A disenfranchised hot blonde girl with a trust fund self-medicates to the point of blackout in the hopes of changing her life in her sleep.
What does disillusionment look like, to Moshfegh? The visual field is cinematic, detached, mediation creeping: “I did feel a peculiar sensation, like oceanic despair that — if I were in a movie — would be depicted superficially as me shaking my head slowly and shedding a tear. Zoom in on my sad, pretty, orphan face. Smash cut to a montage of my life’s most meaningful moments…” The eyes are “cameras pann[ing]”; lives are understood through media: “You’re like Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted,” Reva tells the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. “But you look more like Angelina Jolie.”
We get our best glimpse through the attitude the protagonist holds toward others—her endless dismissal and condescensions, the belittlings and typecastings.
What she (we’ll call her ‘Tag here on out) finds most damning about her sole friend, Reva—and ‘Tag forgives Reva her narcissism, her superficiality, her pettiness and envy and “delusional romantic projections”—what ‘Tag finds most damning is how everything she says sounds “like she’d read it in a Hallmark card.” Reflecting on a eulogy Reva gives for her cancer-struck mother: “Reva scratched at an itch that, on my own, I couldn’t reach. Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision gave me reason to think Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine.”
When ‘Tag’s internal monologue goes misanthropic, it’s with a penchant for deindividuation, caricaturing twenty-something guys reading Proust on the subway, “sterilized professionals” ordering brioche buns, couples getting no-foam lattes. But it’s delivered with the conflicted tone of someone rejecting what isn’t available to them, like an animal whose snarl breaks midway into whimper. “I want something that’ll put a damper on my need for company,” she tells Dr. Tuttle, a confession she never actually makes to the reader.
Putting people into castes, into starterpacks, cognitively dehumanizes them; it allows ‘Tag to dismiss others’ struggles, struggles which might potentially rival and therefore draw into question the identity-fused exceptionalism of her own. The observer’s illusion of transparency refers to a common bias of overestimating the extent to which one understands those around him. It’s a coping strategy for trauma but what comes first, the transparency or the disillusionment? The othering or the alienation?
I remembered watching her “put her face on,” as she called it, and wondering if one day I’d be like her, a beautiful fish in a man-made pool, circling and circling, surviving the tedium only because my memory can contain only what is imprinted on the last few minutes of my life, constantly forgetting my thoughts.
‘Tag is thinking back on her mother here—which, because of the similarities in the two’s psyches and circumstances, is the closest ‘Tag gets to imagining her own future. It’s as if she’s looking for a way forward. In her mother’s life she sees none, just wine bottles and bloated middle-age.
Yet out of desperate hope it will cure or kill her unshakeable depression, internal monologue, and low executive function, she begins a process of pharmaceutical hibernation. Every three days she redoses a fictional downer Infermiterol, which causes a 72-hour blackout and allows her to get through time, erasing her memory like the coy fish.
The book has a happy ending: ‘Tag comes safely from her sleep to see a world which, once empty of value, now seems soaked with meaning. “There was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness… My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things.” The book’s surface-level moral (appearing in a drugged-out dream-vision that rivals Taipei’s psilocybin death climax) is something like intimacy, presentness, the acceptance of your lot:
I tried to remember my life, flipping through Polaroids in my mind. “It was so pretty there. It was interesting!” But I knew that even if I could go back, if such a thing were possible with exactitude, in life or in dreams, there was really no point. And then I felt desperately lonely. So I stuck my arm out and I grasped onto someone… and that other hand steaded me somehow as I fell past whole galaxies, mercurial waves of light strobing through my body, blinding me over and over… I was crying.
But there are other psychic patterns to track in ‘Tag’s transformation, changes in behavior and self-modeling that point somewhere further. She gives away an entire designer wardrobe and starts shopping for basics at a Goodwill. She has a transcendent experience in front of a vanitas painting at the Met, culminating with her placing a palm on its craquelure surface. Where the novel opens with ‘Tag buying two large coffees for herself at the bodega—part of a multi-drug choreographing of bodily pleasure—it ends with her picking up cornflakes to feed pigeons in the park. (Baumeister: In the 20th C, the self replaces the state and the religion as the basis for work & worship.)
