Ottessa Moshfegh likes to write about ugliness. Many of her characters are physically unattractive, and fixated on their defects. The narrator of Eileen, Moshfegh’s second novel, published in 2016, is fond of staring in the mirror, examining her ‘jagged’ figure with its ‘unwieldy’ flesh, her face marked with ‘soft, rumbling acne scars’, her ‘horselike’ mouth. Moshfegh’s story collection Homesick for Another World, published in 2017, is a compendium of the ways people can feel, and truly be, ugly. In ‘An Honest Woman’, an old man with vitiligo lusts after his pretty new neighbour. As they chat over a chain-link fence, she eyes the ‘crepey, spotted skin on his thin arms’, and notices that his smile exposes ‘the deep rot of his clawlike teeth’, which are ‘nearly black along the gums’. The narrator of ‘Malibu’ is ‘good-looking’, but obsesses over his pimples, his bad teeth, his full-body rash, his pudginess. The narrator of ‘The Surrogate’ looks like Christie Brinkley but is racked with shame about a pituitary condition that makes her labia swell. ‘Ha ha,’ one lover says, poking. ‘You have more than meets the eye.’
In Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, set in New York City in 2000, it’s impossible to forget how beautiful the nameless narrator is, because she keeps telling us. She’s 24, tall, thin, blonde – ‘prettier than Sharon Stone’, in her best friend Reva’s opinion, and Reva, she thinks, ‘was right’. She’s a ‘pouty knockout’. She looks like ‘an off-duty model’, like Farrah Fawcett and Faye Dunaway, like Amber Valletta. ‘Even at my worst, I knew I still looked good’ – ‘a young Lauren Bacall the morning after’, ‘a dishevelled Joan Fontaine’. Plus, she’s rich and expensively educated. She studied art history at Columbia (and is therefore ‘cultured’, according to Reva). She was born into privilege and now lives on an inheritance from her parents. She used to work at a Chelsea gallery, where she would take naps in a storage cupboard during her lunch hour, until she was fired and started sleeping full-time.
But beauty and money won’t solve everything. Waking up in the storage cupboard one day brought on unwelcome reflection:
My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind refilling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was. I’d try to remember something else – a better version, a happy story, maybe, or just an equally lame but different life that would at least be refreshing in its digressions – but it never worked. I was always still me.
‘Lame’ is apposite here. Remembering bad times is not usually painful exactly but unpleasant, pointless.
When the narrator was twenty, her father died of cancer and six weeks later her alcoholic mother killed herself. She is coming to the end of an intermittent romance with Trevor, a banker she started dating when she was in her first year of college and he was 33 and who now sees her as ‘kids’ stuff’. For years, she has been doing ‘what young women in New York like me were supposed to do’: tweezing, bleaching, shaving, waxing, exfoliating, moisturising; getting colonics, facials, highlights; going to a fancy gym; going out at night in hurty shoes. Overwhelmed by her own shallowness and lack of imagination, and by this history of death and rejection, she yearns for ‘the infinite abyss’ of sleep. After she loses her job she decides to hibernate for a year, with the help of an array of medication prescribed by Dr Tuttle, an outlandish charlatan who feels to the reader more like a hallucination than anything else.
Moshfegh’s characters are often so funny in and about their unhappiness that we don’t want them to escape it, or not yet. Eileen, in her seventies, tells of the events that led decades earlier to her liberation from her small-town life and her awkward, angry, unhappy younger self. Her misery is riveting, and we can’t even look away from her laxative-induced bowel movements: ‘torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out’.
The novels share themes but are written in starkly different styles. Whereas Eileen is a camp thriller, My Year of Rest and Relaxation has a dispassionately snarky, sarcastic tone. The art world is like the stock market, ‘fuelled by greed and gossip and cocaine’. The hipster boys the narrator used to see around Chelsea are charmless brats who didn’t brush their teeth enough and probably ‘were just afraid of vaginas, afraid that they’d fail to understand one as pretty and pink as mine’. Trevor, by contrast, is clean and fit and confident, but he isn’t as clever as he at first seems to her. Her dead parents are not spared. Her father was ‘a stranger gently puppeting his way through his life at home with two strange females he could never hope to understand’. Her mother ‘looked like Lee Miller if Lee Miller had been a bedroom drunk’.
But snark is tiring. The narrator tells Dr Tuttle that she can’t sleep, when she is in fact a ‘somnophile’ clocking 12 hours a night. (Sleep was the one thing she and her mother liked doing together when she was a child.) When she begins her hibernation, she is hopeful:
This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart – this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then – that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.
Does sleep count as doing something? Can that trite phrase ‘rest and relaxation’ communicate something true? The tone of this passage, like many in this novel, flickers between sincerity and insincerity.
One of the things Moshfegh is interested in is irony: she both exploits it and questions its value. The narrative voice of Eileen, she has said, felt like ‘cheating’. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but some critics found it an exercise in voice that relied too much on shock. The voice of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is also performative. The narrator is coolly critical of everyone she knows as well as of her own ‘failed, stupid life’. She needs a ‘new spirit’ – a softer, warmer one. It isn’t death she is after, just the absence of reality. Nothing could be more relatable: if only we could sleep through Trump’s presidency, Brexit, Christmas etc.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation constantly eludes classification. It’s tempting to see satire in the psychiatrist who forgets her patient’s parents are dead, and in the pharmacopeia – Ambien, Ativan, Haldol, Librium, lithium, Lunesta, Maxiphenphen, melatonin, Miltown, Nembutal, Neuroproxin, Noctec, Placidyl, primidone, Risperdal, Rozerem, Seconol, Seroquel, Silencior, Solfoton, temazepam, Trazodone, Valdignore, Valium, Xanax, Zyprexa. One thinks of the memoirs Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted. But there’s a casually intimidating power to Moshfegh’s writing – the deadpan frankness and softly cutting sentences – that makes any comparison feel not quite right. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is written in multiple modes at once: comedy and tragedy and farce, blurring into one another, climbing on top of one another. The narrator’s hero is Whoopi Goldberg: in every movie in which she appears, ‘everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous.’ (This celebrity-as-talisman gag is a mild version of Patrick Bateman’s exegesis of the work of Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News and Phil Collins-era Genesis in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.)
