Coronavirus

This Darkly Funny Book Preempted Quarantine Life

In the first instalment of our Corona Book Club, we read chapter one of Ottessa Moshfegh's 2018 novel 'My Year of Rest and Relaxation.'
02 April 2020, 4:51am
What to Read During Self-Isolation, Book Recommendations for Self-Isolation
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It’s the year 2000 and everything is exhausting. Somewhere on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – Gossip Girl country – in an apartment full of 3AM online underwear purchases, and VHS tapes of Whoopi Goldberg movies, a young woman is attempting to hibernate using an encyclopaedic array of prescription drugs.

This is the premise of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which VICE is reading week by week, as part of our new Corona Book Club. (We’ve also got a Film Club, if you like that sort of thing.)

This week, we’ll be focussing on chapter one of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which introduces us to our unnamed, chronically Over It protagonist. In the immortal words of Lady Gaga, she’s blonde, she’s skinny, she’s rich… and she’s a little bit of a bitch. Her parents are both dead, leaving her investments and a property rental that earns her an ample income without her having to lift a finger. She fills her days with chemically induced rest, punctuated by trips to her local bodega for enormous coffees, visits from her college "friend" Reva, who is referred to with dripping contempt, therapy sessions with the quacky Dr. Tuttle, and refills of the prescriptions for her ever-expanding collection of sleeping pills.

To discuss chapter one in more depth, VICE staffers Lauren O’Neill, Nana Baah, and Hannah Ewens are responding to the set of prompts we posted last week, alongside answers from VICE readers.

*Charli XCX “Vroom Vroom” voice* LET’S READ:

What do you make of the protagonist?

Lauren O’Neill: I have read this book before and now, reading this first chapter for a second time, I realise just how great it is. Moshfegh does a perfect job of locating you right in among the protagonist’s brand of malaise, while also explaining how she got there. We end the chapter with a pretty clear idea of where this woman comes from – wealth, an inherited emotional emptiness, the suggestion that the two are linked – and a question mark over where the story will go next. For me this is a really enticing combination.

Nana Baah: I had my reservations about our protagonist, because: another young woman living on prescription drugs in a big city? I went to an arts uni in London, so I have met my fair share. But as it turns out, I love her because she’s a dramatic bitch.

Laura Welch (via email): Honestly, I do like the protagonist so far. Do we even know her name? Have I somehow missed this?! Straight away, her prescription drug addiction reminds me of Cat Marnell in her memoir How To Murder Your Life.

Charlotte Spencer (via email): Unfortunately I love the narrator and I’m not sure why. I think the intimation when someone is a bit rude is that there is no pretence, so she’s being genuine, even if she’s fairly nasty to Reva. Not to sound like a Tumblr post but she doesn’t owe anyone anything, and she’s aware of this. I wouldn’t want to be around her in real life but in this book set 20 years ago, she’s at a safe distance.

Matilda Reith (via email): I find the device of not naming the protagonist annoying, a bit lazy and obvious. She is so specific, and un-relatable in her beauty and financial position, I see the coy "no name" thing as a touch useless. I wonder if she will be named.

What about Moshfegh's writing style?

Hannah Ewens: I feel as though the narrator is keeping us as readers, as well as herself, at arm’s length. Psychologically, she appears to never have felt with her parents’ death and any other underlying childhood issues, and despite being arrogant and beautiful and aware of her own value in various senses, she’s no more likely to view herself or us in a caring light than she is her colleagues, her friends, the world she inhabits.

There’s something fun about that. Her cruel, private school flavour of narration allows you to be detached as a reader too: you don’t have to like her, you can hate-follow along. It’s like being inside the impenetrable mind of an unusually intelligent, hot bully. In fact, I felt exactly as the narrator imagines Reva feels about her (“She worshipped me, but she also hated me.”)

