BOOK REVIEW: A Year Of Dissociation And Detachment

BOOK REVIEW: A Year Of Dissociation And Detachment
Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Novel. Penguin, 2019, New York.

When I read Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” for the first time, I was livid and taken aback; how could anyone like reading about the trivial life of a white, privileged woman living on the Upper East Side who puts herself through the ordeal of a medically induced sleep for four months so she can ‘revive’ herself and wake up as another person? Especially when her ordeal is constantly shrouded by her zeroing in on her physical appeal. She is an unlikeable person, and I felt absolutely no pity for her. In fact, I felt more inclined to like the co-protagonist, Reva.

Her consistent need to indulge in the system; despite it being the very thing that impairs her and drives her towards self-destruction is one that I found touching. Her thinly veiled attempts at being a part of it through her barrage of self-help books, pop fiction and the need to be conventionally attractive all made me relate to her. Why wasn’t she the narrator of this story? To sum up how much I hated it, my first review stated:

​​This is a recollection of a damaged, rich, white woman who is vindictive and blinded by her internalized misery, says hurtful stuff and does the worst possible to the people who care for her. I hated the idea of this New York City white, Anglo Saxon protestant (WASP) moping about in her fancy apartment and being so incredibly dramatic.

The next time I read the book, I was less bitter. I came to terms with the fact that the narrator was supposed to be unlikeable, her tragedy was one aggravated by the society she was a part of, filled with influences that rendered any desire to work on herself futile. It was supposed to annoy the reader, and the last read which had made me so angry that I had ended up hurling the book at a wall made more sense– what’s good literature if not a piece that evokes emotion in you, no matter how bitter and how confusing? Ottessa Moshfegh had completely disarmed me with her work– she writes in a way that makes you emotionally uncomfortable and explores the nuances of your own little bubble of comfort. If this book made you feel uncomfortable, it had done its deal. At times, it felt a little desperate to achieve its smack-in-the-face effect of grotesque, but that was my only criticism.

Only when I read it for the third time did I realize the psychological horror and significance of how disabilities that do not appear on the surface, such as the narrator’s depression, act as a crux for the story-telling and the constantly morphing yet still bland and harrowing reality of the world she lived in aggravated her condition. To explore the narrative prosthesis of this story and why the narrator suffers as she does Under neoliberalism, the pursuit of profit and economic growth has become paramount, leading to a relentless drive for increased consumption and production; the ascent of the neoliberalism system has led to discomfort and unease– there is a sense of vapidity attached to the hyper-consumerism of the current age.

The narrator is thus a rebel in her own way – through her experiment to put herself to sleep, and her increasing dependence on sleeping aids with the help of Doctor Tuttle, she rejects the dystopia presented to her in society and prefers escape and nostalgia.

To explore the malady of the narrator in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’, we must first explore the society that aids in her condition. Esperanza Gonalez Moreno in research titled “Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in A World With No Rest Nor Relaxation” discusses the dystopian reality presented to us in the pre-9/11 landscape in America, in light of French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy.

We see her be devoid of any enrichment in a society that values productivity above all – you are a mere addition to the capital and devoid of personhood unless you give more than you take. She lives in a society that has completely purged the signs of violence, death and imperfection to simulate a reality (albeit frail) that is perfect. Mass media, television, and social media, all add to this alternate reality that we prefer to seek instead of the depleting happiness of the late-stage capitalism that tells us individual is all and if you as an individual do not add anything of value to society, you do not matter. You must conform to the standards, and these standards are so gnawing that they start affecting the privileged too. They then seek refuge in virtual reality, away from the grasp of the hellscape where every little detail of their personhood will be nitpicked.

