“I was finally doing something that really mattered,” explains the 24-year-old anti-heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s intoxicating third novel, whose plan is to spend as much of the next 12 months as possible comatose. “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.”
Moshfegh’s nameless narrator is more Bartleby than Sleeping Beauty though. Her project — a narcotic-induced “hibernation,” aided and abetted by the dubious Dr Tuttle, a psychiatrist who hands out prescription pills like candy: Ambien and Xanax, Nembutal and Seroquel, and finally a fictitious drug called Infermiterol that induces three-day blackouts — is the boldest literary statement of passive resistance since Herman Melville’s scrivener famously declared “I would prefer not to”.
To the casual observer, Moshfegh’s protagonist’s life is one of privilege and plenty. It’s 2000, and she’s a recent graduate of New York’s Columbia University. She was a gallery girl in Chelsea before being given the sack for sleeping on the job. She looks like a model — beautiful, tall and thin — and she knows it, much to the envy of her frenemy, Reva, a bulimic with a drinking problem who brings her sadness with her like a “stink” (Reva’s mother is dying of cancer).
Moshfegh’s somnolent narrator knows what it’s like to lose a loved one. Her life is cushioned by the money she inherited after both her parents died while she was in college; money that pays for her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and means she doesn’t need to worry about paying her bills. But here her apathy reaches new depths. She simply can’t summon up the energy to care about Reva’s pain, an insensibility to suffering reminiscent of the state of “apatheia” (from which the word “apathy” derives) that the Stoics regarded as so desirable — literally to be without “pathos”. In contemporary layman’s terms, she’s as unlikeable as they come.
Regardless of which, ennui has never been so engrossing. It speaks to Moshfegh’s storytelling skills that an account of someone sleeping for a year is as gripping as My Year of Rest and Relaxation reads. Initially Moshfegh’s anti-heroine spends the few hours a day she’s awake necking Benadryl while zoning out in front of old Whoopi Goldberg or Harrison Ford movies, in-between making reluctant but necessary trips to the local corner shop and pharmacy. There are also her monthly appointments with Dr Tuttle, and Reva’s occasional visits. But even this meagre social contact proves too much.
Thus, for the final three months, she gives herself over entirely to the Infermiterol, and the “care” of a video artist from her old gallery days who films her while she’s sleeping. Her only condition, that he remove all traces of his presence and her sleepwalking in order that her brief periods of lucidity between doses should prove as empty as the days she spends unconscious: “There was to be no narrative that I could follow, no pieces for me to put together.” Daringly, the reader is left as unsettlingly clueless as Moshfegh’s dopey-eyed protagonist as to what she’s doing while under the influence.
Put Moshfegh’s latest fictional creation alongside her predecessors and she fits right in. The American writer’s debut work, McGlue (2014), was a novella narrated by a man trapped inside his own meandering mind, a 19th-century sailor with a head injury who may or may not have killed the man he loved. Then there was the Man Booker-shortlisted Eileen, a creepy 1960s New England-set noir about a young woman caught between life at home with her abusive, alcoholic father and the local penitentiary where she worked a dead-end secretarial job. Themes of claustrophobia, inebriation and imprisonment connect all three works. In Eileen the titular narrator abuses laxatives to the extent that “oceanic” expunging sessions punctuate her existence: “Those were good times,” she reminisces. Here the cleansing is of a different kind — an effort to “purge my associations, refresh and renew the cells in my brain, my eyes, my nerves, my heart”. It’s psychological, but no less physically demanding; there’s something intrinsically violent about Moshfegh’s narrator’s absolute commitment to her inertia. She eventually rouses from her slumber, her longed for transformation complete — “I was soft and calm and felt things”— but the date of her awakening is significant: June 1 2001. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, she’s not returning to a kingdom also rejuvenated, but one soon to be besieged.
Today, “apathy” is often understood as a listless indifference that’s considered at best unwelcome and at worst dangerous. In this deliciously dark and unsettling modern fairytale, however, Moshfegh offers us a portrait of passivity as rebellion. As Slavoj Žižek once wrote, “Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
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