The book is set roughly twenty years ago, which just qualifies it as historical fiction, but it isn’t really about the past. There’s plenty of detail about how pretty, skinny Manhattan girls spent their time in 2000, which is different only in subtle ways from the way they spend it now (colonics have gone out of fashion); and how they talked, which has probably changed more. (Moshfegh, who was born in 1981, was living in Manhattan in 2000 as a student at Barnard College.) But there’s not much to get nostalgic about (VCRs?), and the aspects of life we recognise – political apathy, the consumerist void – are disappointingly familiar. The setting starts to feel like a tactic to keep us slightly off balance while the author goes about other tasks.
At first, the narrator does nothing, waiting to ‘disappear completely, then reappear in some new form’. When she’s awake, she watches movies, goes to the corner bodega for coffee and snacks, avoids reading the news, then takes pills until she drifts off again: ‘My favourite days were the ones that barely registered.’ But the routine changes when she starts taking a new – fictional – drug called Infermiterol. During her blackouts, her appetites are awakened. She discovers she has run up a tab at the bodega, bought lingerie and jeans online, booked appointments for spa treatments. She’s had conversations with strangers in AOL chat rooms, and sent them photos of her asshole. She’s taken Polaroids at a rave. One day, ‘I peed, and when I wiped myself, it was slick. I had recently been aroused, it seemed.’ Everything happens offstage, turning nothing into something into nothing again. (McGlue, Moshfegh’s first novel, published in 2014, is told by a drunken 19th-century sailor held for a murder he can’t confess to or deny because he can’t remember what happened.) During these blackouts, she reverts to habit, doing what a young woman like her is supposed to do – revealing the unconscious as a lame conformist. It’s a play on the Jungian idea of the unconscious as a great store of wisdom and resilience, or the Freudian idea of it as a source of actual meaning. Most of the time we are mostly unconscious, even when we are awake.
‘No one wants to be asleep all the time,’ St Augustine wrote, ‘and the sane judgment of everyone judges it better to be awake. Yet often a man defers shaking off sleep when his limbs are heavy with slumber.’ For Augustine, all material pleasures, including sleep, were transient and ultimately unsatisfying. The only true rest was with God. In Moshfegh’s fiction, there isn’t anything beyond people. Solitude is elusive. In the story ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, a man has retreated to a cabin before his child is born and is considering hanging himself when he is interrupted by ‘a knock on the door’. Company is good mostly for validation. In ‘No Place for Good People’, a widower starts working at a residential facility for adults with moderate developmental disabilities because he wants to spend the rest of his life ‘among people who would appreciate me’. Attachment is misery’s cause and its solution.
The narrator’s aim is to grow ‘less and less attached to life’ and to her past. Being an orphan, and an orphan of cartoonishly bad parents, might have made this easy – indeed, there’s hardly anything to remember about her parents. Trevor is also unavailable, having decided he prefers brunettes. But then there’s Reva. She is bulimic, a gym rat, deep in debt, carrying on an affair with her married boss at an insurance brokerage firm, with a mother dying of cancer, a ‘slave to vanity and status’ who steals cosmetics samples and buys fake designer handbags, always barging in and gabbing away. ‘I love you,’ she keeps saying. ‘You can’t shut me out. That would be very self-destructive.’ At times, the narrator appreciates her devotion: everyone else at Columbia hated her because she was so pretty, but Reva ‘dared to try to know me’. At other times, she feels their friendship has run its course: ‘I see no reason to continue,’ she tells Reva while stretching out on the sofa. ‘She worshipped me, but she also hated me,’ the narrator says of Reva. ‘She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes.’ This is a telling line. Reva is miserable too, and her misfortunes seem to contaminate the narrator’s effort to erase her own feelings about her unloving parents – she is too cool to call it ‘grief’. Sealing herself off, she tries to eliminate the ‘lingering stink of Reva’s sadness’ along with that of the Chinese food she somnambulantly orders. Moshfegh’s writing has been praised for achieving ‘a rare balance of sympathy and contempt’ towards her characters, and in a way, My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes that balance as a theme. Reva’s own struggle is there in the background, and the narrator’s inability to show concern for her offers us a perverse pleasure – though it soon becomes wearying.
The narrator’s hibernation becomes a kind of artistic project, an unmaking and remaking of the self. As her desperation about her unconscious activity increases, she arranges for an artist she dislikes, a talentless provocateur she knows from the gallery, to be her keeper in exchange for the freedom to document her imprisonment. But is the project simply a parody of real transformation? The novel’s modes start to clash. The narrator emerges from her slumber a kinder, calmer, more engaged person, shedding her jadedness just in time for the attacks of 9/11. She sits in the park, listening to jazz and feeding squirrels; she reads books and goes to the Met; she buys other people’s discarded possessions from Goodwill; she falls asleep without trouble, without drugs, on a wooden floor. She calls Reva, and when Reva comes over she wants her to stay. Perhaps something has changed. She has achieved some distance from her past, but she’s still just a rich girl who has downsized, detoxed, reset. In place of the antic sarcasm of the beginning of the novel, she now speaks in anodyne clichés: ‘Pain is not the only touchstone for growth, I said to myself. My sleep had worked.’ Has it?