The narrator is thus a rebel in her own way – through her experiment to put herself to sleep, and her increasing dependence on sleeping aids with the help of Doctor Tuttle, she rejects the dystopia presented to her in society and prefers escape and nostalgia. The lines between what is simulated through media and people versus what is real are so blurred for her that she desperately grasps at straws to get out of this hyperreality. There is an influx of information– one that the narrator deliberately avoids. “Things were happening in New York City– they always are– but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep– reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn't concern me,” she says at one point in the story. She placates herself by avoiding anything other than headlines. However, another one of her hindrances is having the beauty that society aims for, yet her mind is a void that lacks the beauty she externalizes. “I looked like a model, had money I hadn't earned, wore real designer clothing, had majored in art history, so I was "cultured,” she explains to the reader while pulling parallels with her friend, Reva. “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else,” she claims.

If we are to talk of Reva, she continues to focus on the narrator’s physical appeal rather than her close friend’s mental collapse– she at one point compares her with Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, but circles back to how despite having similar mental struggles, they are both blonde and attractive. Reva, despite struggling with an eating disorder and regularly indulging in shoplifting to allow her to wear the brands that she desires, still chooses to embed herself in the very society that she scorns. It makes her at some point, someone who is angry and envious, but desperate for validation. Her genuine interest in pop culture, new movies, clubbing, her alcoholism and her diets are all regurgitated ideals by the simulation that she is too deeply steeped in.

Dr. Tuttle, the blasé psychiatrist that the narrator visits, on the other hand, is just as steeped in the biomedical discourse of neoliberal hyperreality. “A lot of psychic diseases get passed around in confined public spaces. I sense your mind is too porous,” she comments. What goes ignored is that it is not only personalized issues that aggravate the human condition, but also the very society that we are a part of; hungry, ever-ready to consume us to the marrow. The narrator’s invisible disability is one that allows her to detach from the society she is a part of and wallow in nostalgia.

Perhaps the only reason Reva and the narrator stay tied together is their joint misery, granted to them by their times– only they manage to deal with it in different ways. Reva is forever embroiled in trying to conform and the narrator does everything in her power to ‘awaken’ and find her truth. Yet what she fails to see is that she has not escaped, since the deepest and darkest truth of the capitalistic world is penetrating the unconscious; it is why she often wakes up from her sleep to find herself having indulged in shopping or spa appointments

To awaken from the nightmare that is ingrained in our society, shaping our values, aspirations and even personal identities, there is a need for collective realization. For our true well-being and fulfilment, we must understand that meaning cannot be derived from material possessions or endless economic growth. There has to be a cultural shift, that focuses on educating people that it is not only financial pursuits that make one worthy of life, but experiences, relationships, personal growth and well-being over excessive consumption. For a collective shift in consciousness, we also need better media literacy and critical thinking which has dwindled in the age of bite-sized media. By understanding psychological tactics employed by marketing teams, people can break free from the cycle. The promotion of local and cooperative economies, prioritizing ethical and environmentally responsible production and consumption, and supporting businesses that prioritize social and environmental well-being alongside profitability are extremely important. Responsible social equity and responsible corporate behavior rather than the constant race for monetary gain are crucial for this— we must dismantle the very structures that promote this. Not only that, individual retrospection away from virtual reality is key. Finding your own motivations, and practicing gratitude and mindfulness can help detach from the constant desire for capital.

Reva’s struggle is best summed by Moreno, when she pulls a parallel with Baudrillard who explains that, “[t]he more we seek to rediscover the real and the referential, the more we sink into the simulation, in this case, a shameful and, at any event, hopeless simulation attempt of escaping the system through the resurrection of reality” (The Illusion of the End).

Thus, the very short and drastic end to the narrator’s self-imposed hibernation and Reva’s desperation to fit into the system is jarring – it is a deconstruction of the limitless

In the Global North, capitalist societies have thrived through the exploitation of resources from the Global South, leading to environmental degradation and economic dependency. Additionally, the production of consumer goods is often outsourced to countries in the Global South, where labor costs are lower, exacerbating exploitation and income inequality.

