It’s the summer of 2018, and America seems sapped of hope. We swap self-care techniques and links to “Abolish ICE” petitions with equal desperation. Sometimes, as Tina Fey suggested on “Saturday Night Live” last summer, the political reality looks so bad that it’s tempting to just skip the protests, hide at home and devour an entire sheet cake.
In her monologue, Fey called this technique “sheetcaking,” a way to keep at bay the rigors of living in hell. The joke, as many critics argued and Fey herself later admitted, was also a manifestation of a certain kind of privilege ― that for many white, well-off liberals, American upheaval is an external disruption that might be upsetting, but can be comfortably ignored.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed narrator takes sheetcaking to the max ― not with sheet cake precisely, but with sleeping pills, with online shopping, with animal crackers and Thai takeout and pizza. She’s a gorgeous 20-something gallery girl in Manhattan whose parents died when she was in college. At the outset of the book, she decides to spend as much time sleeping as possible in hopes of curing her existential angst. She’s been alienated, lonely, unsure why she feels contempt and boredom for things she’s expected to love and enjoy, like her best friend Reva.
At first she just wants drugs to numb her. “Life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me,” she thinks. Soon, she embraces sleep, in hopes of being reborn a new person, someone who feels warmth and hope again. “My hibernation was self-preservational,” she insists. “I thought that it was going to save my life.”
She loses her job, but it doesn’t matter: She has savings, rent from the tenants of her late parents’ home, a high credit limit, her own apartment and nothing to prevent her from spending her nights and days in an Ambien haze. Her accomplice is an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle, a slightly batty woman with a sharp strategic mind when it comes to getting as many downers covered by insurance as possible, but a general fogginess about anything else related to her patient’s mental health.
Moshfegh’s vision of a retreat from the world mimics sheetcaking in another way: It’s all about comfort, not quality. That goes for food ― either a sugary cake, or a steady diet of takeout and cookies ― and for everything else. She sleeps so much, and eats so little, that this fatty diet actually leaves her skinnier, more modelesque, than ever. The narrator eschews art, books and provocative movies. She willfully ignores the news.
Instead, she wears out her VCR watching and rewatching Whoopi Goldberg comedies and Harrison Ford action flicks she already knows by heart. “The stupider the movie, the less my mind had to work,” she notes. Feeling rowdy, sad, cheerful or any other profound emotion yanks her out of her perpetual daze; that would be a problem.
It all sounds painfully familiar. When we’re not wearing ourselves to shreds with political agita, we’re retreating into our mindless distractions of choice: “Real Housewives,” “Fortnite,” Hallmark movies, “SportsCenter,” anything that doesn’t make us feel or think something too exhausting.
“Moshfegh’s book isn’t by any means a response to Tina Fey. But in the fun house mirror she holds up to the self-care fetish of the privileged, the reality of sheetcaking comes into focus: It’s the furthest thing from political.”
But for this woman, politics isn’t the catalyst for her withdrawal. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is set in 2000 and 2001, at the close of the Clinton boom years. The narrator dwells in a cocoon even before her studied retreat from the world; she has a job at a gleaming art gallery, a nice apartment in an impersonal Upper East Side building, expensive gym memberships, nights to spend out clubbing. As she begins her year of sleep, afloat on a sea of Dimetapp, she notes that it’s never been easier for her “to ignore things that didn’t concern me.” “Things were happening in New York City ― they always are,” she writes, “but none of it affected me.”
Moshfegh’s book isn’t by any means a response to Tina Fey. But in the fun house mirror she holds up to the self-care fetish of the privileged, the reality of sheetcaking comes into focus: It’s the furthest thing from political. The tradition it belongs to is not one of social protest, but of consolidated wealth and social status.
