I listened to Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (MYRR, hereafter) this late Summer. My reaction was distaste for the story and dislike of the unnamed protagonist / narrator. As I finished the book, my overwhelming sense was that Moshfegh had written a book to test sexism: “Can one write a character as unlikable as Mersault from Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and get away with it?”1
MYRR closely follows The Stranger. In both works, the reader is given little to explain protagonists’ lack of attachment with the world. Why does Mersault feel nothing when his mother dies? Why does the narrator feel comfortable entering a narcotic-induced coma? They are both horrible to those that care for them: Mersault to Marie, Moshfegh’s narrator to tag-along, Reva. And in the closing pages of their respective denouements, they both have a jarring event rip across their respective skylines that seems to jar them to a conscious more familiar to our own.
In the aftermath of their respective tales, we are asked: does their flat affect and lack of affection for the world outside, our world, render them inhuman? Or are their reactions to our world entirely reasonable? It was this question that I wasn’t certain how to answer over these last few months. And I wasn’t sure how to write about this book without having my take on the question settled.
But now I believe I’ve reached a conclusion. In her character’s choices, Moshfegh provides an exploration the proposition of the “The Hero of Non-Action” as presented by David Foster Wallace’s character Hal in Infinite Jest:
We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras
Thus, Moshfegh’s narrator’s disaffection, her desire to sleep a year away through irresponsibly-dispensed drugs, and behavior designed to loosen all social ties is her “Hero of Non-Action” response to a world of artifice and insincerity, “our world.” The Mersault-like behavior of the narrator is therefore secondary to the book’s examination of the question: “How are we to survive these times?” For the narrator, and many of the characters of Infinite Jest, the answer is: “in a narcotic haze to preserve our souls which cannot handle this type of world’s demands.” Seen through this lens, the book became far more sympathetic and compelling.
While this book will never be something I love of glow about, it does have a perspective, and a unique one at that, which suggests value in reading the book.
Disliking the Protagonist
Pamela Paul said it well in her essay, “Why You Should Read Books You Hate,” books we dislike are special versus other media we dislike. By granting them access to our imagination, we carry them along with us when we’re finished. Lodged in our minds, they collide and interact with other deeply-held beliefs.2 In time, they can serve as a fallow field in which unexpected ideas blossom.
By taking the time to wrestle with our dislike and its motivation, we can uncover worthwhile conclusions, hidden blind spots, and perhaps even insights about ourselves and the world around us.
The narrator is difficult to love. She’s noted as educated, beautiful, thin, and wealthy. She has an adorable quirk: love of Whoopi Goldberg. She has a wry and sexy insouciance about herself (“tried anal to prove I wasn’t a prude”). Yet through the pages, we don’t see her move from her origin point of disagreeable (but gold at heart) curmudgeon (“Odd Couple” style). Instead she becomes colder, harder, less hygienic, and more manipulative.
While Morrissey could deliver a line like “I think about life / and I think about death / and neither one / particularly appeals to me” with a bounce, a railroad beat and could elicit a smile, the narrator effectively says the same words and it lands leaden and stillborn.
It was as my dislike for her was reaching a fever pitch that I asked myself whether this dislike was exacerbated because she wasn’t conforming to a model of woman that I expected. Did I expect all women to be consumable or within my model of attractiveness. I sought a man character who could be used for comparison and came up with Mersault whose behavior is quite similar to the narrator’s but whom I do not forgive. Given that they have, effectively, an identical arc, I think it’s fair to say the narrator is repellent without sexist machinery biasing my evaluation.
The Loose Thread
But the narrator’s misanthropy is never really explained. Presumably her parents’ recent deaths might be a reason for her attitude, but little is provided that suggests they were even really aware of each other. The mother was an alcoholic who gender-policed the daughter’s behavior; the father, a detached professor. While death of parents is certainly affecting regardless of level of affection, there’s scant basis to think that her “year off” is driven by sadness or depression.
To the reply that “Of course she was depressed, her parents DIED,” I think we should deflate the mythology that all children and parents love each other utterly and are kind to one another. While it’s certainly reasonable to suppose that the reader should infer depression and relationship, I think that the author owes a display of the affection bond in order for the reader to believe that she was close to her parents and distraught over their deaths.
Discovery of the Hero(ine) of Non-Action
Looking at the setting, could her times have motivated this desire for a year off?
Set during the early months of the Bush administration, in New York’s Clintonian denouement of irrational exuberance, I think it’s reasonable to think that the glossy, dot-com era might have been starting to cause a level of nausea / anxiety in our narrator. Perhaps she was a canary in the coalmine for the David Wallace-ite media addiction, gloss-consumption that America was on track for.
I find this rather compelling because she finds her first meaningful nap in the broom closet at the gallery which employs her. She also takes out some of her rage (excretorially) on one of the displays as a way of handing in her resignation.
The narrator emerges from her coma having succeeded in slowing down the world. The final stages of her coma seem implausible. “Surely this can’t work?” But it does. She returns from her year feeling validated and confident that she did the right thing. It felt a bit too much to take and I didn’t buy it.
Nevertheless, having taken a polar stance and forced the world of early-2000 America to S-L-O-W D-O-W-N, I wondered what she would make of the world she was surfacing into (‘Nsync, Atkins, Britney Spears!). The world would have surely worked to spin her back up to its pace. By quirk of history, she emerges into September 11, 2001 and the world, against most previous precedent slows down to meet her. It invests in authenticity and presence (or so it seemed to me, in that time).
Nineteen years on I have to wonder: would she need another year off? Personally, as the images have gotten louder; the truth, truthier; the ignorance, more widespread, it seems more attractive to join in than ever.
I listened to this book on Audible and the narration by Julia Whelan was wonderful. My favorite vocal pitch of hers is when she is straining to tolerate some conversation (before returning to bed, usually) with someone (typically her friend / pity-case Reva) and you can visualize Whelan’s vocal cords straining just like the narrator is.
Amazingly she can pop immediately back to the peppy faux-optimism of Reva instantly after this “if my eyes roll any harder they will rupture my forehead” voice.
Whelan seems to making a real name for herself in audiobooks as she also interpreted Tara Westover’s monster hit: Educated.
- The Stranger is another book that many find repellent, but which offers surprising insights if the reader lets it in to ferment and grow. When lent it in high school, I knew I’d go home and read it easily before any else got home. This certainly happened, but the book hasn’t let go for 25 years.
- Paul, Pamela. 2017, April 15. Why You Should Read Books You Hate. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/opinion/sunday/the-joy-of-hate-reading.html