‘Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking and consciousness.’
I recently wrote about Sayaka Murata’s charming ‘Convenience Store Woman’, in which Kieko, a natural outsider, attempts to find a place in the world. I used the term ‘natural outsider’ to describe Kieko as hers isn’t a status forged by rebellion, rather by the way in which her thought patterns naively challenge the norms of society: it’s not that Keiko wants to be an outsider or escape society: she has no choice because she doesn’t understand the rules of belonging.
The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest work is quite the opposite: a young woman who, seemingly, has it all: a private income, a New York apartment, a family home (her parents are dead) from which she receives rental income. She is intelligent and beautiful (‘I thought of Farah Fawcett and Faye Dunaway’) and has a job in a top art gallery. She has a best friend, Reva, whom she has known since college. But she has had enough of her life, of the fakes and frauds who surround her and make her feel oh, so tired…and nasty.
‘The worst was that these guys tried to pass off their insecurities as ‘sensitivity’, and it worked. They would be the ones running museums and magazines, and they’d only hire me they thought I might fuck them. But when I’d been at parties with them or out at bars, they’d ignore me. They were so self-serious and distracted by their conversation with their look-alike companions that you’d think they were wrestling with a decision of such high stakes, the world might explode. They wouldn’t be distracted by ‘pussy’, they would have me believe. The truth was probably that they were just afraid of vaginas, afraid that they’d fail to understand one as pretty and pink as mine, and they were ashamed of their own sensual inadequacies, afraid of their own dicks, afraid of themselves. So they focused on ‘abstract ideas’ and developed drinking problems to blot out the self-loathing they preferred to call ‘existential ennui’
In my review of Moshfegh’s last novel, ‘Eileen’, I compared her work with that of the film maker John Waters, in that both celebrate the anti-hero, the queer and the weirdo who are unafraid to display the truth which we all hide behind our public facades: those who sniff our sticky fingers and curse our bosses and plot scabrous humiliations on all those who have ever crossed us or bullied us or beaten us to the last bar in the sweet shop. Here Moshfegh’s laser vision scans and dissects the hipster generation who, she seems to say, seem to set their stall and value by the amount of bullshit that they can muster. Imagine, if you will, Joan River’s writing Shena Mackay‘s masterful taking down of the 1990s London Art scene, ‘The Artist’s Widow’. And no one is immune from our narrator’s ire – even poor, sad, desperate Reva who clings like a baby in a sex offenders institute and receives nothing but contempt in return…until, that is, it is way too late.
Moshfegh’s camp vision of the world, like that of Waters, allows such personalities to win through, a place where such dreams of revenge really do come true. The only problem some readers may have with this is that you have to invest in a narrator who you actually don’t really like. To me this isn’t a problem as the campness of these worlds turns the toxic into titillation, the cruel into cute…and while this latest novel doesn’t come across as wildly camp as ‘Eileen’ there are moments which made me laugh out loud:
‘Around Christmas each year. she’d take me to the mall. She’d buy me a singe chocolate at the Godiva store, then we’d walk around all the shops and my mother would call things ‘cheap’ and ‘hick-style’ and ‘a blouse for the Devil’s whore.‘ She kind of came alive at the perfume counter. ‘This one smells like a hooker’s panties.’ Those outings to the mall were the few times we had any fun together.’
However, while no one in ‘Rest…’ comes close to the wonderful awfulness of ‘Eileen’s eponymous heroine, Dr Tuttle, the deliciously flaky, scarily unbalanced and downright illegal doctor to whom our narrator goes to obtain her never ending supply of sleeping tablets, comes close and is so well drawn you can almost smell her.
‘Her hair was red and frizzy. The foam brace she wore around her neck had what looked like coffee and food stains on it, and it squished the skin on her neck up towards her chin. Her face was like a bloodhound’s, folded and drooping, her sunken eyes hidden under very small wire-framed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. I never got a good look at Dr. Tuttle’s eyes. I suspect they were crazy eyes, black and shiny like a crow’s. The pen she used was ling and purple and had a purple feather at the end of it.’
Dr. Tuttle is possibly the worst Doctor ever, give or take the odd German Nazi and British serial killer, but she provides our narrator with what she needs: the drugs to drown out the ‘thoughts and judgements, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything.’. By now she has begun to understand that if she goes to sleep for long enough, hibernates for long enough,she will have regenerated all her cells and become, literally, a whole new person, ‘renewed, reborn’. And so it is that a pact with an ‘experimental’ artist she despises comes about: while she sleeps the artist will create works of art around his sleeping muse, all the while providing food for her when she awakes every three days or so.
Eventually, our narrator awakes and finds herself ‘soft and calm’ and everything is good in her world…
‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ is a great read, funny and scabrous and often downright dirty (a throwaway line about anal sex here, the power of Whoopie Goldberg’s vagina there). Set at the very start of start of the twentieth century it presents a picture of the state of a whole generation. A generation, in the west, in the US, spoilt (by ‘Generation X’ – no one is blameless in this) and self-centred and obsessing over the little things because the big things – war, disease, pestilence and plague – have always been ‘over there’, someone else’s problem…
…and then Moshfegh brings them down to earth, with a great big bang.