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My Year of Rest and Relaxation in the Era of Social Distancing

By Alice Browne

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows the experience of a perpetually bored narrator, alone and self medicating in an attempt to sleep her life away, in a world on the cusp of disaster, punctuated only by infrequent trips to the shop around the corner for coffee and blacked out periods of online shopping… sound familiar?

Inspired by VICE’s choice to include the book as the opening text in their Corona Book Club, I think there has been no better time to read Moshfegh’s divisive 2018 novel. Although in the anxious and indefinite period of covid-19 lockdown many of us are seeking solace in the escapist nature of fiction, the joy of the novel is found in its scathing relatability.

Although set in early noughties New York, our nameless narrator’s world is not too distant from ours. It’s a time of contrived identity (early edition softbois and ‘girl boss’ feminists) are noted throughout), mindless consumerism, increasing political tensions and exhausting focus productivity. This alludes to a world on the brink of disaster, albeit the tragedy of 9/11 as opposed to a deadly pandemic. I think this resonates strongly with a lot of the critiques of capitalism that have been provoked by our current situation, and, unlike 2001 New York, the inevitable disruption it will cause to our system.

Where we differ, pretty enviously, with the narrator is that her self isolation is a choice- one that results from nauseating levels of privilege. We find out that her year is entirely funded by the wealth of her deceased parents, yet it does not appear that her desire to isolate is from a place of grief, or anything much deeper than a general sense of apathy to the world. Even in her plight to ‘escape’ society, this is only done on a superficial level as she indulges in shopping sprees and spa trips. From this, it’s easy to begin to resent her, but it's in this unlikability and the open, shallow nature of her disdain that she is her most compelling.

The narrator uses her personal quarantine to indulge in her worst self. There’s a refreshing sense of realism as she does, erm, actually very little, as she spends her days chain smoking, ordering takeaway and watching Whoopi Goldberg films from the comfort of her sofa. Whereas her friend Reva, the aforementioned prototype of corporate white feminism, would be determined to keep up a professional, ‘self improving’ front, boasting her workout routines and WFH OOTDs, our narrator would most likely just try and get through it all with day drinking and a rekindled addiction to The Sims.

This isn’t to say that either approach is invalid, instead it exclaims the opposite. For us, there has been a prevailing narrative of continuing productivity in this time, be it in continuation of deadlines or the pursuit of a creative project as we’re constantly reminded that Shakespeare apparently wrote King Lear during the plague. Although Moshfegh’s narrator is intentionally dislikable in many ways, and we often find ourselves laughing or sneering at her, there is an element of her that may make many of us feel seen. Her character, in all her faults, gives us room to breathe, with no pressure other than to simply exist, at a time where it counts.