Ottessa Moshfegh’s Contemporary Gothic

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Contemporary Gothic


Ottessa Moshfegh’s contemporary gothic.


The conventions that ground so much of contemporary fiction—setting, psychological depth, emotional grounding—don’t pertain to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh. Though her protagonists tend to be profoundly alienated, she seems uninterested in unspooling the reasons for their alienation. The specific cause of a character’s disaffection doesn’t matter, because Moshfegh is more interested in the compulsive obsessions that estrangement engenders. Upon seeing a photograph of a corpse, the eponymous protagonist of Moshfegh’s 2015 novel Eileen becomes convinced that “another kind of life lay behind the blank expression captured in that photo.” Eileen is willing to commit outlandishly cruel acts to learn whether what lies behind that death mask will lift her out of an intolerable life. In “Mr. Wu,” a story from Moshfegh’s 2017 collection Homesick for Another World, the narrative rises to a climax that is simultaneously ludicrous, unsettling, and affecting. Mr. Wu—who is comically averse to direct human contact—inserts a finger into a prostitute’s ass. Moshfegh’s prose invests the act with the power of a religious revelation: “He took his fingers out of her behind and put them in his mouth. He could not believe what joy he’d brought himself. His eyes filled with tears.”

Moshfegh’s talent is her ability to convey the foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere that obsession creates: what it feels like to be irrationally fixated, to long for something that might lift you out of the quotidian. She thrusts readers into the deranged emotional and psychological rhythms of the zealous, the possessed, and the fanatical. Her stories are darkly funny glimpses into madness, and in that sense they resemble the gothic tales of Edgar Allen Poe or Charlotte Perkins Gilman. As with Gilman’s classic story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Moshfegh’s stories approach derangement as an opportunity to explore society’s effect on the individual mind. As in Gilman’s tale, the mad truths that Moshfegh’s characters seek become convincing through the sheer force of their lucidity; even a character’s most insane convictions are compelling, if not sensible.

The same lunatic lucidity animates Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Set in a pre-9/11 New York City awash in wealth and privilege, it’s a caustically funny tale of a trust-fund baby’s attempt to escape family trauma. Along the way, we get send-ups of the art world, misogyny, American historical amnesia, contemporary culture’s vacuity, and the dubious advantages of the wealthy. While we laugh at our protagonist’s search for absolution from her past via drug-induced sleep, we get a prehistory to the overstimulated trance into which the United States is interminably stumbling. But with Moshfegh’s attention trained on history, culture, and gender, her trademarks—a willingness to linger in the minds of misanthropes, her relentlessly black humor, and her preoccupation with the human body’s grossest qualities—start to seem more facile than fierce, modes that are ill suited to tackling such weighty matters.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s narrator is an unnamed, disgruntled Columbia graduate, a patrician disenchanted by privilege’s spoils. The substantial inheritance, the luxury apartment, the posh wardrobe, the Ivy League education—none of it brings her pleasure. She’s blond, skinny, fashionable, and very attractive—a friend repeatedly compares her to Kate Moss—but she moves through pre-9/11 Manhattan like a double agent, her appearance disguising her simmering disgust with the world she’s inherited. She knows how to use this beauty to her advantage, but in the end she feels that her attractiveness is a trap that imprisons her in a culture she detests. “Since adolescence,” she confesses, “I’d vacillated between wanting to look like the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was and should have been if I’d had any courage.”

When the novel opens, the narrator is convinced that “hibernation” will cure all of her ills. With the help of a criminally negligent doctor, she amasses a store of psychotropic drugs that she mixes with lazy abandon. There’s no specific trauma she’s running away from, just a diffuse sadness, a hatred of the world and everything in it. “Initially,” she observes, “I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything.” Rather than engage with her thoughts and feelings, she will smother them out of existence. Soon, she’s spending half her days asleep, waking up only to go to a local bodega and to watch VHS tapes. (She favors the films of Whoopi Goldberg.)

Placed in her position, many of us would hate everything too. The narrator’s life is abhorrent: She works at a gallery that pays her a pittance and peddles art that she considers “canned counterculture crap,” pieces that wear their politics like chic Opening Ceremony outfits. Ping Xi, the gallery’s star, sticks paint pellets into his penis and ejaculates onto canvases to create works with agitprop titles like Decapitated Palestinian Child. “[N]othing to inspire more than a trip around the corner to buy an unflattering outfit from Comme des Garçons,” our antiheroine concludes.

Thanks to her parents, now dead, the narrator has an inheritance; unlike many of her peers, if she doesn’t like a job, she can just quit it to pursue more hibernation. Before her tendency to sleep on the job gets her fired, in a typical Moshfegh flourish, she defecates on the gallery’s pristine white floors by way of resignation. Eileen and Mr. Wu would approve.

What has caused this privileged young woman so much despair? As the novel progresses, we learn that her parents practiced a policy of benign neglect: Her father was a dispassionate and feckless academic, her mother a self-absorbed addict. They were the type of parents who withhold affection from their child, but it’s not clear that they had any to give in the first place. Visiting the childhood home she inherited after their deaths, the narrator feels sorry for herself—“not because I missed my parents, but because there was nothing they could have given me if they’d lived.”

Our protagonist’s sporadic boyfriend, Trevor, is less a lover than an enemy combatant. Late in the novel, she wakes from drugged sleep to find him thrusting his penis in her mouth. She despises her worshipful and agonizingly superficial college friend, Reva, even though Reva is one of the few people with whom she’s in close contact. (“I couldn’t get rid of her,” the narrator grumbles.) Much like the narrator’s parents, the two don’t have much to give each other. When Reva grieves over her mother’s cancer diagnosis, the narrator offers scant comfort. “We’re all alone, Reva,” she observes by way of condolence.

