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The Privilege of Dissociating in My Year of Rest and Relaxation

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Brighton chapter.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows a nameless protagonist on her quest to spend a year in a pharmaceutically induced hibernation in the hopes that it would rebirth her into a brand-new existence. The protagonist has suffered one main criticism and that is, she is wholly unlikeable. An ailment that many female protagonists are accused of having. However, in this case it is quite understandable, although I have to admit I started to grow fond of her.  This could be due to a little nihilistic part of myself that I try to keep at bay. The reason why she got accused of being unlikable was obvious. She was rich and beautiful and wasn’t afraid to remind the reader of this through her narration stating things like “I look like an off-duty model.” She is privileged, selfish and deadpan. Despite there being very little relatable about the unnamed protagonist, I found the book shamefully page turning. I was sucked into the privileged and depressed protagonist’s desire to sleep for a prolonged period of time. Her relentless pursuit to sleep for days, weeks, and months reached out to me from the page and struck one of the deepest parts of myself. The desire in me to dissociate.

Juliane Strätz’s claims that Moshfegh uses sleep in the novel as a reflection of the exhaustion that a modern life of consumption can bring. But also, as a vehicle of resistance in the form dissociation. To quote Jane Austen, “You will allow that in both man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.” Through her protagonist Moshfegh is demonstrating her resistance in the form of a passive body in which she refuses to interact with society until she eventually cuts herself off from the outside world completely. The protagonist is refusing to live her life restrained to her social context in hope that she will eventually awake in a year being re-birthed and consequently escaped her previous constraints of a bullshit job, meaningless friendships and her unavailable boyfriend who has questionable social and sexual morals.  

Although, this form of resistance is not what one immediately associates with when the word is mentioned. It is a self-destructive and passive form of resistance, which seems to be becoming more and more prominent in recent years in both female characters and modern women, although it is definitely not a new phenomenon. This can be summed up in a term coined by Emmeline Clein “Dissociative feminism.” Clein notes that she has noticed that the intelligent women around her are no longer holding up placards at pickets or going on marches dressed as vaginas, but they now snarl in sarcasm and irony about their female struggles. It is an indication that women are beginning to surrender to the patriarchal world in ironic passivity.

A few years after the publishing Moshfegh’s, My Year of Rest and Relaxation the book began to be plastered over the TikTok subculture BookTok and became a trend within in itself, especially in the Sad Girl sphere. Unsurprisingly so because the protagonists narration drips with sad passivity and a dash of sarcasm which fits perfectly into the dissociative sad girl genre, you can read more about this in my previous article here.

It’s popularity polarised readers with some revering it as a hilarious feminist satire and others claiming it to be boring and annoying. I can see the appeal and the disgust. In a world that demands so much from young women, sometimes overwhelmingly so, is it too farfetched to say many of us have often fantasised about curling up in a ball in our rooms, never to emerge again. But also, who wants to listen to a rich girl moaning about how unsatisfying her life is?

The book is in slightly dangerous territory of being part of a trope that has been done far too many times in literature. This is of course, the fetishisation of the beautiful, mentally ill white, rich woman. Some have pointed out that the narrative is at risk of glamourising mental illness and promoting destructive behaviours. Not only that but it is done through a protagonist who is in an extremely privileged position across several social hierarchies. The narrator in the book has the privilege to tranquillise herself into hibernation for a year with the help of her off-key psychiatrist without having to worry about money and she is extremely beautiful. It is highly possible that she could bounce back from this escapade without much detriment to the rest of her survival on planet earth. I then wonder why I was actually drawn to this book. Was it because it was a clever commentary on the ridiculousness of consumer capitalism or was it just because I could live out extreme dissociation through the narrator as I, like most people, do not have the privilege to do so?

Despite, it’s controversy I do think that it is important that writers must have the freedom to tell stories about morally questionable people without being chastised. However, for it being a deliberate or non-deliberate feminist piece I am neither convinced or unconvienced. I don’t think every piece of art needs to be placed into a political box and labelled feminist. One thing that remains clear, the western world just loves a pretty rich mentally ill white girl.

I am an English Language and Creative Writing graduate. I write feminist short fiction and poetry and try to give a voice to marginalised women and use my writing to be an advocate for women's rights. In my spare time you could find me watching Netflix, walking my dog or reading...