with Reva endures only because Reva needs her as well. While the narrator is horrible to Reva, she gives her a space to purge both her lunch and the negative emotions she represses. In turn, Reva gives the narrator the bare minimum of love and human contact she needs to not kill herself.
The narrator’s criticisms of Reva are true. She has an intense, needy desire to be liked, and her positivity functions as a defence mechanism against the sting of reality. But replace “positivity” with “negativity” and this is also true of the narrator. Despite her privileged background—a beautiful, wealthy, art-school educated WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant)—she is simply unable to grow up and get over herself. Unable to cope with this fact and not willing to admit it, she simply cuts everyone else down to her same level of misery.
The contrast of disgust and beauty help us here. The “beautiful” narrator does and says “disgusting” things. The same “ick” we we as a reader might feel when she wonders about the colour of Whoopi Goldberg’s vagina (mauve apparently), or shits on the floor of the art gallery that fires her, is the same maladjusted “ick” she feels around other people. It’s an ick that stops her ever truly letting her guard down.
We trace this back to the narrator’s relationship with her parents. Her father was a disinterested, loveless university professor. Her mother was a beautiful but unpleasant woman who loafed about the house all day doing nothing. When the narrator was a baby, her mother would react to her cries by spiking her food with sedatives. Love was never expressed in this family.
The narrator also remembers how, at any point, the mother might suddenly have snapped at someone, criticising them for their flaws or pointing out their ugliness. The narrator’s most painful memory of this is after her father died. She was snivelling in the kitchen when her mother suddenly came in to scold her for sounding pathetic and looking snotty, and tells her to change her shirt because there are sweat-stains under her armpits.
Not long after her father’s death, the narrator’s mother committed suicide. The novel opens sometime after this. The passing of her parents leaves the narrator with enough money to seriously pursue her project of sleeping for a year. Unhappy with the thoughts in her head, not content with her meaningless existence, she ramps up her pill intake: “Life could go on like this, I thought. Life would, if I didn’t take action.” (193)
Dr. Tuttle moves her onto stronger drugs. The narrator gets a prescription for Infermiterol, which I’m pretty sure is not real; it causes the narrator to black out for days at a time. During these blackouts, her unconscious self asserts its need for something more human, though the narrator is startled and loathe to admit it; with no memory of having done so, she attends parties and makes life-changing commitments such as giving up the pills—this latter development leads to a funny scene in which she has to break into Reva’s apartment to steal them back.
After resolving to not attend Reva’s mother’s funeral, the narrator blacks out on Infermiterol and wakes up en route to it. This pisses her off. She resents Reva for being in this situation. For most of the weekend she loafs around in Reva’s old room, trying on her dead mother’s clothes. At any moment, she thinks, she will snap and their relationship will be over:
I tried to think of the worst thing I could say about a person. What was the cruelest, most cutting, truest thing? Was it worth saying? Reva was harmless. She wasn’t a bad person. She’d done nothing to hurt me. I was the one sitting there full of disgust, wearing her dead mother’s shoes. (163)
Reva takes all this in stride. She feels so happy and supported simply by the narrator’s merely showing up. This act of grace even appears to move the narrator, forcing her to grudgingly admit to herself that she really does love Reva.
Before Infermiterol, the narrative progresses mostly on the arrival or departure of Reva. Concrete actions, outside events, other people all frame the narrator’s routine. Once Infermiterol is introduced, time no longer passes evenly. The narrator is clearly doing stuff while on Infermiterol, but she does so off-the-page. The narrative instead progresses based on memories and epiphanies.