Reflecting the narrator’s languorous contempt for the world around her, the voice and style of My Year of Rest and Relaxation are frostily misanthropic, bereft of warmth and affection. Its prose—almost completely shorn of lyricism, the better to convey her patrician scorn—approximates that lack. In place of Eileen’s pensive, melancholic study of life in X-ville, we get the unnamed protagonist’s corrosive sense of humor. Her voice can be withering in judgment, a weapon she wields against the idiots, sycophants, and poseurs of the world. Evaluating the aloof hipsters who populate the downtown art scene and treat her as a nonentity, the narrator is relentless: “The truth was probably that they were just afraid of vaginas, afraid that they’d fail to understand one as pretty and pink as mine, and they were ashamed of their own sensual inadequacies, afraid of their own dicks, afraid of themselves.”

Scanning a newspaper during a run to the bodega, the narrator lets the headlines do the work of satirizing the mind-numbing inanity and depravity of the world: “The new president was going to be hard on terrorists. A Harlem teenager had thrown her newborn baby down a sewage drain. A mine caved somewhere in South America. A local councilman was caught having gay sex with an illegal immigrant. Someone who used to be fat was now extremely thin.” In moments like these, the narrator’s punch lines can seem like a howl against an America sleepwalking through history, ignorant of the forces gathering at its edges.

However, as hilarious and cutting as the protagonist is, her howl can sometimes sound a bit feeble. As the novel progresses, one gets the sense that for all her bluster, she might be the target of Moshfegh’s own scorn, an unwitting participant in her own roasting. Her insistence on turning “everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff [one] could bat away” exemplifies her vacuity, but maybe that’s the point. The narrator’s hibernation is not just an escape from her present, but also from ours: It parodies our country’s own dormancy at the turn of the 21st century, before the War on Terror and the 2008 financial crash jolted us into consciousness. Moshfegh’s protagonist doesn’t want to rest; she wants to float off into the impossible bliss of “good strong American sleep.” Her withdrawal isn’t a quest for moral or intellectual clarity, but an egomaniacal descent into a rapturous state of ignorance—even about herself.

By the time we reach the middle of the novel, it becomes clear that Moshfegh has deposited us into the insipid mind of America’s landed gentry. In one revealing moment, the protagonist stumbles home from the bodega, hoping that her life will be transformed by the time she gets to her door. But when she imagines that transformation, all she can visualize is a bright apartment “like in those home improvement shows Reva liked to watch when she came over.” Our heroine turns out to be pretty basic, a symptom of the mental and spiritual barrenness she declaims against.

The success of parody requires that an author maintain a stable ironic distance from her target; however, the space between authorial and narrative voice is so narrow here that Moshfegh’s critique reproduces the protagonist’s egocentrism. Unlike Eileen, who tells the story of her life from the perspective of an older, worldlier woman, the nameless narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation operates from a myopic position that also entraps the reader. Whatever insight into the narrator’s mind might be accruing in the novel’s margins fails to cohere. As a result, the book’s social criticism bears some resemblance to the superficial politics of Ping Xi’s art: Its critiques feel draped over the narrative like so much couture.

The novel’s suffocating narrative voice blunts the effect of Moshfegh’s gothic sensibility. The protagonist’s fixation is not only insane but also tedious, and the resulting atmosphere feels oppressive. It’s not clear why we should subject ourselves to that oppression, what’s at stake in the novel’s project, or why we should invest in it. It also doesn’t help that, while My Year of Rest and Relaxation does suggest that the narrator’s frostiness stems from a traumatic relationship with her parents, that relationship (like all the others in the novel) never feels more than perfunctory. The result is a protagonist who isn’t a character so much as a voice—a self-satisfied, grating one at that.

There are glimmers of a more interesting novel in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Sometimes, as when the narrator reminisces about her father, an elegant quality emerges from the novel’s narcoleptic deadpan. “He was fairly nondescript—thinning brown hair, loosening jowls, a single wrinkle of worry etched deep into his brow,” she recalls. “That wrinkle made him look perpetually perplexed, yet passive, like a man trapped behind his own eyes.”

In these moments, the narrator reveals herself to be an aesthete struggling against her misanthropic tendencies, and Moshfegh’s more lyrical strain comes to the fore. Despite the author’s penchant for stomach-churning imagery, a desire for beauty operates at the novel’s lower frequencies. While drifting off to sleep on New Year’s Eve, the narrator feels herself “float up and away, higher and higher into the ether until my body was just an anecdote, a symbol, a portrait hanging in another world.”

This compulsion toward turning herself into art informs the book’s denouement, and one understands why our heroine would want such a thing, given her family history. In one appropriately gothic image, she imagines her mother “lying in a coffin, a shriveled skeleton,” still “up to something down there, bitter and suffering as the flesh on her body withered and sank away from her bones.” Viewed in this light, the hope to turn the body from an ugly, decaying thing—subject to all of the trauma and emotional pain to which a body is vulnerable—into a work of art becomes a heartbreaking gesture. One wishes that Moshfegh had decided to home in on that heartbreak rather than allow her protagonist’s misanthropy to run wild.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation ends with a bizarre fever dream in which the narrator’s wildest yearnings materialize—alongside the devastation of 9/11, which she views through the lens of her supposed rejuvenation. It’s an effective demonstration of our protagonist’s vapidity. Watching a woman leap to her death from the Twin Towers, the narrator romanticizes the horror: “There she is,” she rhapsodizes idiotically, “a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.” It’s an absurd peek into the narrator’s deranged mind. Yet by giving her narrator’s myopic vision pride of place, Moshfegh extends that myopia and deprives readers of an outside vantage point, without which the irony is extinguished. The result is a novel that’s better at emulating, rather than skewering, its target.

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