While the Global North has benefited from the accumulation of wealth and economic growth, the Global South has experienced the adverse effects of this global capitalist system. Countries in the Global South often face challenges such as resource depletion, environmental degradation, and socio-economic disparities. They also struggle with debt burdens imposed by international financial institutions, which hinders their development and perpetuates cycles of poverty.

In the Global North, economic downturns may lead to job losses, reduced consumer spending, and financial instability. However, social safety nets, infrastructure, and access to resources are often better equipped to handle these disruptions. In contrast, the Global South may experience even more severe consequences, as they often lack the necessary infrastructure, social safety nets, and economic diversification. Economic downturns can exacerbate poverty, deepen existing inequalities, and hinder access to basic services like healthcare and education.

Recognizing this parallel can prompt a collective reevaluation of the global economic order, promoting more equitable and sustainable models that prioritize social well-being, environmental preservation, and inclusive growth. It highlights the need for global solidarity and cooperation to address the systemic issues that have perpetuated disparities between the Global North and South, aiming for a more balanced and just global economic landscape.

In this context, the novel "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh offers a satirical critique of hyper-consumerist culture in the Global North and its impact on individual well-being. The novel can be seen as a reflection of the alienation and disconnection experienced by individuals within a hyper-consumerist society. The protagonist's desperate attempt to numb herself from the pressures and expectations of a materialistic world serves as a metaphor for the larger social malaise that can be observed on a global scale.

Ottessa Moshfegh's work as a whole often delves into themes of alienation, identity, and the dark undercurrents of contemporary society. Her characters often grapple with existential questions and navigate the complexities of a world dominated by consumerism, technology, and social pressures.

We want an escape from the harrowing reality that we are a part of; we keep seeing the collapse of modern-day society and its frail attempts to resurrect a glorious past from the flames. With the only power we have as cogs in the belly of a machine, we further find escape in virtual realities– social media, virtual experiences, and media representations.

What I assumed to be a mere tongue-in-cheek commentary of white, privileged America and its search for truth turned out to be a scathing commentary on the current age of capitalism; she critiques the emptiness and alienation that can arise from an overemphasis on individual success and the commodification of happiness and fulfilment. The protagonist's desire to disengage from society and her privileged life reflects a sense of alienation and disillusionment with the promises of individual success and material accumulation under neoliberalism. This presented to me Moshfegh’s art of story-telling in a completely new light and brought forward the more grotesque notions she presented in her work in a clearer, more vivid light.

Another piece of media that I found to have parallels with “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is the TV show “Severance”, that aired in 2022 on Apple TV+. They both explore the idea of deviating from reality and entering into a simulated version of it– and the feelings of detachment and alienation that accompany that. This exploration involves a critique of the societal structures and the struggle to find personal identity and fulfilment within them. They both shed light on the emptiness and shallowness of contemporary life, questioning the value systems and social constructs that shape our existence. Combine that with a scathing critique of biomedical inclinations in the current era and how morbid they have made the act of existing; you have two works that successfully question the notion of the neoliberal reality we are a part of.

In the introspection, I have gained while not reading this once, but thrice, I have realized how stark alienation is in the current era – we want an escape from the harrowing reality that we are a part of; we keep seeing the collapse of modern-day society and its frail attempts to resurrect a glorious past from the flames. With the only power we have as cogs in the belly of a machine, we further find escape in virtual realities– social media, virtual experiences, and media representations. We force ourselves to turn away from the horrors and indulge in this almost forced creativity and playfulness as an escape. Also, it aids in us not becoming non-functional cogs in the system. Consumption of consumer goods now equals an individual’s value, and also their social interactions. The postmodern world is distressing, and perhaps only when you dip your toes into the horrors may you realize why Moshfegh’s work instils such a deep paranoia in us.

Sara Javed Rathore is an author and poet from Lahore. Her first collection of poetry, 'Meraki', won the Daud Kamal Presidential Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2020. She has also published another collection of poetry titled ‘Obituaries for the Dead and the Undead.’