And it’s not a quirky new idea ― it’s part of a long tradition. Fittingly, My Year of Rest and Relaxation feels almost out of time, despite its near-contemporary setting. The cover, featuring a 1798 Jacques-Louis David portrait of a languid young woman, evokes the vintage concept of ladylike idleness, as does the genteel-sounding title. “I’m just taking some time off,” the narrator tells Reva early in the book. The framing harks back to a not-so-distant era when ladies of the upper classes did little but dress themselves for meals and complain of their ennui, and when women were frequently prescribed months-long rest cures for psychological disorders like depression.
This kind of feminine privilege was, of course, a gilded prison. Being kept in showy leisure, as accessories to signal a husband’s wealth and status, prevented women from advocating for their own interests or pursuing invigorating work. Those rest cures, as immortalized in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ”The Yellow Wallpaper,” were not always voluntary and could be little more than psychological torture. But compared to other roles available to women, like a lifetime of backbreaking labor interspersed with childbearing, idleness was surely preferable.
In Rest and Relaxation, the narrator’s own mother, a beauty queen who married young after getting pregnant, was also given to long bouts of sleep, while her father, a much older professor, supported the family and a housekeeper took care of the chores. “I could make a case for my mother’s rejection of domesticity as some kind of feminist assertion of her right to leisure,” the narrator muses, “but I actually think that she refused to cook and clean because she felt that doing so would cement her failure as a beauty queen.” Her mom aspired to a certain level of decorative idleness; robbed of being decorative, she clings to the idleness.
Moshfegh certainly doesn’t seem to be making a feminist case for leisure, and neither does her narrator, who is comfortably aware of her own good fortune. (“Compared to me,” she thinks of her best friend, “[Reva] was ‘underprivileged.’”) She doesn’t try to justify her rest as empowering through some out-of-context Audre Lorde quotes. Nor does she wallow in guilt about it, even as Reva snips that she’d love to take time off to “loaf around, watch movies, and snooze all day... I just don’t have that luxury.”
Alienated characters populate all of Moshfegh’s stories ― the thwarted drudge in Eileen, the cynical misfits of Homesick for Another World. This languidly lovely, monied heroine is unusual for her, though her humorously flat cruelty is familiar.
Reva, a college pal the narrator still sees out of habit but views with unadulterated disdain, is a classic Moshfegh character: despicably basic, suspiciously emotional, grotesquely normal. Reva is a striver, who “came from Long Island, was an 8 out of 10 but called herself ‘a New York three,’ and had majored in economics.” The narrator recoils from her friend’s class anxiety and quest for status, and from her messy grief over her mother, who is dying of cancer. She sniffs at the thought of Reva ending each night “probably drunk and full of Aspartame and Pepcid. In the mornings, she prepped and set out into the world, a mask of composure. And I had problems?”
Reva, by any definition, is just getting by; the narrator is rebirthing herself, or so she imagines.
As self-destructive and semi-suicidal as the narrator sounds, one expects that My Year of Rest and Relaxation will evolve into a cautionary tale of addiction and idle hands making the devil’s work. Instead, her self-medication ― which she herself treated with veiled suspicion ― turns out to be effective.
It’s seductive. While her pharmaceutical-fueled hibernation hardly seems safe or healthy (her own mother died after mixing pills with alcohol), disconnecting from work, the news and social obligations while indulging in lots of sleep seems like a great recipe for de-stressing. As I read, I struggled with spasms of bitterness. Taking a year off to sleep and slough my mind of all baggage sounded glorious: to give my mind and body exactly what they ask for, with no shame or fear, and to let them heal themselves.
That kind of vacation from stress and stimulation is available, even in fiction, only to a rarified handful. If the narrator’s self-treatment works, so what? It’s like learning a cure for cancer has been discovered and it costs $50 million. To the average patient, it’s hardly a relief to know that the cure is out there when they have no hope of accessing it.
But My Year of Rest and Relaxation isn’t, at any rate, a prescription: It’s an eerie exploration of how class dictates the degree to which we can care for ourselves, and the degree to which we must ceaselessly engage with a world that batters our souls.