A Novel About Sleeping Through the ’90s, Designed to Wake You Up
By moving it into the pre-9/11 era, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” skewers the privileged liberal fantasy of checking out
The plot goes something like this: a twenty-something WASP who, in her own words, is “hot shit,” lives in her own apartment on the Upper East Side in the year 2000. An orphan, she enjoys fabulous wealth and doesn’t feel the need to work. As the poster child of consumer desire, a walking advertisement, the girl’s supposed to have it all—but what do you know, she feels empty inside, hates the world. Armed with a barrage of drugs—all happily prescribed by possibly the worst therapist in literature—she sleeps the year away, hoping that by the time she wakes up, she’ll be renewed from the inside out. She turns to stronger meds, cleans her apartment of mostly everything but a mattress, and, after successfully sleeping for several months, “came to in a cross-legged seated position on the living room floor […] I was alive.” Informed by this new philosophy of absolute detachment, she records the Twin Towers attack as it happens, to be watched whenever she feels bored or sad.
At first, you’d think that it would be impossible to read this tar-thick postmodern irony as anything other than an incisive, cynical commentary on the capitalist alienation of the pre-9/11 era. If this were the case, though, the novel would just be a ‘90s throwback, another retrospection. I’d like to think that’s not the case. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation examines the late 1990s in all its late-capitalist munificence, for sure, but it also prods, questions and ultimately uses the tropes of the literary movement of its time (post-postmodernism, headed by one of the age’s titans, David Foster Wallace) in order to infuse the novel with pathetic sincerity, or “New Sincerity,” as the movement would have it. New Sincerity prevents us from dismissing or mocking the narrator outright. She earns our pity; in her flaws we see a portrait of a city, of a culture that didn’t end with 9/11. In fact, I think the book’s a double novel, a comment and analysis of both the late ‘90s and of 2016–2018—the same way Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America functions as a critique of the Bush administration through its portrayal of Charles Lindbergh, the way Arthur Miller’s The Crucible criticizes McCarthyism through the portrayal of the witch trials. Moshfegh uses the late ‘90s to look at the evolution of late capitalism; her characters hold up disturbing mirrors in which we see ourselves only too clearly in 2018.
The period known in scholarly circles as the “long 1990s”—between 1989 and September 2001— was an interregnum between the Cold War and the age of terror, a “life between two deaths,” according to literature professor Philip Wegner. It was a decade deeply concerned with its own historicity, with the question of “how did we get here,” as evidenced by the amount of excellent historical fiction published in 1997 alone—Mason & Dixon (Pynchon), American Pastoral (Roth), Paradise (Morrison), Underworld (DeLillo). It was also a period known for its ahistoricity, an absence of political consciousness particularly evident in popular culture: think of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” or the easy, apolitical drift of life in FRIENDS and Sex & the City. There is a reason why we return to these series in endless reruns, particularly now—ahistoricity is comfort food. No one is murdered. No one is forcibly separated from their child and placed in a concentration camp.
The ahistoricity of the ‘90s famously finds its symbol in the (white) slacker—think of The Dude in The Big Lebowski, for instance. Moshfegh’s narrator, appropriately, is a blasé slacker too: “The only news I could read were the sensational headlines on the local daily papers at the bodega. I’d quickly glance at them as I paid for my coffees. Bush versus Gore for president […] 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.” It is easy to be ahistorical, after all, when one is white, able-bodied, rich and privileged.
Divorced from historical or present context, sick of the world, she decides to actively remove herself from it by sleeping. Crucially, I believe, she sleeps because she feels she has no agency, no power to cause any kind of change, since everything is determined by the market. She’s a reflection of her period’s concerns: the ‘90s, after all, famously questioned whether we have any agency and power left. There was even a consensus that the long ‘90s marked “the end of history,” after an infamous 1989 essay by the same name by Francis Fukuyama. He subscribed to the Hegelian view of history, whereby history is created through the struggle of contradictory forces. Fukuyama claimed neoliberalism and democracy had wiped out fascism and communism. With no opposing forces, therefore, capitalism had seized the day…forever. Fukuyama’s a right-wing pundit, but the late capitalist idea that ‘no change is possible’ was also advanced by Marxist political theorist and literary critic Fredric Jameson: In “Five Theses On Actually Existing Marxism,” he writes that “there can have been few moments of modern social history in which people in general have felt more powerless.” We aren’t presented with any choice in how we live: we’re forced into neoliberalism, presented as the greatest solution. The left and right agree: The culture dictates that there is no longer any way to move forward.
Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator is deeply unhappy with this. An art student, she loses all hope from the start that art has any possibility of redeeming a world controlled by the market. She gets into Columbia by writing a “mediocre” essay on Anton Kirschler, an artist concerned with “a humanistic approach to art facing the rise of technology.” The artist is a figment of her imagination. She can’t create art, because she “has no talent,” but what kills her is that, in this day and age—as her friend Reva tells her—talent isn’t necessary. She works in a gallery, Ducat (get it?), where art is no longer art, it’s entertainment: “the art […] was supposed to be subversive, irreverent, shocking, but all was just canned counterculture crap, ‘punk, but with money.” the art world “had turned out to be like the stock market, a reflection of political trends and the persuasions of capitalism, fueled by greed and gossip and cocaine. I might as well have worked on Wall Street.” Natasha, Ducat’s director, tells the narrator that “the market is moving away from emotion. Now it’s all about process and ideas and branding.” Her star artist, Ping Xi, likes making art out of his semen and crayons. He titles his works “Decapitated Palestinian Child” and “Bombs Away, Nairobi.” He kills dogs in an industrial freezer so he can use them as objets d’art.
Literature isn’t redeemable, either: she seethes at the “hipster nerds […] reading Nietzsche in the subway, reading Proust, reading David Foster Wallace, jotting down their brilliant thoughts into a black Moleskine pocket notebook […] The worst was that those guys tried to pass off their insecurity as ‘sensitivity,’ and it worked.” Irony and sincerity are just a brand, an aesthetic. She prefers her kind-of boyfriend, Trevor, for his crude tastes and abuse, because at least he’s an honest douche with “the sincere arrogance to back up his bravado.”
So if everything is meaningless, and art has been taken over by Wall Street, and linguistic expression itself is hypocritical—a posture of cynicism, or a posture of sincerity—what is left? It’s a question that strikes a metatextual chord, too—how exactly is Moshfegh going to tell this story of late capitalism without it seeming trite, without it being another example of Neiman-Marcus Nihilism? Will she resort to pure irony? And if that’s the case, why on earth is this story so moving, for all its incredulity? (Moshfegh really does excel at crafting deeply unlikable narrators).
In the ‘90s, “New Sincerity” was touted as the literary movement that had replaced postmodernism’s ironic ennui. To quote the already-overquoted 1993 E Unibus Pluram essay, by Wallace:
The next literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.
New Sincerity didn’t involve writing from an elevated moral high-ground, though, like a supremely sincere being shaking its head at the mess of the masses. In his essay David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity, Dr. Adam Kelly explains the technique as follows: “[Wallace] agreed that the effect advertising had of highlighting the complexity and impurity of all discourse could only be responded to by acknowledging one’s own implication within this ‘system of general writing.’ One must begin by recognizing the lack of any transcendent, absolute, Archimedean point from which to judge the authentic from the inauthentic, the sincere from the manipulative, truth from ideology, and so on.” So you’d need a narrator enmeshed in the system, who recognizes it a little for what it is but who tries to keep some sort of value system alive in the face of it all. Enter our protagonist: an ironic narrator who believes she’s “awake” and sneers at the fake Manhattan life everyone else strives for, but is also a victim of late capitalism’s insidious reach (who knew!)
In brief: if irony tells the reader I know you know, New Sincerity says I know you know I know, but this girl really doesn’t know, and isn’t that kind of sad?
New Sincerity as a literary movement was a hallmark of the 1990s. It’s pretty meta that Moshfegh writes about the ‘90s while adopting its literary mood, even cleverer that she uses New Sincerity to create a double novel by using one of the movement’s crucial techniques: addressing the reader. Here’s Dr. Kelly again: “In Wallace’s terms, the greatest terror, but also the only true relief, is the passive decision to relinquish the self to the judgment of the other, and the fiction of the New Sincerity is thus structured and informed by this dialogic appeal to the reader’s attestation and judgment.” It’s why, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace uses “you,” involving the reader. Moshfegh doesn’t have to use “you” to obtain the same thing: by placing the reader as quasi-therapist, stuck reading the narrator’s diary-narrative for over three hundred pages, you’re involved, you know what’s up, recognize that she’s trapped in neoliberal binds and confines that are multitudinous and exhausting. You are forced into this therapist position, because the unnamed narrator is, you guessed it, unreliable—she’ll tell you one thing whilst awake, then does the opposite when unconscious. She rambles and tries to explain herself, but you know she’s just going round in an endless solipsistic whirlpool with no closure. Your judgements, frustrations and pathos inform the way Moshfegh presents the late ‘90s. You are an important part of the tale as it is told.
