By the third chapter of our Corona Book Club pick My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, we’ve been introduced to our narrator and her unsatisfying relationships, softened at the edges as they are by a heaving medicine cabinet. It's at this point in the book that the narrative really begins to kick in.
Chapter three sees the narrator acting (even more) strangely. The drugs start to induce blackouts, and when she rouses from them, she finds evidence of things that she doesn’t remember doing – shopping, taking nudes to send to strangers online, writing letters to Trevor, buying food, even leaving the apartment. This calls for a brand new drug – something stronger. She’s prescribed "Infermiterol" by Dr. Tuttle, and hopes it will help her to sleep through the Christmas holiday period (“I figured if there was a time to hit the sleep hard, it was now.”) She’s pleased to find that the Infermiterol puts her out for days at a time, but her weird behaviour continues.
Meanwhile, Reva comes over to the narrator’s apartment during one of the rare periods when she is awake, and tells her that her mother has died. A few days later, the narrator wakes to an answerphone message from Reva asking her to attend the funeral. A few days after that, she wakes again, having taken Infermiterol before sleeping – this time, she’s on the train to Reva’s home in Long Island.
This week, Lauren O’Neill discusses chapter three alongside VICE readers:
a) One of the most entertaining revelations in this chapter is that the narrator does lots of stuff in her sleep. What do her actions tell us?
Lauren O’Neill: I find it really interesting – and sad! – that a lot of the things she’s doing while she’s blacked out are attempts at connection. In her real life, connecting with other people on any real level – her parents, Trevor – has only caused her pain, so it makes sense that she would want to avoid it. That she does it anyway, while unconscious, kind of underlines that connection with others is a thing that humans unthinkingly crave and generally will always pursue.
My favourite detail here is the fact that she wakes up in a pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, because that’s *the* early noughties symbol of young consumerism, if there ever was one. It kind of adds to the suggestion that the rest of us, who behave in the same ways as the narrator does when she’s sleeping (and more specifically, who engage with the capitalist systems of exchange that this behaviour involves) in our ordinary existences, are ~sleepwalking through our only human lives, which I think is an interesting concept that I agree with more and more as I get older.
Eleri Riglar (via email): There’s a definite "Dr. Jekyll" feel to the contrast between the narrator’s waking attitude and things she gets up to in her sleep. While awake, she keeps her interaction with the outside world to a minimum but when asleep, she is actively seeking this out, demonstrated by her online chat history as well as the simple fact of the man in the bodega now knowing her name. Dreams are often interpreted as an expression of subconscious desires, so we start to wonder what the narrator actually wants from life – whether the part of her that books spa treatments and buys fancy clothes is really as "superficial" as she thinks.
Charlotte Spencer (via email): It’s like there’s two of her, and one version is her trying to orchestrate a return to normality by ordering clothes and getting food in, but they’re clouded by drugs and night-time and therefore, a bit misguided. Her waking hours as the other her are then spent checking out what this person has done, and clearing up – or not – where necessary. It’s a different kind of chaos. The sending of nudes might also feel, to her, like a way of fostering intimacy and connection from the safety of her apartment. She could be relenting to a feeling of wanting to immerse herself back into society, but carrying it out in the most shallow, distant way she can conceive.
b) “Sleep was the hydraulic piston that lifted the bed of the truck up, ready to dump everything out somewhere, but Trevor was stuck in the tailgate, blocking the flow of garbage,” the narrator muses. What do we learn about her relationship with Trevor in this chapter?
Charlotte: He treats her like shit and we don’t really hear about any redeeming features. The nicest thing he does is almost come to a party with her. He is slightly distinct from the rest of the garbage in the metaphor, though, and the fact that her memories of him bring up the “possibility of reconciling, and thus more heartbreak” means that there’s affection enough that she would let a relationship happen again, despite the inevitability of pain. He connects her life before her "year off" to her present, and I think she wants to cut him out but can’t, because it’s not like there’s physical contact or even a current relationship that she can sack off – it’s all in her memories, which is why she “might have felt better if he were dead.”
Eleri: The incident with the banana makes for very uncomfortable reading especially given the age/experience gap between her and Trevor. We feel the protagonist’s disappointment when the prospect of dinner for two is dangled in front of her only to reveal on the next line that the reservation is for someone else. Trevor is only really interested in sex with the protagonist and is quick to lash out and/or dismiss her quite callously when this doesn’t happen.
LO: I think the main thing that we learn about her relationship with Trevor is that she was actually much more into it than we might have thought. “Thoughts of Trevor called me out of sleep like rats scrabbling inside the walls,” she complains. It’s one of them ones where you liked someone so much, even though you knew at the time that they were an arsehole, and even now, every time you speak about them, you can only say negative things – but none of this changes the fact that there was something about them that was special to you. Her difficulty in getting over Trevor – despite his essentially being a background character in American Psycho – is probably the most "relatable" thing about the protagonist, really.
c) “In the distance, people were living lives, having fun, learning, making money, fighting and walking around and falling in and out of love.” In this chapter, we see that the narrator really does want human connection. How does this change our view of her?
