AUGUST 5, 2018
WOMEN WHO DON’T WORK hard rarely make history. Women who don’t work at all sometimes do. It can be chic — aspirational, even — to be famous for being famous; today, even idleness can be monetized as a brand. In an era where Lean In feminism may finally crack the glass ceiling, there’s no shortage of how-does-she-do-it role models to aspire to. But when the options afforded to women in the professional sphere — a career or motherhood, success or settling — provide a false dichotomy, the question of whether women can really “have it all” lingers. Whether it be inequalities in pay or opportunities, the increasing feminization of the workplace or the precarity of the gig economy, working women face far greater challenges than their counterparts. The game is rigged.
How tempting, then, to opt out altogether. The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, chooses to do just that, not just from gainful employment, but from life, all at the tender age of 24. Her financial stability — the product of inherited wealth — means that this decision comes with few complications:
I had all my bills on automatic payment plans. I’d already paid a year of property taxes on my apartment and on my dead parents’ old house upstate. Rent money from the tenants in that house showed up in my checking account by direct deposit every month […] I had plenty of money in my savings account too — enough to live on for a few years as long as I didn’t do anything spectacular. On top of all this, I had a high credit limit on my Visa card. I wasn’t worried about money.
Moshfegh’s latest antiheroine differs sharply from the financially distressed protagonists of her past works, which are populated by the likes of alcoholic school teachers, vice presidential “surrogates,” or secretaries at juvenile correctional facilities, all trying to eke out a living. For instance, the woman who makes an “abysmal living” from teaching high school English in “Slumming,” in the collection Homesick for Another World: “How I got stuck teaching Dickens to fourteen-year-olds is a mystery to me. I’d never planned on working all my life. I’d had this fantasy that I’d get married and suddenly find a calling beyond the humiliating need to make a living. Art or charity work, babies — something like that.”
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, escape from the demeaning droll of a nine-to-five becomes possible through a litany of drugs: “Risperdal and Ambien when I got antsy, thinking about my past […] Valium helped. Ativan helped. Chewable melatonin and Benadryl and NyQuil and Lunesta and temazepam helped.” Adding to this list of chemical aids are Nembutal, Rozerem, Trazodone, Xanax, Solfoton, and the particularly potent Infermiterol. It helps too that our narrator in question “looked like a model, had money [she] hadn’t earned, wore real designer clothing, had majored in art history […] was ‘cultured.’” After graduating from Columbia, she works in a Chelsea art gallery, more out of obligation than any professional ambition. “I thought that if I did normal things — held down a job, for example — I could stave off the part of me that hated everything,” she muses. “If I had been a man, I may have turned to a life of crime.” Instead, she turns to a life of rest.
Traumatized by the death of her father from cancer in her junior year of college, and the suicide of her mother shortly thereafter, our narrator decides in June 2000 to sleep for an entire year. The goal is to emerge anew. “My hibernation was self-preservational,” she insists. “I thought that it was going to save my life.” Like many of Moshfegh’s characters, our narrator has a steadfast belief in inertia as a way of life. She can’t — or won’t — engage with her emotions, so she decides to wait until she becomes a new person. How that might happen is as hazy as her drug-induced comas, which lead her to online shopping sprees for designer jeans, trips to the bodega, and orders of stale takeout she can’t recall placing. “People truly engaged in life have messy houses,” declares Moshfegh in Eileen. In this latest novel, she recants; our narrator’s disaster of an Upper East Side apartment is the product of total withdrawal.
Her interaction with the outside world comes mainly via two women: her unscrupulous psychiatrist Dr. Tuttle (“Dr. Tuttle explained that there was a way to maximize insurance coverage by prescribing drugs for their side effects, rather than going directly to those whose main purposes were to relieve my symptoms.”), and her best friend Reva, whom the narrator finds annoying and pathetic. In Reva, the narrator’s class anxiety becomes apparent: “She was a slave to vanity and status […] It made it hard to for me to respect her intelligence. She was so obsessed with brand names, conformity, ‘fitting in.’” Our narrator makes it clear that Reva’s life, from her job as an executive assistant at an insurance brokerage firm where she is having an affair with her boss who had a “face so nondescript, so boring, he may as well have been molded out of plastic,” is the definition of middling. For our narrator, Reva is not only a source of contempt, but also of existential angst:
Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision gave me reason to think Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine. Reva was like the pills I took. They turned 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 in Eileen, Moshfegh sets up two paths to dealing with the world’s cruelty: an inward retreat, and in Reva, an outwardly brave, if often gauche, face. We inhabit the mind of the former throughout the novel, and in doing so, we only get half the story. Moshfegh is excellent at distilling a jaded ennui, but in a novel of this length and at such a tepid pacing, the voice becomes less biting, and fittingly, more tiresome.
