How to do nothing for as long as possible
Not long after I sat down to write about Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel, “My Year Of Rest And Relaxation,” I got an email notification from the campus health center informing me that I had mono. I wasn’t surprised, exactly: When I went in for tests, I figured I had the flu but with an abnormally prolonged and intense sore throat. As it turns out, I somehow have something worse than the flu: a disease that stays latent in a person for months, slowly taking out a tide of fever and fatigue.
I was mortified about this, obviously, but I was also a bit relieved. I had something to call the feelings that were amassing in my body and a satisfactory explanation for everything. I could send emails to my professors and safely take a few days off to “recover,” which is to say sit around and do nothing. In the meantime I would get sympathetic coos from friends and housemates who would wander into the room and see me in my pathetic state curled up in a blanket.
The unnamed protagonist in Moshfegh’s novel, who tries to sleep off her malaise for a year, doesn’t have anything to call it — the word “depression” doesn’t make a single appearance in the book — but she does give her vague feelings a shape. She gives herself a year of nothing, an allotted time for her to change. Moshfegh writes: “I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.” She wants to detach, to not care. And so she goes to a disreputable psychiatrist and gets prescribed all manner of anti-anxiety medications, sleep aids and sedatives, and self-medicates herself into a stupor somewhere between wakefulness and sleep.
The novel manages to be engaging despite this premise. There’s still a whiff of agency and rebellion in this dramatic act of refusal, a sense in which the protagonist is taking control of her life (or at least attempting to) by refusing to live it. Given what the rest of her world looks like — an unsatisfying job at a gallery, a humiliating on-again-off-again relationship with an older Wall Street type, a single friend with whom she has a codependent, resentful relationship. It’s additionally implied that the protagonist is trying to undo her memories of her emotionally cold parents, both of whom died a few months before the plot of the novel started. In this light, her decision to just try to remove herself totally has its merits and even comes across as eminently reasonable given the circumstances. The excessive, self-destructive rest she goes through is both a coping mechanism and a way (in her mind) of shaping herself into someone better, without the baggage of her previous life. There’s a sense in which her self-administered care is a way of forgetting, of purging, of becoming clean and pure.
It’s clear that the scheme isn’t going to work, at least not in the way the narrator thinks it will. Moshfegh knows that you can’t rest yourself into wholeness, or even wellness, really. Even in my case, where I’m resting off an affliction of the body rather than of the spirit, I understand that rest can only do so much. When I return to class next week, I will have a degree of the same fatigue and aches, and I will still have more to do. This is the fundamental problem with rest, relaxation, so-called “self-care” and a good portion of “wellness” — that in the end you have to return to your life. It’s possible, in the end, that rest is only ever its own reward, something Moshfegh seems to understand: there’s a particular pleasure the protagonist feels throughout her voided months, somewhere between active and passive, sadistic and masochistic. The ambiguity of this desire forms the dramatic tension of this book. For now I can have long languid hours to stew in my dizzy mind, which feels to me the point.