You pity her traumatic, schizoid condition: her posture of fighting late capitalism through alienation, and her desire, Forsterian as it is, to “only connect.” At her conscious mind’s meticulous planning that unravels while asleep, because of course she wants to shop (neoliberalism has thoroughly structured her mind), to party, “pushing towards the ecstasy of the dream of tomorrow,” to loveshe writes love letters to Trevor, who, when she told him she loved him pre-hibernation, replied “how is that relevant?” She was pretty much doomed from the start, Moshfegh suggests, since her parents were spectral figures of ‘80s glamour capitalism, providing nothing but money. Her father “was a kind of nonentity,” her mother a monster who gave her valium as a baby so she wouldn’t cry. When her parents die, she isn’t left with a house full of memories; she is left with the husks of memory-less objects. She sobs “over piles of my mother’s unopened packages of pantyhose. I cried over my father’s deathbed pajamas.”
Sleep is her only authentic agency in a time where she can’t escape consumer culture, even in language. She grinds at how Reva’s speech “sounded as though she were reading a bad made-for-TV movie script.” That Reva’s clichés carry “real” meaning made trite is anathema to her: “Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision […] turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away.” She mocks Reva, but doesn’t realize that her own language is forged from advertising, media, and film and their clichés. “I looked like Amber Valletta,” “Natasha had cast me as the jaded underling,” “I should have felt something – a pang of sadness, a twinge of nostalgia […] 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” (italics for emphasis).
She’s victim of a culture that bombards her with the message that she is in control, as long as she buys the necessary products, looks a certain way. In one of the most poignant moments of the novel, she doesn’t realise that this agency is a false god: when the narrator is molested by one of her father’s colleagues, she believes she was “letting [him] kiss me” and is confused as to why, since after all, as the epitome of desire, she must be responsible.
As an antidote to this life the narrator nurtures a (misguided) “Passion for the Real”—a key feature of the twentieth century, which the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains as “the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality—the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” It’s not like the 1990s weren’t aware of its ahistorical, hyper materialist bubble: look at the movies produced in that time—The Truman Show, Fight Club, The Matrix, all concerned with “unveiling.” Her passion for the Real is what makes her stuff her own poop in Ping Xi’s dead dogs exhibit. While unconscious, it leads her to send strangers “snapshots of my asshole, my nipple, the inside of my mouth.”
Fully conscious, after her months spent in deep sleep, the passion is what leads her to record the Twin Tower attacks as they happen, to “soothe” herself, to be “overcome by awe […] There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.” The attack is the ultimate kick of the Real that she’s been searching for all along, one she couldn’t find in films, and so she fetishizes the event, the one definite moment of Meaning that she’s found in an empty world. Here’s Žižek again: “Does the same not hold, on a different level, for today’s fundamentalist terror? Is not its goal also to awaken us, Western citizens, from our numbness, from immersion in our everyday ideological universe? […] the fundamental paradox of the ‘passion for the Real’: it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle.” A spectacle that seemed to come straight out of a movie screen.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attack there were talks of a wake-up call, of making more time for nurturing relationships and so forth. Meanwhile, people on the other side of the world were getting killed from screens, for the sake of an ambiguously named “War on Terror,” for a reason—Weapons of Mass Destruction—that turned out to be spurious. Seventeen years later, a man who existed almost purely on the screen has been elected president. Violence—terrorist and otherwise—broadcast through screens is almost routine. We were naïve to believe that some kind of fundamental rupture happened in 2001. Disturbing as it is, the final page of My Year of Rest and Relaxation mocks the idea, touted at the time and still upheld by some, that the ‘90s in all its frivolity imploded the day of the attack. The ending suggests that the attacks were just a violent continuation of our spectacle-obsessed culture. The rest of the book makes clear that this culture continues into today. We recognize these late-’90s capitalist evils as our own.