Eleri Riglar (via email): The cold, detached style, I think, is indicative of the haze of pharmaceuticals the protagonist is under. I find that it adds weight to the more shocking elements of the story and reveals about the past as well, as what is being described is quite at odds with the tone being used to describe it. It’s quite easy to read something neutrally and then a few words later it sinks in – you’re like, “Did it really just say that?!”

How do you feel about Reva and her relationship with the protagonist?

HE: Enter the perfect stock "best friend" character. The almost pathologically bitchy persuasion of Moshfegh’s narrator works to show that Reva, however annoying, is the normal one – the average person. The book digs out the pathetic normality of all our multifaceted and yet predictable selves, through the lens of this character. The non-exhaustive list: she’s hot but boring, irritating, competitive, self-righteous, unlikeable, corny, affectionate, needy, lonely, secretive, patronising, borderline alcoholic, conformist, vain, desperate, charmless, envious and a prude. There is no end to the faults the narrator sees in this ultimately insecure worm, Reva. But the clearest and most reliable evidence of Reva’s insecurity comes from something concrete: the fact she only keeps returning to her vile best friend who clearly doesn’t care for her.

NB: Moshfegh is brilliant at portraying the annoying friend who idolises you, but also clearly resents you. The friend you think you could do without, but is the only reason your ego is still intact.

Matilda: Reva makes me think of the time when desirable fashion was Paris and Nicole on The Simple Life. She is more relatable than the protagonist and I feel sorry for her.

LO: I feel sorry for her, too. The first time I read the novel, I remember being a bit disappointed by Reva and the characterisation of her, because she felt quite two-dimensional – like a stereotypical sidekick character; the girl who cares too much, there as a foil to the cool, beautiful girl who doesn’t care at all. (“‘I miss you,’ [Reva] said, her voice cracking a little. Maybe she thought those words would break through to my heart. I’d been taking Nembutals all day.”)

Now that I read the novel back, I still think this is true, but I think this time around my sense of the narrator’s self-involvement is a bit stronger – she is the narrative, basically. So it makes sense that the other characters would feel like stereotypes or heightened caricatures, because that’s probably all she’s able to see them as. It’s as though she only has room in her head, and her narrative, for her own complex personhood.

How does time work in the novel?

HE: Brilliantly, the effect is that of having consumed the downers yourself, of being stuck in that liminal space that’s neither here nor there. Scenes past and present merge in a pharmaceutical haze – but we never feel a sense of a possible future. In this sense, it hints at the feeling of being deeply depressed.

LO: I guess the narrator tells us herself that she’s completely disengaged from what’s going on outside of her own life very early on, which in turn tells us about her (it says lots about her, but for me the main thing that stands out is that it tells us how privileged she is: she’s so insulated by wealth and beauty that it hardly matters to her what the news says – her material conditions will not change.) “The only news I could read were the sensational headlines on the local daily papers at the bodega. I’d quickly glance at them as I paid for my coffee,” she says. She doesn’t consume current events for their own sake, but as a byproduct of an activity she’d do anyway.

Charlotte: The narrator opens the story by saying “whenever I woke up” and on the same page notes that “a few months went by,” like these aren’t things that matter. My last nine or ten days have felt pretty much the same, but I still have to keep track of what day it is.

What do you make of the New York that Moshfegh presents here? (Proto-softbois, finance jerks, the art world)?

Laura: I love the narrative around New York, I even used Google Earth to look up East 84th Street, just so I could get a good sense of it – not too shabby!

Eleri: Not familiar with New York at all from personal experience, but the book portrays a very nihilistic and materialistic way of living. For me, it calls to mind novels like American Psycho (fortunately, without the dismemberment) where the narrator obsesses over minutiae and status symbols while living a morally bankrupt life. It’s also quite surreal: the privilege of virtually everyone depicted suggests that, just as much as the narrator, they are not really living in the real world.

LO: One thing I noticed was that the "subcultures" or cultural niches that Moshfegh portrays here don’t feel particularly dated – they’re mostly still relevant.

