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Four Sleeping Pills and a Funeral: Week Four of Corona Book Club

VICE staff and readers discuss the fourth chapter of Ottessa Moshfegh's "My Year of Rest and Relaxation."
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
April 22, 2020, 11:15am
Read Ottessa Moshfegh "My Year of Rest and Relaxation."
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We're discussing a new chapter each week. Read along with us and submit your thoughts to coronabookclub@vice.com.

The events in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh's 2018 novel about a terminally medicated Manhattanite, are interspersed with long periods of sleep. But in chapter four – when the narrator attends the funeral of her friend Reva’s mother, kind of by accident – she stays awake.

After waking up on the train in a huge white fur coat, whose origins she is unsure of, she meets Reva and they attend the funeral together. The chapter recalls the deaths of the narrator’s parents, as well as the origin of her friendship with Reva. At this point in the book, we know that she is a rich young woman, starved of warmth and almost alone in the world – if not for this neurotic friend who likes to tell her that she’s skinnier than Kate Moss.

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This week, Lauren O’Neill and Hannah Ewens discuss chapter four alongside Corona Book Club readers.

a) The narrator describes Reva as if she is not a real person: “It always impressed me how predictable Reva was – she was like a character in a movie.” What can we say about their relationship in this chapter?

LO: This is the chapter in which we get to the root of the narrator’s attachment to Reva. We find out about the beginning of their friendship – after the narrator’s mother dies, Reva is the only person to ask her questions about it – and the sense we have that the narrator "needs" Reva and her affection and jealousy is confirmed.

Reva shows an interest in the narrator, and is one of her only attachments to real life, and therefore the narrator is also attached to her, but at the same time, Reva’s way of speaking in clichés and Hallmark card-style phrases grates on the narrator and makes her feel like nothing is real to Reva. “Reva was like the pills I took,” she says. “They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away.”

Eleri Riglar (via email): I think when it comes to Reva and the narrator’s relationship, actions speak louder than words. The narrator is often less than flattering about Reva but the fact is that she is the only friend to attend Reva’s mother’s funeral. For her part, Reva is clearly envious of the narrator’s material circumstances and natural appearance, which has flared up into “privilege checking” arguments in the past. But she was also the only person to reach out to the narrator when her parents were dying and remains her only real contact with the real world now. Although they have come from quite different places, there are many parallels between Reva’s and the narrator’s lives that keep them together. Theirs is a very intimate relationship where they each know about and tolerate the other’s unique coping strategies, but don’t ask too many questions.

b) “Just the thought of Whoopi soothed me. She really was my hero.” What does the narrator's attachment to Whoopi Goldberg tell us?

Eleri: It’s not clear where in her life the obsession with Whoopi Goldberg comes from but she functions as a kind of comfort blanket for the narrator. Does she see Whoopi as a mother replacement? Her life so far hasn’t been very predictable, so it’s understandable that she finds comfort in watching and rewatching classic films where nothing will take her by surprise.

Hannah Ewens: I feel as though old Whoopi is her replacement mother, considering her adoration of the actor goes far back. She always plays a warm but strong female role – Sister Act, Girl, Interrupted – and whenever she’s around, everything seems like it just might turn out "OK". The narrator shows more feeling towards a famous actor than she does any of the people in her own life. She’s also crucially absent, so can’t irritate the narrator, as almost everyone does. I think the narrator needs to do some transference from Whoopi to anyone IRL – even, and maybe especially, Reva.

c) During this chapter, the narrator wakes up on a train after an Infermiterol-induced sleep, but describes herself as “still pretty.” She says the same thing about her mother on her deathbed. What does this tell us about her attitude towards beauty?

HE It’s the "live asleep, die young" attitude. The narrator doesn’t care too much if she dies – as she reveals in this chapter when she and Reva are driving in the car – and if it happens, at least she is thin and hot. She sees Reva as being the woman striving for perfection but the narrator is fairly obsessed with beauty and thinness herself. Sidenote: I found parts about thinness and eating disorders uncomfortable to read in this chapter. I’m sure there’ll be more to interrogate here later in terms of what it "means" but all I can tell this far is that it’s a narrative device to gesture at themes like female competition, emotional starvation and "the void"/emptiness. Charlotte Spencer (via email): Obviously, the narrator is in a fairly privileged position with her financial security, but her bringing up her looks at really low moments suggests that as long as she’s sure she’s still pretty, that’s a tiny ray of sunshine even if everything else feels like shit. It’s something to grab on to when she feels low. It suggests that as long as she’s got that, then she’s fine. But for most people, the fact that you’ve woken up on a train after a blackout might signify that something needs to change. I guess that makes it her most valuable asset. It’s something she searches for amongst the rubble of her life, which is why she notices it in her mother, despite her being on her literal deathbed “with a machine taped to her face.”

LO: Beauty has been a currency for the narrator for her whole life, and to treat it as such is something she learned from her mother, who was “still pretty” in death – she remembers never having seen the naturally coloured roots of her mother’s hair before she lay dying. Beauty allows the narrator to live her life in the way that she does – we make a lot of judgements about people based on the way they look, and hot people, particularly white, skinny ones, get away with a lot! – and so it’s important for her to retain it.

d) “Rejection, I have found, can be the only antidote to delusion.” What do you make of this statement?

