Culture //

Trapped in a room with Ottessa Moshfegh

Reading depraved and isolated protagonists in the time of social separation.

Image credit: Chicago Review of Books.

Stumbling alone through the icy streets clutching a takeaway coffee, heading back to an empty apartment for a long and lonely weekend …. Yes, it sounds like life in Sydney’s lockdown, but it’s also the existence sought after in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the chilling exploration of personality by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

In the book, a woman sets out by various means to sleep as much as possible, hopefully for an entire year. At the end she hopes to awaken and be reborn like a butterfly from a cocoon.

At the start of lockdown I moved back home and found myself with nothing but an excess of time and an absence of willpower. Sleeping, reading and the newly coined Soviet-esque pastime of state-sanctioned walks quickly became the full extent of my life. 

Over the past months I have read a lot of fiction, including four books by Ottessa Moshfegh – one of the most prolific and uncanny contemporary authors. Lockdown tends to bring out traits that maybe you didn’t have time to indulge before. The buried perfectionist compulsion to read a book in one sitting is a penchant that day to day life easily smothers, but in lockdown festers. The schedule appears the same: read 100 pages, walk around, stand outside and observe the sky, realise there is really nothing else to do but go back and finish the book and then sit at your computer for five hours before taking some melatonin and sleeping until 2pm the next day. 

This is the cyclical nature of life in Moshfegh’s novel: the unnamed protagonist wakes at strange hours and is generally ambivalent to distinctions between day and night.

The Unnamed Protagonist (UP) of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is conscious of the specific privileges that allow her to indulge in this sleeping project. Within the first few pages she shows her awareness of her WASPie heroin-chic look that thrives on malnutrition and general laxity. By page three, after detailing the extent of her dead parents’ estate and Visa card limit, she remarks, “I wasn’t worried about money.” While sentence to sentence Moshfegh’s prose is acerbic and fascinated with the ubiquity of the Upper East Side early 2000’s Americana, the premise is a relatable fantasy to counter the lethargy seemingly implicit in any late stage capitalism success. 

UP wants a blank slate – of her accrued feelings, the visceral ickiness of past human interactions, and the literal cells that make up her body. Her sleep grows in length and depth and she is aware of the passage of time only through mellow visions of the leaves turning. She remarks, “My favourite days were the ones that barely registered.”

She wishes to be alleviated from the painfully mundane reality of having a body – one that constantly resists a comatose state and requires high levels of maintenance. She resents her own feeble emotions that plague her with memories of her dead parents and see her crawling back to her stock-standard twat ex. She plays the part of a heartless bitch but all she really wants is to feel the cold ambivalence that she projects. 

Certain images of the novel hold a specific resonance in our current context. The tepid air and smell of the apartment, the stacks of greasy takeaway food, packages she can’t remember ordering. But she is largely comfortable to languish in her own filth while maintaining a superiority based on her likeness to Kate Moss. On month three of subsisting on Prozac, coffee and the occasional takeaway pizza, she tells us, “Even at my worst, I knew I still looked good.”

There is something to be said for the vicarious joy of reading unhinged and unburdened characters. It is deeply satisfying to read of UP’s capacity to despise everything and to do so with unadulterated boredom. The direct and abrasive nature of the internal monologue is a comfort to the frequent ugliness of one’s thoughts. Poignant even is her reformatory hope that “life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.” 

Deeply embedded in Moshfegh’s whip smart cultural rhetoric and layers of irony is some reminder of the total mess, disillusionment and vacancy at the heart of things. Moshfegh sparkles at writing characters that you hate but understand. They are both physical manifestations of some cultural zeitgeist or aesthetic but are equally fleshed out and surprisingly pertinent. 

I now see excessive sleep as both a regenerative activity and a comatose way of enacting a fantasy of temporary death, although I doubt I will ever feel truly concerned that my own sleeping hours might resemble those of a newborn.