Laura: I laughed a lot when she was describing the arty males wearing their skinny jeans and their New Balance – ALWAYS RELEVANT!

Matilda: The setting of a pre-9/11 New York is nervy, the dramatic irony is a lot here, a bit distracting. I wonder if Moshfegh is drawing a parallel between sleep and pre-9/11 society? It changed the world so enormously. The protagonist begins “hibernating” in June 2000 – one year on and that's just before the Twin Towers fell. If it's not in this book I'd be so, so surprised.

What do you think sleep symbolises here?

Genevieve Paras (via email): We sleep to refresh our minds, to reset our body, and to relax in order to fully function again. The unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with it. She believes that sleep is a form of medicine. It also symbolises her wish to escape from the norms of the society. Sleep has now become a luxury to individuals working from nine to five, right?

LO: For the protagonist, I think sleep symbolises escape, cleansing, healing. It’s pretty clear that she finds the world – capitalist models of achievement, information overload – unbearable (even regular activities like watching television “aroused too much in me, and I’d get compulsive about the remote, clicking around, scoffing at everything and agitating myself.”) In sleeping, she finds the opposite of accomplishment, a rare opportunity to just be. It’s interesting that she’s only able to remove herself from ordinary merit systems because of her inherited wealth.

Does this chapter give us any insight into ~Our Current Moment?

NB: Throughout lockdown, you’re either an overbearing Reva who is constantly firing up Instagram Live and chaotically trying to get people to be productive, by like, tie-dying all their white clothes as if it’s very common to have multiple dyes lying around the house. Or you’re our nameless protagonist, just trying to focus on getting through everyday and eating just enough to sustain yourself.

Eleri: The protagonist is clearly very socially isolated. The way she lives is probably more similar to the way readers live now than when the book was published, in terms of the lack of day-to-day movement, and passing of time watching old films. However in contrast to our current moment the reasons for the social isolation in the novel are all internal, with the real world carrying on outside as usual. So us and her have ended up in similar places but for opposite reasons.

Matilda: Ottessa Moshfegh's writing is so enjoyable – I read Eileen a few years ago and the detached, bleak humour is so great. I know I am going to like this book but I think it's going to be a bit brutal. We are positioned so closely inside the protagonist’s brain, I think this book is going to make me sleep and drink more.

HE: My main takeaway from this chapter – especially the first few pages – was that her pharmaceutical lethargy and lifestyle felt attractive to me. How easy it would be – if you were a millionaire – to do this; to just fade away into oblivion. Even in its reading experience, I felt dulled and blunted in a delicious way. I was laying like a corpse under my weighted blanket reading it, and compared to everything else I’ve been watching and reading in self-isolation, it didn’t feel like escapism. The book’s blurred time and its narrator’s prerogative to will life away is what many people feel right now, I think. If I could come out a new person, bleary eyed and yawning in Winter 2020, I probably would.

PROMPTS FOR CHAPTER TWO

a) “I felt I was on my way to a great transformation,” the narrator says when she arranges to sleep even more often. She ends the chapter by saying: “If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form.” What do you think she is hoping will happen?

b) We’re yet to mention Dr. Tuttle, the narrator’s unhinged therapist. What do you make of her?

c) In this chapter, we learn more about the narrator’s relationship with her parents. How has it affected her, knowing what we know so far?

d) What about her relationship with Trevor? The narrator thinks of him often. What do you think she likes about Trevor?

e) “She was always getting her hair blown out, her eyebrows waxed into thin arched parentheses, her fingernails painted various shades of pink and purple, as though all of this made her a wonderful person,” is one of the thoughts that the narrator has about Reva in Chapter Two. What is Moshfegh saying about women and beauty in this chapter?

Submit your responses to coronabookclub@vice.com by 12PM on Tuesday the 7th of April, and keep an eye out for our discussion of chapter two next week.

@hiyalauren / @hannahrosewens / @nanasbaah

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.