LO: It explains one of the reasons – other than her general sense of laziness and malaise – why the narrator treats Reva the way she does. In some way, she is trying to shake her out of the overly sentimental way she thinks. I also think it’s pretty true? We can make up narratives for ourselves and we can also convince ourselves that these narratives are totally true. Rejection in any sense shakes us out of this weird confirmation bias that we’re all guilty of.

The statement is the moral of this novel in many ways, if you had to sum it up in a sentence. It applies to the narrator's relationships, but you could also say that in rejecting real life (i.e. by attempting to sleep for a year), the narrator attempts to create an antidote for the delusions of capitalism, work and all of the other systems that reality functions within.

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HE: The narrator does have very sharp – although often cruel – observations about other people. She’s experienced loss and rejection throughout her life so she feels this is what has kept her pivoting closer to some sort of depressing truth. Her morose desire for clarity rather than delusion is another coping method, though.

Eleri: This statement can be applied quite easily to pretty much every relationship in the book. The narrator was almost entirely rejected by her mother and this seems to drive her towards relationships either where she is rejected again (Trevor), or where she can instead be in the position of rejector (Reva). That said, the part where the narrator is musing on Reva writing her a rejection letter to formally end their friendship is interesting. The narrator cannot think of a concrete reasons to reject Reva, which suggests that her aloof and often scornful attitude towards her is a preemptive defensive reaction. If she is inwardly rejecting people, then she is less open to being hurt when they leave her.

e) The narrator tries unsuccessfully to make herself cry by remembering the deaths of her parents. She says: “If anything was going to make me cry, it was the thought of losing Dr. Tuttle.” What does Dr. Tuttle offer her?

Charlotte: Dr. Tuttle is the only person giving her what she wants, and she’s doing it dispassionately. The odds of Dr. Tuttle asking anything of the narrator apart from a cheque and monthly attendance (at a push) are really low, which is reassuring. Losing Dr. Tuttle would mean losing the stream of drugs and amusing advice, so actually, losing her is symptomatic of the narrator emerging out of her year off – an overwhelming prospect. Her first proper venture out in some time is to a funeral where she has to put up with so much bullshit (cheap sheets, crying Reva, you know), so obviously the world sucks. I think the relationship between the narrator and Dr. Tuttle isn’t evidently maternal straight away but the more we learn about the narrator’s mother, the more it seems to resemble that.

Can You Sleep Yourself to Happiness?

Eleri: If Dr Tuttle was no longer able or willing to supply the prescriptions then the narrator’s "project’" would have failed and she would have to come up with a new strategy for avoiding / escaping / maybe ultimately healing from the emotional trauma in her life. There is more insight in this chapter into the physical impact of the project on the narrator (answering the door to Reva on her hands and knees and her extreme muscle wastage, not to mention missing pretty much everything in life for some months.) It would be galling for this to have all been for nothing.

LO: Dr. Tuttle obviously offers her all of the medications she takes and relies on to sleep for long periods, and therefore she offers her an escape from a reality that she finds painful, in the short term. In the long term, however, the narrator has pinned her hopes on her ability to “rest” a year away, and feels that once she has done that she might experience some sort of spiritual transformation or awakening. Without Dr. Tuttle, there is no year of rest and relaxation.

f) Returning to the city with Reva, the narrator tells her: “This is New York City. We don’t get earthquakes.” The book operates under the premise that the reader knows 9/11 is approaching. What’s the effect of that?

HE: I suppose because I’m British I hadn’t realised that was the time MYORAR was set in is important for this reason and now feel like an idiot. Now I’m sharing that idiocy on the internet. But with that in mind, the book makes a lot more sense (lol.) It’s set in a time when there was an element of innocence in the collective. No one could get hurt, people were safe at home or at work and America was the greatest country in the world. There’s a theme of American excellence through the novel and a more specific New York upper class excellence – if only you can be hot, well-dressed in the best name-checked brands and have knowledge of high culture you’ll succeed and thrive. You’ll be safe. This is all shattered for the narrator when her parents die, and will soon be shattered for everyone in the city now Reva and the narrator have seen in 2001 together. LO: There’s a pretty strong sense of foreboding at the end of the chapter – the narrator and Reva are talking about the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and Reva asks whether anything like that might happen in New York. It’s a horrible moment, because of course we know that it soon will. As for the effect of the looming impact of 9/11 on the book as a whole, it completely colours the mood and tone. In the context of the narrator’s avoidance of the news, here, finally, will be something of such magnitude that she cannot ignore it. Even if she does manage to sleep away a year, she will still eventually be met by even more destruction, even more loss.

PROMPTS FOR WEEK FIVE

a) At the beginning of this chapter, the narrator talks about the art world, noting, “I might as well have worked on Wall Street,” though art itself is a “sacred human ritual.” We know that she prizes art above basically everything else – what does the way she speaks about it here tell us

b) During her Infermiterol sleep, the narrator has been on a night out. Is this surprising?

c) The narrator remembers an incident from college, when her professor made the other students analyse her as if she were an art piece. What do you think of her response to that?

d)The narrator begins calling Trevor around the middle of this chapter. Why is she reaching out to him at this moment?

d) We find out that Reva will be moving offices in this chapter. What effect does this news have?

@hiyalauren / @hannahrosewens