It’s partly because this is a novel of addiction as much as it is a novel of loss. Addiction novels often have the effect of the drugs they reference, which is to say that they’re as often repetitive as they are titillating. The first high is never quite the same; the narrators are never quite reliable. The genre has produced a tradition of blonde women who have since become household names: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Cheryl Strayed. It’s most indebted to Cat Marnell, the beauty editor and internet celebrity whose addiction memoir How to Murder Your Life acts as a real-life analogue for the novel: absent-minded fathers, wine-swilling mothers who hide from their maids, and brutal boyfriends populate Moshfegh’s pages. Most resonant is the kind of creative job in luxury industries — fashion and art — that rely on the underpaid labor of women who are forced to act as though they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
If Moshfegh has echoed the manic scenes of Marnell’s doctor-shopping and midnight grocery binges, she has at least flipped the prescription. While Cat takes Adderall to stay late at work, “vigilant like a soldier in Vietnam on Dexedrine looking for Charlie,” our narrator naps under her desk until her boss lays her off. Part of what fuels Cat’s mania is a relentless need to fill her own loneliness: she has the dream job, but no boyfriend; she has party pals, but no real friends. “Instead,” writes Cat, “my steady dates […] were with psychiatrists.” She finds her most trusted by calling everyone in her job-supplied health insurance directory until she gets a catch. “Dr. C […] was very liberal with his prescriptions. His handwriting was so shaky that pharmacists sometimes couldn’t even make it out […] but he basically just jotted down what I told him to on his pad.” If Dr. Tuttle seems to be eerily familiar to Marnell’s Upper East side quack, it goes to show how far a certain kind of wealth goes toward fueling uninhibited addiction. Privilege, particularly the kind of privilege that allows a particular kind of woman to project an unassuming vulnerability, affords Marnell and Moshfegh’s narrator the ability to covertly navigate the seedy domains of addiction while looking glamorous.
Our narrator is lonely too, searching for something to replace the loss of two figures whose love she never quite fully received. While she doesn’t bother with climbing the same social or professional ladders as the blogger, she does manage to find herself among the company of an echt-downtown scene, “young and beautiful and fascinating people hailing cabs and flicking cigarettes, cocaine, mascara, the diamond grit of a night out on the town, random sex a simple gesture in a bathroom stall.” The problem is, she can’t remember meeting all the artists and party girls she finds herself in Polaroids with; she only goes out blacked out on Infermiterol. The art world that our narrator inhabits is full of sinister characters, one of whom, Ping Xi, rises to fame for making splatter paintings of his own ejaculate titled with faux-political names: Blood-Dimmed Tide, Sunset over Sniper Alley. Midway through her experiment in sleep, the narrator decides to enlist Ping Xi’s help to turn her life — or the extended somnolence that her life has now become — into an art project. Commodifying her existence for the consumption of the art market reveals the novel’s core questions: What kind of value does a life have? How much of it is contingent on making, or doing work?
These questions echo many of the themes of writers who first made their names in the early 2000s — Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace — the harbingers of the New Sincerity. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is in many ways an ideal period piece of pre–Iraq War New York. The references to early Y2K haunts — “Tunnel and Life and Sound Factory and Spa and Lotus and Centro-Fly and Luke+Leroy” — are among the most enjoyable moments simply for their attentiveness to a cultural zeitgeist. Locked in her apartment in a drug-induced haze in front of the television, our narrator overhears on the news that Yasser Arafat was visiting the White House for talks with President Clinton; she references, with scorn, the hipsters with “beer bellies and skinny legs, zip-up hoodies, navy blue peacoats or army green parkas, New Balance sneakers” who “lived mostly in Brooklyn, another reason I was glad to live on the Upper East Side. Nobody up there listened to the Moldy Peaches.”
We see the specter that haunts this prewar idyll from a stretch of Manhattan blocks away. If in Eileen Moshfegh plots a conventional thriller, one where the pacing ramps up with the turn of the page, the novel she has produced here is a languorous one, slowly deflating from the outset. But it’s hard to blame our narrator for responding to trauma by checking out of the drudge of labor entirely. Trying to find satisfaction in one’s job is a tall enough order in a time where work has become tied to a sense of self or a sense of belonging in the world. We might look to art, then, as an escape. A few months after her year of rest ends, and her collaboration with Ping Xi has debuted, our narrator visits the Met to look at some paintings:
The notion of my future suddenly snapped into focus: it didn’t exist yet. I was making it, standing there, breathing […] trying to capture something — a thought I guess as though such a thing were possible, as though I believed in the delusion described in those paintings — that time could be contained, held captive. I didn’t know what was true.
We don’t know what’s true either, for her at least. We want to have the same epiphany, or at least believe in the same delusion. It’s difficult to discern what’s worth putting our efforts into.