It is impossible (to me, anyway) to read about Trevor without thinking of Donald Trump. The fact that the narrator prefers his “honesty” to the poseur-like quality of “intellectual” men, though Trevor himself is built out of artifice, smacks of the president and his (dubiously financed) campaign of “real” values and “honest” patriotism, his attack of “liberal élites” issued from the hard-working, struggling position of a daddy’s-boy billionaire. Trevor’s apartment could be a parody of Trump’s Versailles-inspired condo: “It reminded me of the loft Tom Hanks rents in Big […] the wall above his bed was decorated with horrifying African masks. He collected antique swords.” Like Trump, Trevor collects objects devoid of history, rendered as pure, empty aesthetic.
There’s another reason why New Sincerity, not irony, is the chosen mode. There’s a danger to irony, one that none other than Nietzsche recognized in his Untimely Meditations (I discovered this not by reading Nietzsche but through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which should be required reading in my opinion, but I digress). In an age oversaturated with history, he notes, the age in question may be led into adopting “a dangerous mood of irony in regard to itself, and subsequently into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism,” where “cosmopolitan fingering,” a detached spectatorialism, replaces engagement and involvement—you point to an advert and mock it, but you keep buying the product advertised, because nothing matters. (In the ‘90s, irony was used in advertising to great effect, so it became practically useless as a tool for deconstructing/mocking consumer culture).
New sincerity was supposed to make you feel something; it carried the ethos that some parts of life were still worth it. To quote Wallace (again, I know): “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Of course that’s not Moshfegh’s style: rather, you’re motivated to apply CPR to the world as the reader because you’re so utterly infuriated by the narrator from start to finish, but also – crucially – because she uncomfortably reflects a fantasy we all have at the moment: to switch off the TV, stop reading the news and devote our time to cat videos instead, hibernate in the warmth and comfort of our beds until the inferno that is the Trump administration ceases to exist. We all want a year—maybe many years—of rest and relaxation. Respite from anxiety that rattles us almost hourly, the push notifications informing us of concentration camps, genocide, the frenzied erosion of human rights, police brutality, hate crime, murder. It’s comforting, in a way, to read a novel that indulges in such a fantasy at a time when retiring from the world was sort of acceptable, when neoliberalism—not fascism—was the menace of the day. Yet the epochal context of our reading can’t be escaped. You cannot separate the act of reading the novel in 2018 from the narrative that unfolds in 2000. Moshfegh has established the parallels between both periods so well, the connective tissue that sees one epoch emerge monstrously from the other.
The novel was written around 2016–2018; its effect has been precisely calculated. This could have been the story of a Croatian-Iranian girl living in Manhattan, with all its attendant problems. This could also be a book, like Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter, that shows white female protagonists taking a stand against oppression, racism and violence in their own, small ways. But it’s no such novel. It’s the story of a woman giving in to the temptation to hide, a novel of alienation in a time when isolating yourself just isn’t possible if you’re able-bodied, mentally healthy, and able to protest—and alienation is certainly immoral if you’re white and privileged. Reading the book is like seeing a frail, misguided, naive version of yourself but only to an extent. You can’t identify with her completely because you pity her and, to a degree, she disgusts you, because she represents an opt-out version of life that the rest of us can’t afford, ethically and financially speaking. It’s the rage you feel reading stories of millionaires camping out into the woods to get away from the news. “You poor thing,” you sneer.
While you’re reading, you want to tell the narrator that for god’s sake, she could always volunteer at an NGO or something. You’d tell her—and of course, you’d be talking to yourself—that the solution isn’t to alienate yourself in your fricking apartment. There’s a whole world out there where you can help make a small difference. You want to tell her that meaning can be found outside of yourself. You want to tell her that sleep isn’t resistance. There is agency left. There was agency then. You question whether everything was really gilded perfection; this would have been a radically different narrative if it were written by a person of color suffering from Clinton’s war on drugs and the administration’s policies of mass incarceration. A different story, if it charted the way black communities struggled with severe unemployment due to globalization. A whole other novel, if it showed her on the streets, protesting. Your disgust for her motivates you to do better.
The narrator can’t reach out beyond the text, not even to address the reader with a “you,” and you obviously can’t shake her from within it. You’re left with yourself, your outrage, your pity. You refuse to sleep.