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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Ottessa Moshfegh presents: ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation,’ a clinically proven cure to ennui

Ruby Le

Death, life’s only fixity, is also its only natural sweetener (certified 100 percent organic), and as such, its stoic presence illuminates all the feeble estuaries — love, fear or, as Roland Barthes writes, “events, setbacks, annoyances” — flowing around its immovable presence. Death turns these meager rivers into juice and soda, flavored with granules of meaning, treacherous and highly addictive. The inevitability of the end necessitates an environment poised to eviscerate the fragile human spirit. It begs for heroes, bold beyond all reason, but (thanks to reason) no such heroes exist. Needless to say, existence, under death’s ironbound gaze, does not lend itself to the pleasures of “rest and relaxation.”

Still, Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator (a 26-year-old New Yorker and Columbia University graduate) endeavors to do just that — dull the prickly edges of her youth’s peak against the stone of psychiatric ineptitude for an entire year. Recently orphaned and vacillating “between wanting to look like the spoiled WASP that” she is “and the bum that” she feels she is, the narrator finds life a bit too flavorful against her sensitive palate. As far as she’s concerned, those who rage against the ennui of the affluent intellectual experience (her best friend Reva, the insufferable dweebs from her Art History program) needlessly amplify their misery.

“Solfoton and a bottle of Robitussin one day, Nembutal and Zuprexa the Next,” then on to “Xanax and Infermiterol.” Ignore the side effects. They pale in comparison to the pain of artistic pursuit. Better to be the art project, static against the panopticon of the information age, than its creator — too many sleepless nights go into creation. “Eat a can of chickpeas,” Dr. Tuttle suggests. “And try these.” Pharma cures the pain of existence, one or two capsules at a time.

The narrator “can’t point to any one event that resulted in [her] decision to go into hibernation,” just some general unhappiness with the proliferation of certain “thoughts and feelings,” a “constant barrage” making “it hard not to hate everyone and everything.” If not for advances in the psychiatric disciplines, such problems would go untreated. Thank heavens for Dr. Tuttle and thank God for pills. Without them she’d end up like Reva, whose spastic tendencies flared up in response to things so menial as a mother’s cancer. It’s for this reason, along with Reva’s relentless and often self-destructive quest to better herself that the narrator “love[s] Reva, but […] [doesn’t] like her anymore.”

Recalling her father’s illness — “I put on my headphones and played old tapes on my Walkman as I read. Prince. Bonnie Raitt. Whatever. The silence was maddening otherwise.” “And little by little, the faces became confused in her memory; she forgot the melody of the quadrilles; she could no longer picture the liveries and the rooms so clearly; some of the details vanished, but her longing remains,” Gustave Flaubert writes of Emma Bovary. Madame Bovary had no Walkman, no VHS, and no drugs. Steep.

The narrator ingests her white noise heavily filtered, coated in static and relegated to the surface of her waning consciousness (this story, mind you, takes place during the years 2000 and 2001, positioning the narrator as a trailblazer for Instagram, Snapchat and others who will adopt her particular notions of droning pointlessness and run with them).

“‘Every act of creation is an act of destruction. — Pablo Picasso,” according to art world poster boy Ping Xi’s business card. Thus, the aggressive sexual partner and financial firebrand (Trevor) becomes the artist and the former art student dead weight, the visual hack becomes the legend and the intuitive hand a last-minute excision.

The day will come and then it won’t: a little rest and relaxation. What’s the worst that could happen?