There’s another aspect of the image of the coy pond. Not just the desire to turn off the self, to live without memory—idiotic, happy, neutered—but to swim in a “man-made pool,” to be admired, like her mother, for her beauty and charm. For her quality and value as an object. The Young-Girl is currently the most luxurious of the goods that circulate on the market of perishable commodities (Tiqqun).
In very broad-brush and simplistic terms:
Traditional masculinity (to the extent that it’s a thing at all) is mostly about Being a Subject, and provides lots of tools that make subject-hood work better. It pushes you to take action, to make decisions, to possess things and people and take pleasure in it.
Traditional femininity is mostly about Being an Object, and provides lots of tools that make object-hood work better. It pushes you to construct yourself into something desirable and compelling, to seek out appreciation, to be possessed and take pleasure in it.
People vary in the utility they get from subject-hood and object-hood. Probably everyone needs both to some substantial extent.
To some extent, identity-building always pushes towards the object side of the equation. It’s about being rather than doing; it involves saying, “witness me! appreciate me!”
If objecthood is oriented around being seen, an art-world rave ‘Tag shows up to plastered epitomizes it:
Girls in dark lipstick, boys with red pupils… posing fashionably or simply raising an eyebrow or faking wide smiles… In [one], a skinny redhead flashed her breasts, revealing lavender pasties… Male twins dressed as heroin-thin Elvises in a slouchy gold lame suits high-fived in front of a Basquiat rip-off. There was a girl holding a rat on a leash hooked to the bicycle chain she wore around her neck. A close-up shot showed someone’s pale pink tongue, split to look like a snake’s and pierced on both forks with big diamond studs.
The pure object “never gives herself; she only gives what she has, which is to say the array of qualities that they loan her. This is also why it’s not possible to love the [pure object], but only to consume her” (adapted from Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl). Hence Trevor, ex-boyfriend extraordinaire, who keeps her around to face-fuck.
Following Fisher, let’s call this way of being in the world object ontology. That’s where Tag thrives and is validated: she may not remember the art-rave, but her ability to get into it sans invite, to befriend a hotshot artist there and a hundred other navigational easings point to her prestige as an object. Money allows her designer clothes and spa trips, and via the law of costly signaling even her bad habits can’t hurt her: sole friend Reva remarks with envy at how thin ‘Tag’s gotten while medicated, and bags under the eyes is heroin-chic if you’re beautiful. It’s on the very basis—not despite of—her aloof indifference that she gets hired to a Chelsea gallery, which only works if everyone agrees you’re attractive. (What’s attraction? A quality of an object which compels others toward it.)
Reva, meanwhile, flails, Gucci knock-off clutch in hand. She can’t win the game of objecthood, trying and failing to lose weight or attract a partner. Worse, she makes it look hard, making resolutions that are never followed through or tracing fad diets to their natural dialectic in bulimic binges. “Blotchy red” and “the shape of Florida,” even Reva’s birthmark signifies low status. When ‘Tag visits her apartment, we get a glimpse into her cabinets stocked with laxative teas and rice crackers, bottles of Belvedere and sugarless Gatorade.
To ‘Tag, to whom being a desirable object comes literally naturally (blonde, imperviously thin), this grubbing is embarrassing, low, clumsy. Ironically, [Reva’s] desire to be classy had always been the déclassé thorn in her side. “Studied grace is not grace,” I once tried to explain. In other words, grace isn’t something done by a subject but a quality which is possessed or isn’t. “Charm is not a hairstyle,” ‘Tag continues. “You either have it or you don’t.”^1
Class rears its head. At Reva’s mother’s wake, there are “Huge pots on the stove steam[ing],” full of chicken, spaghetti, and ratatouille. “[Reva] was oddly unembarrassed. It seemed like she had dispensed with her usual uppity pretentions. She made no attempt to excuse herself for being homey, folksy, or whatever word she would have used to describe living in a home like hers.” (On her own upbringing in an “un-cultured” home: “There were no cut flowers around the house.”)
