“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” goes the old adage, but the cover was exactly what first drew Eva in. In 2020, the year before she first came across My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Lapvona author Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel about a disaffected, overprivileged, beautiful WASP who commits herself to narcotic hibernation the year before 9/11 – Eva became mesmerised by a portrait on display at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Staring back at her was Jacques-Louis David’s late 18th century portrait, Young Woman In White.
That woman, porcelain-skinned, dressed in a suggestive negligee, gazing to the side in a blank and bored reverie, lured Eva in again when she spotted her at a local indie bookstore in 2021 on the cover of Moshfegh’s most famous work.
Eva, who makes literature-related content as @yearofthedragoness on TikTok (where she has 36,000 followers), posted one of her most popular TikToks earlier this March. The clip featured a copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation alongside a tube of lipstick, a bottle of Chanel perfume and a baby pink Glossier keyring – a tableau that’s now been recreated thousands of times across the internet. Search “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” on Tumblr, Pinterest, TikTok and you’ll find a swathe of similar images – the novel surrounded by hyper-feminine, Regency-era objects; most commonly pearls, perfume, lipstick.
“If you post a picture on Pinterest of this book with those items it is pretty much guaranteed to go viral within the coquette aesthetic niche,” says Romney, who posts “outfits, books & other aesthetic things” on her TikTok, which has almost 120,000 followers.
The ‘coquette aesthetic’ that she is referring to is a continuation of the 2014 ‘Tumblr aesthetic’, wherein the macabre and feminine intersect – the brutal attenuated through the muted and pastelly and soft, like a Lana Del Rey song or a photo of a bruise in angelic lighting. The coquette aesthetic is a dedication to the sensorium of luxurious, feminine solitude. It also, like the Tumblr aesthetic, presents passivity and self-destruction as revolt, as a site of potential power rather than weakness.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation – both its cover and its content – seem to fit neatly into this pre-existing aesthetic. Reva, the unnamed narrator’s best friend, is self-improvement-obsessed, and a foil to the protagonist’s wilful stasis. Reva’s a try-hard – she wears “fake Louboutins”, carries a “knock-off Kate Spade bag,” while the narrator quite literally buys Victoria’s Secret underwear and “baby-doll nightgowns” in her sleep. Unlike Reva, she is effortlessly chic, impossibly beautiful; she is granted easy access to prestige institutions (she hardly made any effort to get into Columbia). She is an aspirational coquette.
A size two blonde who “looks like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted,” she also embodies the waifish beauty standards of the late 90s, which are threatening to come back into vogue.
“I’m concerned that the ‘waif’ aesthetic has taken a turn for the worse, particularly when young impressionable girls on the internet are internalising that content as the current beauty standard,” says Eva. “There is room for misinterpretation of both the characterisation and the point. I hope these younger audiences apply a critical lens to reading this novel and are able to enjoy the dark humor without absorbing the incorrect messages.”
With help from TikTok, the marketing of Mosfegh is increasingly leaning into this coquette aesthetic. Before, Deniz, who creates literary content on TikTok to 71,500 followers, noticed that My Year of Rest and Relaxation was being sold as an “‘unreliable narrator’ read more than anything else.” Now, Deniz believes the novel is being marketed to the perfect audience: hyper-feminine TikTok aesthetes.
It might be tempting to dismiss the aestheticising of literature – to chalk it down to poor literacy habits or to a kind of superficial engagement – but it is doubtlessly boosting book sales, at least. Eva, who received an advanced copy of Lapnova, Mossfegh’s latest book, from Penguin, says that My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been the greatest promoter of BookTok. “I think Moshfegh and her peers – Sally Rooney, Elif Batuman – are very accessible writers who are making reading a hobby that ‘hot girls’ want to pick up,” she says.
“I’ve seen friends who never read picking up copies of these aestheticised novels. I’ve even found myself reading more this past year than I have in a long time thanks to the posts everyone else has been making,” says Deniz.
The reification of literature into aesthetic object also speaks to today’s changing reading habits. There’s a keener desire to embody the world of the novel, to turn fantasies into something tangible. Aestheticising, after all, is ultimately an exercise in real-world embodiment, a gorgeous organising of self. “On an aesthetic level, things like pearls, bedsheets, perfume, just look cute with the cover,” says Antonella, whose TikTok, @dollclubxo, has over 105,000 followers. “However, for those who truly know the book, they understand that these items are bringing the book to life.”
A similar phenomenon – the attempt to turn ephemera and literariness into something tangible, with a set of aesthetic criteria – is currently happening in the fashion world also. Mossfegh herself both inspired and walked the runway for Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s FW collection earlier this February during a library and literature-infused season. Zadie Smith sat front row at Loewe’s showcase, Dior glittered its runway with text from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Moschino physicalised and aestheticised the act of reading as models sported reading-lamp headpieces.
I have a theory that this was all in reaction to the recent lack of of physicality in fashion, when the metaverse and cyber fashion tried so desperately to become a “thing”. And, just as designers are seeking to reintroduce and seduce us back into the tangible, the aestheticising of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is providing a post-pandemic reengagement with the physical, where the lines between the fleshly and the fantastical are blurred.
To young women like Antonella, My Year of Rest and Relaxation has become real enough to feel like a sort of terrible friend. The novel, she says, feels like “catching up with a vivacious old friend and they are telling you all the things they have done since you last talked. Many of which leave you speechless. But you don’t tell them to stop talking.”