"I’m interested in the way a character imagines his or her own reality," Ottessa Moshfegh told the LA Review of Books upon the release of her first collection of stories, "navigates it, gets it wrong, has a new idea, and rebuilds. I find that to be a pretty important experience as a human being. My life has a plot, certainly, but I live an internal life inside my head, and I think that’s probably true for most people, except for shut-down morons hypnotized by TV or sex or whatever. A lot of life doesn’t go anywhere, and what’s interesting is what happens on the inside in that time."
Indeed, the stories in Homesick for Another World are full of characters so internally twisted that their way to feel right in the world is to twist it to match. And her Booker-nominated novel Eileen dwells so fully in the disordered mind of its titular protagonist that a great deal of the palpable tension of the story comes from waiting for Eileen's interior to get loosed into the world.
With her new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh takes her interest in interiority to the next level. Orphaned into financial independence, an unnamed, effortlessly beautiful -- by her own description -- 20-something living in New York on the cusp of 9/11 medicates herself into hibernation. Leaving behind a literal pile of shit as a resignation, she quits her mindless gallery job, files for unemployment, and stocks up on used VHS tapes.
"Soon I was hitting the pills hard and sleeping all day and all night with two- or three-hour breaks in between. This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart--this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then--that when I'd slept enough, I'd be okay. I'd be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation."
And so for a year, assisted by a scrip-happy therapist she found in the phonebook who can never remember that her client's parents are dead, our narrator works to maintain total disassociation, her neurotic friend Reva, ex-boyfriend Trevor, the owners of the never-closed bodega around the corner, and the films of Whoopi Goldberg her only connection to the world. Gradually, though, our narrator finds herself waking up with mysterious club stamps on her hand and shopping bags full of lavish purchases and it would seem that a pesky case of (maybe) drug-induced somnambulance is keeping her from total erasure.
If you're looking for more plot than that, you're looking in the wrong place.
A lot of ink gets spilled over whether or not a protagonist should be likeable or relatable, whether you should seek confirmation with fiction or whether you should look to have your purviews challenged. Moshfegh isn't interested in endearing her characters to you, but rather her goal is immersion. With an easy, barbed sense of humour -- Moshfegh might be one of the low-key funniest writers at work right now -- and some of the best prose around, she traps you with people you might not otherwise choose to spend your time with.
It takes spending a lot of time in someone else's head to realize there's something kind of familiar about the decor in there. What Moshfegh understands better than anyone else right now, though, is that the broad, repugnant, seemingly unrelatable traits of her characters are present in all of us. Her characters are like large, distant asteroids, filthy and sharp pieces of which have chipped off and landed here on earth, become part of our make-up.