Social realism, as I tend to think of it, has been under challenge since I think Dreiser published Sister Carrie in 1900, but there are challenges and then there are challenges, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is one of those. Texts that try to represent lived experience in a way that makes it meaningful have always felt to me like the most powerful reads – even as my head fills with scifi and fantasy – and I still occasionally jones for Zola as well as Dreiser and his comrades from the US like Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
Perhaps the link to those texts is that they are all produced by men, and tend to try to chart grand social movements by looking intimately at the lives of people caught in struggles to survive these crushing social forces. Even Bukowski, I think, does this – despite the textual evidence, perhaps, I want to believe that Bukowski is trying to show someone who lives intentionally on the margins, making what can be seen as a grand social statement of refusal and (non) denial.
Along comes Moshfegh, then, and boom go my expectations. Thoughts below:
- The narrator spends a year trying to just sleep (hibernate, I guess). She’s had some trauma, and had genuinely unloving parents, but she doesn’t use them as excuses – she simply wants to re-calibrate her own origins, make herself into as much of a blank slate as she can.
- She’s an anti-hero, I guess, in that she is about as unlikeable as is possible. She’s got model beauty, and she uses that beauty in the worst imaginable ways; she comes from wealth, and she doesn’t necessarily flaunt it but makes very clear that she doesn’t want to deal with anyone much below her own social class except perfunctorily; and she lives in NYC and never goes out to do anything.
- Herein lies where Moshfegh blows through one of the expectations of social realism, I think, as there is no socially redeeming value to this narrator at all.
- She treats her one friend ridiculously badly. She finds the craziest, most corrupt psychiatrist possible, and lies repeatedly to get more drugs. She uses those drugs to hibernate, constantly popping a whole cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to completely escape responsibilities of any sort. There are no paeans to the bar as a scene of social refuge from the horrors of the contemporary world, and her apartment becomes a literal prison as she tries to hibernate, so we can’t imagine the home space as some sort of sanctuary.
- Even work, where Moshfegh could perhaps attempt to leaven some type of social critique, is a place that only matches her own disconnect. She works briefly at an art gallery as the receptionist/greeter, a job that she finally loses despite her beauty and perfect assholish attitude by sleeping every day on the job. She leaves after taking a shit in the middle of an art work.
- The art world is not seen through a pretty lens here either, thanks to the narrator. The artistic creations that sell lots of money are facile, accidental, and show no connection to the conversation about art that they should be a part of. We can’t find a refuge in the great art works of the past, though, as even visits to the Met make art look bad.
- This is all seen through the eyes of the narrator, which makes me find either her or art (or maybe both) disturbing, immoral, and exploitative.
- I’m not sure what Moshfegh’s ultimate point is, of course. I know that I read through this way too quickly – although I found her language so powerful that I worked hard not to skim because I didn’t want to miss any of her fascinating phrasing – and I’m not necessarily proud of myself for getting caught in the narrative flow.
- There are no redeeming social critiques (or even hints thereof), so the empathetic joy that I sometimes feel when seeing that I’m not alone in my world view could not have been my reasoning, and I was fairly certain that Moshfegh would let none of us off the hook with some sort of high-faluting’ redemption.
- The narrator obsessively watches all the worst films of the 80s, repeatedly, on her VCR, so I wasn’t looking for name-drops of cool pop culture, like maybe Brett Easton Ellis or Thomas McInerny would have given us.
- My guess is that the dream of anesthetization and the mostly horrible people she meets made me keep reading? I’m really not sure…
- SPOILERS LURK AFTER THIS BULLET.
- Throughout, I was worried that Mossfegh would eventually try to make this character redeeming. Part of the problem with the film version of Barfly (and maybe even the novel, which I read a while ago) is that Mickey Rourke makes the protagonist sort of likeable and maybe even charming, and that charm somewhat serves to redeem him.
- No fears of that here – just when it seems like her final plan – one that involves an artist whom she pretty much hates and four months of constant blackouts, punctuated every three days by food, nominal exercise, and water – has sort of made her appreciate the world a bit more, she ends the novel by imagining her best friend having to leap from the burning Twin Towers, caught there on 9/11.