Her mind free of the clutter of day-to-day life, the narrator is able to direct her thoughts to those unpleasant memories holding her back. The narrator is no longer scolding and mocking. As she looks out the window, the scene dissolves into an image of her mother getting dressed:
While I waited, I ticked open a slat in the blinds and saw that it was the dead of night, black and cold and icy, and I thought of all the cruel people out there sleeping soundly, like newborn babes in blankets held to the bosoms of their loving mothers, and thought of my mother’s bony clavicles, the white lace of her bras and white lace of her silk camisoles and slip dresses that she wore under everything, and the white of her terry-cloth robe hanging on the back of her bathroom door, thick and luxurious like the ones at nice hotels, and the gray satin dressing gown whose belt slipped out of its loops because it was slippery silk satin, and it rippled like the water in a river in a Japanese painting, my mother’s taut, pale legs flashing like the white bellies of sun-flashed koi, their fanlike tails stirring the silt and clouding the pond water like a puff of smoke in a magic show, and my mother’s powdered foundation, how when she dipped her fat, rounded brush in it, then lifted it to her wan, sallow face shiny with moisturizer, it also made a puff of smoke, and I remember watching her “put her face on,” as she called it, and wondering if one day I’d be like her, a beautiful fish in a man-made pool, circling and circling, surviving the tedium only because my memory can contain only what is imprinted on the last few minutes of my life ,constantly forgetting my thoughts. (212-3)
Finally able to focus on her memories, the narrator realises she no longer has to dwell on them. She likens the experience to flipping through Polaroids in her mind, remarking bittersweetly: “I knew that even if I could go back, if such a thing were possible with exactitude, in life or in dreams, there was really no point.” (275)
The veracity of her memories also appears to be in question. When a real-estate agent contacts her to discuss the sale of her parents house, she is hesitant to proceed because of an inexplicably deep attachment to it. But when she thinks about the actual memories she has from that house, she can only manage a clichéd TV montage: “... the nostalgia didn’t hit. These weren’t my memories.” (222)
The past is not what’s holding her back. Her dwelling on the past in the present is what’s holding her back. The only solution is to move forward, to create new memories which, by simply existing, rob the old ones of their power to swallow up the whole of life with their pain. The narrator reaches this conclusion while looking at still life paintings in the MET. As she ponders about the artists who painted them, she wonders if they were not attempting to redeem their own miseries out of a mistaken belief that beauty could be a substitute for meaning.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes place over 2000 and 2001. As the narrator turns inward, history keeps marching on in the background, but at the volume of a radio left on in another room. We hear of natural disasters and of George W. Bush’s inauguration. Yet history only collides with the narrative on the last page, when Reva is killed on 9/11.
A few facts about this book make its ending very obvious. Moshfegh is careful to tick down the days that are passing. When Reva gets a promotion that sees her moving into the World Trade Centre, it’s all but inevitable that she is going to die on September 11. Yet when the story got there, I didn’t see much to it.
On the final page we learn that the narrator records the news coverage of the 9/11 attack. One of her recordings shows a figure jumping out of the World Trade Centre, a figure she believes is Reva: “There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.” (289) But can you really draw this comparison between Reva’s final attempt at freedom and an art-girl meltdown? I don’t think it worked at all.
The September 11 attacks marked a shift in American consciousness. The excessive, end-of-history optimism of the 90s gave way to a darker mood in culture and society. This might encourage a reading of the book as a satire or criticism of American society pre-9/11, but it doesn’t really succeed on this level. The book is claustrophobically psychological, and has an oddly contemporary feel, what with its fixation on mental hygiene and social isolation and media-driven hyper-reality. True, none of these things are really new, but nor are they old; they are simply the givens of modernity’s timeless present. What historicity this book has is only really obtained by listing fashion trends, movie catalogues, and pop culture tidemarks.
By linking her psychological anguish to the wider movement of history, the narrator’s suffering tries to avoid charges of solipsism—what she went through really does matter, in the same way the 9/11 bombings matter. Even if we grant her this, while her hibernation may have persuaded her not to kill herself, she never attains the kind of believable self-assurance that would give her a reason to leave.
Memories may be painful, but they also carry meaning into our lives. Our narrator, by the end of the book, stands relieved of the burden of her memories—yet by this same act of survival, she is equally stranded without meaning. If she can only get on by trading beauty for meaning, what meaning will she find now in post-9/11 America? Even after her year of rest and relaxation, living is still a project, an effort, a struggle to be something. Will she ever become?
I also spotted the odd anachronism, such as a person on the street with a “bluetooth in her ear” (whatever that means). Especially back then, New Zealand tended not to get the new gizmos until a few years after America. But even given that we’re in New York, “The Center of the World”, I don’t think this is plausible.