Stories have always been special to me. They are more than words written on a page and chapters in a book. Stories have always affected my own thoughts and feelings to the point where I cannot count the hours I haven’t slept because I cannot shake them out of my head. The most recent connection with a story came after I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. The novel follows a young, nameless narrator who decides to sleep for an entire year in hopes of finding clarity and hope in a society she detests. The first thing she figures out is that a countless amount of psychotropic drugs makes her plan much easier.
To give some context, a young woman born into wealth and elitism feels out of place surrounded by a society she sees as shallow and superficial. The most glaring example of this is the narrator’s college friend, Reva, who doesn’t try to hide her jealousy of the narrator. However, in a world filled with “cruel optimism”, a term coined by writer Lauren Berlant, often something a person desires is actually an obstacle to their flourishing. In the early 2000s culture the narrator lives in, there is a certain type of goal all people are chasing: a successful career, marriage, and children who they can give a better life than they had to. While this ideal is popular, it can lead to troubling realities that these things are no longer attainable for the millennial generation, nor the ones that will come later. In my own experience, when I ask those around me what they want most in life, I typically hear these same responses as well as one word: Money. What I find the most fascinating about the narrator of this novel is her hyper-awareness that her large accumulation of wealth from her parents trust fund will be the last thing to bring her happiness. This isn’t to say that money isn’t important for life’s necessities. However, when you are all alone in the world and realize nothing is of true worth, an exuberant amount of cash in your bank account is more of a burden.
The author uses this novel to critique the “self help” society, wherein people are so fixated on trying to better themselves that they ultimately become unhappy when they never reach their goals. The narrator does her best to escape this life by sleeping for a year, but it seems more like she is trying to slowly off herself. The idea of a beautiful blond, skinny, wealthy young woman being so utterly unhappy in her life is difficult to understand for most people. In this world, most people would strive to be like this woman. If she were a real life person in 2019, she would be all over our social media pages, with countless comments of heart eye emojis. The unsettling aspect of the story is that if this person, who we try so hard to be like, absolutely hates herself and is stuck in a deep state of depression because of the vapid culture around her, then what hope do the rest of us have? The narrator digs herself further into a pit of despair, and she becomes so fixated on trying to make herself fall asleep, she just becomes more depressed. It is mind boggling to most readers that this woman, who seemingly has it all, cannot even find something in this huge world of opportunity.
While many readers are probably yelling at this ungrateful narrator for wasting her life, I believe that her long sleep was meant to wake her up. Feeling trapped in a world you feel you don’t have a place in is something many people have felt, myself included. I find myself relating to this unnamed woman, despite how different our lives are. She puts herself to sleep for an entire year to avoid her issues and muffles the sound of her loneliness by watching countless movies on her VCR. She tries to shut her body down for days at a time just to feel like she can breathe. Her past stays with her inside her head, but as the novel goes on, she finds that she doesn’t feel for the sad moments of her life anymore. She is numb to her parent’s deaths; she cannot even shed a tear for Reva’s dead mother at her funeral. I have often wished for this kind of apathy towards the world, but shutting all of your emotions away includes all of the good feelings too.
Not only is this novel about waking up, but also about letting go. The narrator has many toxic relationships and bad memories that are holding her back from moving on. She still owns her parents house years after their deaths, she has her on and off again relationship with her awful boyfriend Trevor, and her shallow best friend Reva. When considering selling her family home she struggles by saying, “I wanted to hold on to the house the way you’d hold on to a love letter…But I think I was also holding onto the loss, to the emptiness of the house itself, as though to affirm that it was better to be alone than to be stuck with people who were supposed to love you, yet couldn’t.” In moments like these, I feel sympathy for the narrator. Maybe if she felt an ounce of love and affection growing up, she wouldn’t need to find happiness by drugging herself every day for a year.
In my own life I struggle with comparing my life to others, and if I’m not like those who are successful, is what I do meaningless? Even Reva becomes self-aware for a moment and says, “You know what she [her mom] said before she died? She said, ‘Don’t worry so much trying to be everybody’s favorite. Just go have fun.’ That really hit me, ‘everybody’s favorite’. Because it’s true. I do feel the pressure to be like that…I guess I just never felt good enough.” Doing the most to fit into the ideal standards and pressures society places on people, especially women, is a major cause of our unhappiness. Looking around every day and comparing yourself to others is no way to live. Not being able to make mistakes because you are so worried about what others think is no way to achieve happiness. I make mistakes and fail and feel like a stupid mess to live in just one moment when I can feel like I did something meaningful. I don’t want to watch the world pass me by like it doesn’t matter because I choose to believe it does. I don’t want to sedate myself in order to hide from my problems and I don’t want to push away those who care about me. I used to want to close off the world and sleep until I felt better, shutting the blinds to my true emotions until I didn’t even feel them anymore. The realization that this method would be unsuccessful in making me happy came over time, and it’s even more clear after reading this book.
I’m not going to lie, this narrator frustrated me; I was frustrated not only at her for slowly killing herself when she has the world at her fingertips, but because I saw myself in her. I imagine there was someone or something yelling at me from wherever, telling me to wake up. Wake up and live in a world that has the ability to give me everything I want. I wish to ignore this cruelly optimistic world in favor of my own. A world where I can wake up everyday and try my best, even if my best is different from everyone else’s.