Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” reviewed
Over winter break I binged an author’s entire output for the first time. It was a strange experience, kind of like deep diving through someone’s Facebook or Instagram page, obsessively charting their progression over time (I don’t do that of course, and I’m sure no one else does, because that’d be creepy).
I make this comparison because “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the latest novel by Ottessa Moshfegh (the subject of my authorial obsession), has some deeply profound shit to say about the effects of social media on our consciousness, despite being set in the pre-Facebook world of year 2000 New York.
“‘Relaxation” charts a year in the life of its nameless narrator, a misanthropic trust-fund daughter fed up with New York’s art world as well as the world itself who has decided to embark on a bout of pill-induced hibernation.
She spends her few waking hours watching VHS tapes of Whoopi Goldberg movies or begrudgingly chatting with Reva, her social climbing, trend-following best friend who, according to the narrator, envies her effortless beauty and thin body (the narrator summarizes Reva as “a follower, a plebian, straight-laced and conformist”). Reva is easy to make fun of and noxious to listen to but she’s the only character in the novel pushing the narrator to get out from under the covers.
What the narrator is seeking under those covers is a sort of emotional oblivion; a way of erasing her sense of self to make room for “a new spirit.” In her suspended state of half-consciousness she is able to turn “everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted–my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar then fade and leave me in the dark again.”
As Jia Tolentino points out in her review of the novel, “there’s something in this liberatory solipsism that feels akin to what is commonly peddled today as wellness. It also resembles a form of cognitive interaction induced by social media, which positions the user as the center of the universe, and everything else–current events, other people’s feelings– as ephemeral, increasingly meaningless stimuli.”
It’s telling that the closest real-life equivalent to Relaxation’s protagonist is Cat Marnell, the privileged “bad girl” of old school Vice.com who gained a devoted readership via her tell-all stories of extreme drug use, depression, and bad sex in the New York nightlife scene.
Reading Marnell’s memoir, “How to Murder Your Life,” (honestly quite enjoyable but overly reliant on pure shock value) helped me realize how intertwined the “polished, perfect life” filters a stereotypical Instagram page are with the “over-sharing, no-filters” of a finsta– both act as a sort of armor against real self-analysis or vulnerability.
Self-deprecating finsta stories about one’s poop schedule may gesture at “realness” but their very ephemerality underscores the fact that one’s confessions are just as manicured as one’s poses; like a celebrity scheduling their own “embarrassing” paparazzi gaffs as a way of staying in the public eye and appearing relatable while protecting oneself from real exposure.
Moshfegh’s four works–”McGlue;” “Eileen;” “Homesick for Another World,” and “‘Relaxation”–all share an interest in the body in its messy, uncomfortable, biological glory, an interest which is rarely found in mainstream novels. There’s certainly a literary tradition of messy bodily investigation–novels like “Portnoy’s Complaint” or “Ham on Rye” that directly tackle the more…private parts of physicality, but these works largely feature male protagonists, written by male authors.
When Moshfegh wrote “Eileen,” a novel about a frumpy, diet-pill chewing female narrator who openly discusses her revulsion to her genitals and her sexual urges, many readers and critics were put off.
“They wanted me,” said Moshfegh in a New Yorker interview, “to somehow explain to them how I had the audacity to write a disgusting female character. It shocked me how many people wanted to talk about that […] Denying her sexuality and swaddling her genitals–It is weird. But I guess I just feel like that is sort of what the message has been to me, or how I’ve interpreted messages: that my sexuality is actually really dangerous and disgusting.”
Moshfegh’s novels escape mere gesturing to bodily relatability or faux-confession–to return to the poop schedule finsta thing–by lingering in these uncomfortable spaces and seriously exploring the contradictory messages that we’re all exposed to (women especially). In working through these messages it helps too that Moshfegh is a brilliant constructor of sentences. In her five year career (not counting her incredible short stories) she’s moved from a dense, almost modernist stream of consciousness style in “McGlue” to a very readable but sneakily ornate style in “‘Relaxation.”
What links the two styles together is Moshfegh’s talent with first person narration; each of her narrators has a distinct and authentic way of speaking that nonetheless rings with Moshfegh’s unique sensibilities. No two characters sound alike, yet they all sound intoxicatingly like Moshfegh.
A brief side by side comparison of prose styles, beginning with McGlue:
“It’s the captain. He looks fresh-shaved. My own face is covered in little wires that amount to nothing but the look of dirt. It is a kind of dirt, things that grow out from me. It means I have deep dirt inside of me.” Contrast that with Relaxation:
“I had started “hibernating” as best I could in mid-June of 2000. I was twenty-six years old. I watched summer die and autumn turn cold and gray through a broken slat in the blinds. My muscles withered. The sheets on my bed yellowed, although I usually fell asleep in front of the television on the sofa, which was from Pottery Barn, and striped blue and white and sagging and covered in coffee and sweat stains.”
Despite their obvious differences, both paragraphs achieve a sort of poetic play with language and punctuation, honing in on the leakage between body and environment, mental and corporeal decay. Moshfegh shows the fuck off linguistically on every page and I am here for it. You should be too.
I realize that this has been less a review or plot recap than the manic ravings of an obsessed fan. This is partly due to the plot of Relaxation; there’s a narrative arc, sure, but the majority of the action happens in the narrator’s apartment, in her head, in her bed.
That’s really all the summary you need. I suppose the most compelling case I can make for reading the novel is that despite its seemingly dull premise it has burrowed its way so deeply into my consciousness that I’ve felt compelled to write this deeply disjointed pile of word vomit as a way to finally begin processing it.
Here’s hoping that “‘Relaxation,” an “Oblomov” for the 21st century, receives many more fawning piles of word-vomit– it sincerely deserves them.