And though Reva, unlike ‘Tag, is actually trying at subjecthood, she falls short yet again: a meeting note-taker at her corporate job, her main narrative arc over the book is a failed attempt to materialize a relationship with her married boss, which results in a pregnancy and her transference out of office. Her last act of subjecthood, which comes on the book’s final page, comes as she throws herself out a WTC window and is caught on a news camera. More than anything else, ‘Tag is surprised by how much she admires the act, rewatching the footage of the plumet on lonely afternoons, or “any other time I doubt that life is worth living.” Each time she is “overcome by awe… because [the plummeting girl] is beautiful… a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake”—the direct line drawn in our language between being and awakeness, between consciousness and the making of decisions, that exertion of the body onto the environment such that it does not merely extinguish, passive, into an office building, into anonymous soot but splatters singing onto pavement.
There is a blatant kind of feminism in Moshfegh’s casting of misogynies and degradations suffered at the hands of ‘Tag’s ex-`boyfriend Trevor, in the descriptions of Bushwick “sensitive types” or the pressures towards beauty and fitness as they manifest in Reva’s bulimia and pilates class. But the real sex politics are more ingrained and foundational, relating to how ‘Tag perceives herself in the world and how that self-image as object lends itself to a specific and perhaps primarily female mode of suffering.
Might it be possible that, in an undercurrent of cultural commentary, Moshfegh is in fact arguing against an object ontology (“objecthood culture” is probably more technically accurate here)? Moshfegh told the Atlantic she’d spent “a lot of years” in her twenties in some stage of “bulimic blackout” eating a slice of melon a day for calories. At twenty-five, the same age as ‘Tag, she decided to sober up. (We could see Reva and ‘Tag as a bicameral split, a schizophrenic, nuclear division of their author’s past.)
Then, in her late twenties and sober, Moshfegh applied to Brown’s MFA program. She’s written prolifically since, giving up not just drugs and alcohol but clothing labels and makeup for a more protestant ethic. According to interviews, Helen of Troy — the most successful, desired object in human history — is Moshfegh’s least favorite fictional character. She admits to endless vanity while keeping a sign in her car window to remind her: Vanity is the enemy.^ Fiction as self-help is an established literary tradition by now (Acker, Camus, Krauss, Nelson, Sartre, Wallace…), and shouldn’t count against Moshfegh, but it gives us an idea of where her politics stand. And we might alternatively be suspicious that the fictional inquiry succeeds so cleanly, resolves with tight answers instead of opening up into more contradictions and questions.
Tag’s thought turn again and again to (fictional artist-friend) Ping Xi’s taxidermied animals-as-artworks, and to the fur coats she and Reva wear around the city. How many foxes had to die, I wondered. And how did they kill them so that their blood didn’t stain their fur? When Ping Xi turns his artistic cathexis toward ‘Tag in the novel’s last chapters, it’s no great conceptual leap, a movement from beautiful object to beautiful object. And what is the cost of objecthood? How do you kill them in a way that doesn’t stain their pelts? The freezer, or so she hears from a coworker at the gallery.
Trevor had told me once he thought I was frigid, and that was fine with me. Fine. Let me be a cold bitch. Let me be the ice queen. Someone once said that when you die of hypothermia, you get cold and sleepy, things slow down, and then you just drift away. You don’t feel a thing. That sounded nice. That was the best way to die, awake and dreaming, feeling nothing. [emphasis added]
At low temperatures, or low rates of caloric consumption, metabolic processes slow. In heat, flesh is worn, decays, churns over, is broken down, turned into new life. Away from heat, turnover slows, time stops.