Mollie Simpson (via email): Chapter three is the most revealing of all, in terms of how the protagonist presents herself and how her unconscious reveals her to truly be. It's as if she wants us to believe her for who she could be, rather than who she is at this moment; which is, still a cynic, cold, detached and un-wanting, but intelligent enough to know that human connection is the portal through which we enter a meaningful, full and hopeful life.
LO: I think that this is the saddest chapter of the book and underlines just how isolated the narrator has become. I also think that this chapter, over any we’ve read so far, is testament to Moshfegh’s ability to really realistically create a character who makes choices that feel completely authentic. The moment I’m thinking of specifically is the last time when she sees Trevor: she asks for confirmation of his feelings – any feelings at all – towards her, and it angers him so much that he has his driver drop her off at the nearest subway station. They were headed to a New Year’s party, but once she’s been let out of the car, she just goes home. No matter how much she might want connection, it has mostly caused her pain, and so of course she believes that the best thing to do if she is to achieve a new level of enlightenment is to avoid it.
Eleri: The longing for human connection revealed in this chapter makes us question the honesty of the attitude portrayed in the previous two. It starts to seem as though the narrator has been wearing a kind of mask and lying to even herself about what she wants and what is important to her. The overly cold and dismissive interior voice could stem from the narrator’s childhood and the fact she has never really been in a place where she could acknowledge or process her emotions so that denying them completely becomes an understandable defensive response. At Christmas in the bodega, the description of the freezer – ”there was stuff frozen solid at the bottom that had been there for years, embedded in the white fuzz of ice” – seems like a metaphor for the narrator’s psyche and unprocessed emotional trauma. This is reinforced when later on while asleep she digs out the ancient ice creams.
d) At the end of the chapter, the narrator is seemingly on the train to Long Island, at Reva’s request. What does it tell us that she’s done as Reva asked?
LO: It all just folds in on the same thing really: essentially she can’t cut all of her tethers to the world – even if it’s not Reva’s love that she wants (though I think it is – if she didn’t have Reva, basically all of the structure would fall out of the bottom of her life), somewhere in her psychology she still wants to be linked to life: it might be via something as tiny as having something to do, or a sense of purpose.
Charlotte: Some things are easier to ignore than others - she can brush off everything else that Reva’s said about her life, but this specific kind of grief is real and world-changing enough to cut through the haze. When your mate loses a parent you experience the same grief just at a distance, and the narrator is already familiar with this particular emotion.
She acts like she and Reva aren’t the same but they started from the same place (uni), stay united (in space if nothing else) by Reva’s visits despite growing in different directions in their professional and personal lives, and ultimately they’re both just navigating their early twenties.
While it doesn’t feel quite right to hold the narrator to normative standards of compassion and friendship, ignoring this particular request would cross the line from apathetic to malicious, and I don’t think she’s actively malicious. Just a bit cold and unkind.
I feel like at this point in the novel, the narrator has begun to give in to the quicksand of “reality,” first by ordering stuff and reorganising her furniture, then starting to note what’s going in the outside world, and finally by leaving Manhattan. It’s imperfect and not super constructive but it’s a charade of concrete steps towards normality.
Mollie: At the beginning of the book, we are quoted Joni Mitchell:
'If you're smart or rich or lucky
Maybe you'll beat the laws of man
But the inner laws of spirit
And the outer laws of nature
No Man can
No, no man can… '
I feel this final revelation of Chapter Three, when we are told that the protagonist is going to be present with Reva at her mother's funeral, is the clearest illumination of this quote. She has failed to fight against her own sleep-wake cycle, but more deeply she has also failed to recognise and suppress the inner reserves of kindness and love that are inherent in humans from birth. Her unconscious moral compass still points the needle towards love.
PROMPTS FOR WEEK FOUR
a) Reva is often discussed by the narrator as if she’s not a real person. In this chapter the narrator says, “It always impressed me how predictable Reva was – she was like a character in a movie.” What can we say about their relationship at this point?
b) “Just the thought of Whoopi soothed me. She really was my hero,” the narrator thinks at one point. What does her attachment to Whoopi Goldberg tell us?
c) During this chapter, the narrator describes herself on the train having woken up from an Infermiterol sleep as “still pretty.” She later describes her mother, as she remembers her on her deathbed, in the same way. What does this tell us about her attitude to beauty?
d) “Rejection, I have found, can be the only antidote to delusion.” How does this statement relate to the narrative so far?
e) The narrator tries to make herself cry by remembering the deaths of her parents in this chapter. She is unable to. However, she does say: “If anything was going to make me cry, it was the thought of losing Dr. Tuttle.” What does Dr. Tuttle offer her?
f) Coming back into the city with Reva near the end of the chapter, the narrator tells her: “This is New York City” I said. “We don’t get earthquakes.” The whole book operates under the premise that we are aware that 9/11 is encroaching further and further in. What’s the effect of that?
Email your responses to email@example.com by 12PM on Tuesday the 21st of April.