Daily Spectacle — Superfluous Prescription
By THOMAS MOODY
My Year of Rest and Relaxation — Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2018)
In a foreword written by Mikhail Lermontov to a later edition of his genre-defining novel A Hero of Our Time, the Russian poet and novelist attempted to place his protagonist, Pechorin, in context against a quite severe public backlash.
“Some were dreadfully insulted,” Lermontov wrote, “and quite seriously, to have held up as a model such an immoral character as A Hero of Our Time; others shrewdly noticed that the author had portrayed himself and his acquaintances. A Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.”
Crafted in the manner of the Byronic hero, Pechorin is a nihilistic, cynical and existentially bored minor aristocrat who travels to a small vacation retreat in the Caucasus to provoke anxiety and grief within the local townsfolk, to his own great amusement. Though contemptible, Pechorin is not to be despised, but rather pitied: To be at the same time so embedded in and estranged from society, to want nothing and need nothing, is sadder, in its way, than any physical or emotional tragedy or longing. A man with nothing to gain and nothing to lose is homeless, A Hero of Our Time shows us.
Pechorin is the model of the “superfluous man,” a literary notion stretching from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. And though the unnamed speaker of Ottessa Moshfegh’s stunning new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, does not challenge any of her rivals to a duel (though she does defecate on the floor of her ex-boss Natasha’s office), she can most definitely be viewed as the 21st-century edition of Lermontov’s once-controversial figure.
The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate who is blonde, beautiful (her own words) and misanthropic. She dislikes almost everyone and everything, aside from sleep and Whoopi Goldberg. Living in a comfortable apartment on the Upper East Side, she survives off unemployment checks and the inheritance she received from her parents after they passed away in quick succession. She has recently been fired from her job at a trendy downtown gallery — for extending her chic-aloofness to the point of total detachment from the job.
“Natasha had cast me as the jaded underling, and for the most part, the little effort I put into the job was enough,” the narrator informs us. “I was fashion candy. Hip decor. I was the bitch who sat behind a desk and ignored you when you walked into the gallery.”
After being let go for sleeping on the job, Moshfegh’s narrator decides that she is going to spend the next year hibernating as a form of self-preservation.
“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 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.”
She achieves this by deliberately becoming addicted to sleeping pills. Finding the perfect partner in her quest for total torpidity, the wonderfully negligent and extraverted Dr. Tuttle, she is prescribed a series of more-powerful sleeping aids, with names like Prognosticrone, Silencior and Valdignore. Her only contact with the outside world becomes her monthly appointments with Dr. Tuttle; the pharmacists at her local Rite Aid who fill her prescriptions; the Egyptians who work at her local deli, where she occasionally buys cigarettes and coffee; and Rita, her only friend and the only thing that stirs any great passion within her throughout the novel. It is a passion that burns with annoyance, if not fully fueled hatred.
Set in the years 2000 and 2001 (and moving subtly but assuredly to 9/11/2001), the convenience of life at the turn of the 21st century goes a long way to allowing the narrator’s life of such superfluousness. Her greatest literary equivalent, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, who does not leave his bed for the first 50 pages of his namesake novel, must contend with 19th-century Russia: its vast expanses and the relative difficulties in crossing them. Moshfegh’s narrator, on the other hand, has the convenience of her bills on auto-pay, orders whatever she needs online, and can be entertained propitiously by grabbing a cheap DVD at the local pharmacy. The days begin to lose the contours of their hours:
“I entered a stranger, less certain reality. Days slipped by obliquely, with little to remember, just the familiar dent in the sofa cushions….Nothing seemed really real. Sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to myself in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was my dream.”
Eventually, the effectiveness of the prescriptions begins to wane, and the narrator finds that she is ordering lingerie and designer jeans while “sleeping.” She also enters online chat-rooms and goes on “unconscious excursions” to the Egyptian bodega. These half-sleep activities begin to increase her waking levels of stress. She decides it would be better to be totally asleep all the time, and finds the perfect prescription: Infermiterol. On it she sleeps for three days at a time, and decides to take 40 of them, one after the other, in order to sleep straight through a full third of the year. An artist she knows brings her food, and as payment, she allows him to film her for an art installation.
Moshfegh’s narrator is not suicidal; she just does not want to live, for the moment, in her life. Why? Her father has died of cancer; her mother has committed suicide; she has a failed relationship with an older man, Trevor, who left her after she told him she loved him. But Moshfegh does not dwell on these psychoanalytical elements; one gets the feeling that the narrator would have just as great a sense of ennui if her parents were still alive and were loving, and she was in a trusting relationship. What she is trying to escape is the modern world, and it is the modern world, ironically, that allows her such an accessible route of escape.
Though set almost 20 years ago, My Year of Rest and Relaxation seems extraordinarily current. The genius of the book is that it does not lean on the age of video-streaming to make its point, while at the same time it highlights the hazards of that very age. The year 2001 is far enough away to seem like another era, a fantasy, but not quite far enough. It is an unsettling book. Moshfegh’s writing is fast, barbed and enlivening, especially while telling the most soporific scenes of her story.
As we enter into winter, and many of us will be spending evenings, days, weekends — weeks — binge-watching, wanting to “Netflix and chill,” we may think that Moshfegh’s tale is not so implausible after all: Her protagonist might just be the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.