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Women vs The Void: a review of ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

TW: mentions of sexual harassment, murder, addiction, eating disorders, ableism, suicide, anti-Asian racism, anti-Black racism and antisemitism

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of those books where not much really happens. Instead what you get is a prolonged glance at the tediously mundane from the inside of a highly problematic woman’s troubled psyche. This is being referred to as the ‘Women vs The Void’ trope in contemporary literature. Essentially: women whose grasp on sanity loosens due to the pressures of mere existence, causing them to let go and entertain the most feral of impulses. Often they are selfish, occasionally they are murderous, and certainly they are rude. Other titles frequently placed in this category are: Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, Raven Leilani’s Luster, Mona Awad’s Bunny, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Chelsea G. Summers’s A Certain Hunger, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Halle Butler’s The New Me, and perhaps the OG – Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

The most defining traits of these female main characters is their dry, dark sense of humour, which manages to shine through despite their immense unlikability. If I had to wager a guess as to why we’re seeing such a boom of books about this kind of woman, I’d say it’s because many female readers believe there is something intrinsically relatable about them. They symbolise the desires of the ID, acting out the primal impulses women in society collectively repress. Have you ever been sexually harassed on the street? Instead of smiling and nodding along which, in reality, is usually the safest option, in the world of Women vs The Void literature, you are permitted to get on all fours and bark back at your male cat callers or, if you prefer, simply stab them and then go home to a relaxing bubble bath like nothing happened. The unhinged misandry of these novels is indeed somewhat satisfying.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist (if I can even call her a ‘protagonist’) is not violent like some of her counterparts. Nevertheless, this book is perhaps the book you think of when you picture this female character. Disgusted with the state of the world and orphaned by her final year of college, the unnamed narrator decides to spend the next year asleep, and recruits the help of an irresponsible and inattentive psychiatrist who prescribes her a careless medley of drugs to aid her alleged anxiety and insomnia. The narrator is an art history major who comes from an unloving WASP family, and she is only in the position to quit her art gallery job and spend the year partially comatose because of her vast inheritance. Her best friend Reva is a superficial social climber with a severe eating disorder who disapproves of, yet for the most part ignores, the narrator’s sudden desire for hibernation. The narrator spends most of the time being critical of Reva and wishing to be out of her company. The narrator’s closest thing to a lover is her older ex-boyfriend Trevor, a banker who uses her for sex in between failed relationships with women his own age. The narrator appeals to his misogynistic ego by pleading and feigning illness, instability and weakness to entice him back into her bed.

The narrator is so lost in her own depression that she has become incredibly cynical. She relays the most callous of lines in such a dry, unfeeling way, which is where much of the novel’s humour arises. The only time her humanity peaks through is during hazy black-out moments induced by the strong concoction of drugs, which, at one point, lead her to attend Reva’s mother’s funeral – an occasion she had been soberly adamant to avoid.

I fear that many readers resonate with the narrator because they (rather narrowly) view her as an example of a woman so jaded she has become unbothered by society’s expectation of tiresome female niceties. However, my issue with this take is that it seems to suggest that the default state of women would be this narrator; that if every woman were to just let go, we might become just as unfiltered as she is. This becomes an issue when you consider the author’s problematic use of marginalised groups, whose offensive, racist or ableist descriptions are sprinkled throughout the text as a way to further the narrator’s deep sense of cynicism. To list just a few examples:

  • The narrator only ever refers to the owners of her local bodega as “The Egyptians” in a way that seems to ‘Other’ them

  • When describing her immediate neighbourhood she says that “the only other slovenly people around here were elderly Jews with rent-controlled apartments”.

  • The narrator uses the r-word slur multiple times to describe an autistic child.

  • Her main Asian character is an artist who kills dogs as part of his work and this conjures up a harmful stereotype. Likewise, on another occasion, she highlights his “small, dark eyes” in a disdainful tone.

  • Whilst on the phone to Trevor, the narrator lies and tells him she’s contracted HIV and that she “probably got it from one of the black guys at the gym”.

  • The narrator has an odd obsession with Whoopi Goldberg which is included for comic relief but instead comes across as a strange fetish designed to add a sense of texture to an otherwise bland character.

Given this character’s immensely privileged background, I wouldn’t have necessarily expected her to be culturally sensitive or particularly compassionate, however, that doesn’t mean I felt any less alienated reading it. When (typically white) online reviewers focus only on the emancipatory nature of ‘feminine rage’ in this novel and the narrator’s ‘fun’ sense of inhibition, they seem to adopt a one-note conception of empowerment which requires a shelving of social and racial awareness. While I understand that the objective of this novel was not to produce a likeable character, I fear I found her so unlikeable that I was unable to enjoy reading from her perspective.

If I thought this novel was intriguing it was only because I enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure it out. For example, it does a good job at satirising some aspects of American life. The kooky psychiatrist who prescribes an endless list of hardcore pills while flippantly listing their horrendous side effects is an outrageous yet not inaccurate depiction of often dismissive mental health systems. Likewise, the narrator spends a lot of time criticising the New York art world for being pretentious and churning out obscene pieces disguised as shallow social commentaries for the sake of generating debate and reeling in profit. In this way, perhaps the book itself could be seen as an exemplary product of the art world it spends so much time mocking. Indeed, it is a shocking, experimental novel form that even tacks on a brief mention of 9/11 at the end just to give it a sense of cultural relevance, and it has managed to attract a significant amount of online attention. I do wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to be meta and self-conscious, or if it was purely incidental.

However, other attempts at satire fail in this novel. For instance, many defend My Year of Rest and Relaxation and its negative descriptions of marginalised groups by arguing that the narrator is meant to be a satirical portrayal of the privileged white woman. However, there is a way to execute this critically and sensitively without perpetuating stereotypes or using degrading language. Furthermore, it is evident from the book’s online reception that, instead of being made uncomfortable by the narrator, a white readership largely romanticises her. If the aim of satire is to inspire self-reflection in those being satirised, then this novel does not achieve that goal.

All in all, as far as Women vs The Void books go: is this one well-written? Yes. Is it memorable? For sure. Did I enjoy reading it? Absolutely not. For me, the hurtful treatment of marginalised communities is too glaring to ignore.

Author: Ottessa Moshfegh

Published: 02/05/2019

Publisher: Vintage, PRH

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