Rest and Relaxation takes up’s alt-lit mantle of unselfconscious self-conscious contemporary lit. Mosfegh at once tosses out literariness and performs the Young-Girl’s analysis detailed transcription of transitory cognitive-affective states. There is nothing in the Young-Girl’s life, even in the deepest zones of intimacy, that escapes alienated reflexivity, that escapes the codifications and the gaze of the Spectacle. Noted Young-Girl Tao Lin comes to mind with his obsessive logging of drug dosages, except less autistic, less male. ‘Tag prefers guestimating: her pill smoothies—measured less precisely than your average amateur cocktail—are mixed at whim, with little regard for duration, on-set, or any other info you’d find on an Erowid chart. “Reading up on a drug sapped its magic,” she tells us. “[I]t made sleep seem trite, just another mechanical function of the body.”
And despite being hailed as “a pioneer of a new genre of slacker fiction,” Rest and Relaxation feels, in sensibility and in scope, more like a late-entry contemporary to the days of HTMLGiant than a successor. Nor is it as interesting, structurally, as many of alt-lit’s entries. Where Boyle, Lin, and co. let their novels loose to devour GChat threads, Skype sessions, and subtweets, Moshfegh’s novel is toothless, tethered, slobbering at the gums—everywhere the novel seeks to devour, and everywhere it is in chains. There’s little reflection, formally, of the present moment except in the unselfconsciousness use of low and non-literary language. The difficulties of distinguishing between the unnecessary conventions of literariness, on one hand, and the necessary dignifications of language, on the other, require at least twenty years of hindsight to properly evaluate. Still, “When I opened the freezer, smoke billowed out. The thick frosted inside was crowded” is probably poor prose.
Even more than most, ‘Tag’s personality is schizophrenic and in flux, not just minute-to-minute but month-to-month. But I can’t help but imagine she’d find writing a cover level either impossible to finish or amusing to fabricate (“As long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to work in a gallery… I’m passionate, hard-working, and a go-getter.”) The difficulty is genuineness, the ease is that of performance. ‘Tag’s like a caricature of late-90’s, Po-Mo ennui: besieged by television, low on meaning, abusing substances left and right. (Think the decade Infinite Jest and OK Computer came out.) Which is just, again, to say that the strangest thing about Rest and Relaxation is how, despite being talked about as so 2018, a kind of post-Bluets fiction so “now” it hurts, the book feels more like a product of the fin du millénaire it’s set in, discursively homeless. Instead of being on the — at least emotional or affective — avant-garde, it comes off as a late-game entry into a style that was, well, not especially impressive to begin with.
(Even the astrology discourse is weirdly, made a mockery of in the Pynchonsque therapist Dr. Tuttle: “I’ve heard from several esteemed colleagues in Brazil that regular Infermiterol use can activate a profound tectonic displacement. Followed up with some filigree work using low doses of aspirin and astral projecting, it’s proven to be quite effective in curing solipsistic terror.” Doesn’t anyone want to tell Moshfegh she’s alienating a her sub-demo of Reines readers?)
fn1: In aristocratic societies, where status is equivalent to itself, the pure object loses even their qualities. The Earl of Wendover, from Barry Lyndon: “My friends are the best people. Oh, I don’t mean that they are most virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but the best. In a word—people about whom there is no question.”
Good artworld jabs: A particularly excoriating portrait of the New Yorker via a diegetic short story in its pages, damning not only because it’s Reva who praises it:
[Reva] pulled the rolled-up issue out of her enormous purse. The story was called “Bad at Math.” It was about an adolescent Chinese American in Cleveland who bombs the PSAT, jumps off his two-story junior high school, and breaks both his legs. After the school guidance counselor pressures the boy’s family into group therapy, his parents tell him they love him in a supermarket parking lot and they all start to cry and wail and fall on their knees, while all the other shoppers wheel their carts past and pretend like nothing amazing is going on. “Listen to this opening,” Reva said. “For the first time, they said the words. I think it pained them more than the cracking of my shins and femurs.”
Bad artworld jabs: Ping Xi, the hot Damien Hirstish artist who works as ‘Tag’s jailer, suggests she rip up her birth certificate and burn her passports while he films it. Low-hanging strawmen.