Ottessa Moshfegh Proves I’m the Zeitgeist

Note: this post was composed almost entirely before nearly every person I know, women or not, carrying a traumatic past or not, was triggered all f-ing day yesterday and most of today by the spectacle of a composed, poised, intelligent woman trying to fight an iceberg of low-information, woman-hating PEOPLE WHO RUN OUR GOVERNMENT. However, perhaps a literary theory-type post celebrating as heroic a woman who withdraws from this constant heartbreak in a yearlong chemical haze may be well-timed?

Ottessa Moshfegh is collecting accolades for her latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a woman who pharmaceuticals herself asleep for 20-ish hours a day, every day, for a year. She wants to withdraw from her art gallery job and dating marketplace, which both replace beauty with commodity, and from her past as a pseudo-orphan, neglected by an academic dad and an alcoholic mom, both recently deceased.

She uses the key tool of late twentieth century biomedicine to withdraw from and create agency within the psychological, economic, and cultural terrordome of late capitalism.

TfH loyalists may recognize this as the exact premise of my 2007 dissertation. Staying out of Step: Compulsiveness and Detachment in Contemporary Fiction.

I’m the zeitgeist. Me.

Hire me as the literary trend forecaster. Put me on Trevor Noah’s show. Lock me into the very system that I critique, that I may be a real artist.

Nearly every detail of this novel clusters around contemporary cultural fixations on a medical model of personality: compulsive behavior (her mom’s alcoholism, her existential dependence on pharmaceuticals); medicalized detachment from social expectations and norms (her chemical hibernation, her literal shittiness at her job and her hilarious scatological farewell from it). Embracing material reality to create a meaningful sense of self. Rejecting conventional, talk therapy-based ways to understand one’s emotional self in favor of a subjectivity based on materiality, including materiality of psychic life, which I called in my publication about Infinite Jest that people still reference (thanks guys!) “anti-interiority.”

I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Irritation was what I knew best–a heaviness on my chest, a vibration in my neck like my head was revving up before it would rocket off my body. But that seemed directly tied to my nervous system–a physiological response. Was sadness the same kind of thing? Was joy? Was longing? Was love?

Embodied experience is the only way for her to locate her own reactions to the outside world. Irritation, but also essential human feelings: joy, sorrow, longing, may all be reduced to the physiological, mechanical.

The narrator’s crisis revolves around this implicit contradiction of biomedicine: the premise that objective mechanics of brain and body can generate subjective experience. The kinds of feelings we privilege as most human, as defining who we are. We are very much not robots, but this now-dominant biomedical frame of social life suggests we are.

So the narrator sets up mechanisms to funnel her inheritance into automatic rent and utility payments. She more or less merges with a revolting number of psychopharmaceuticals. And she expects to find a non-mechanized, feeling self when she wakes up.

The pill that provides her the most succor, Infermiterol, is described as an aesthetic object: “small and pellet-shaped, with the letter I etched into each one, very white, very hard, and strangely heavy. They almost seemed to be made of polished stone.” The pill has more of a presence than she does, down to its assertive “I.”

Aestheticizing this tool of obliteration links the book’s exploration of biomedical materiality to its depiction of artistic representation as a corrupted means of experiencing beauty.

The narrator’s frequent reference to herself as looking like an “off-duty model” reinforces the book’s pressure on representation begun with her descriptions of the bogus art shown at the gallery where she works. The narrator experiences a contradiction in the gap between neurology and subjectivity. She’s also troubled by the gap between commoditized art and the transformative experience of beauty. Her sardonic perception of her own conventionally normative beauty, repeated so often it takes on a doomlike sheen, suggests that this gap has bled into her own sense of self as a gap between her normative beauty and her experience of the world.

So the aestheticized Infermiterol allows her to pass three days at a time unconscious but wakeful. She plans three months of infermiterol haze, during which a hack artist will use her unconscious but wakeful body however he wants. For Art. After which she expects to be reborn.

Hey, her trick works! She awakens to the possibility of a new self.

Ottessa Moshfegh got a damn happy marriage and wrote a damn happy ending.

The narrator’s post-hibernation transformation is completed by her full embrace of the materiality of art and of life: She touches a painting in the Met. “I placed my whole palm on the dry, rumbling surface of the canvas, simply to prove to myself that there was no God stalking my soul. Time was not immemorial. Things were just things.”

Art is most meaningful when it’s folded into tangible, material experience. When you can shove your own shit into the mouth of a hack sculpture on your way out from a disillusioning job.

So when critics (Joyce Carol Oates, Jia Tolentino and others) note this character’s unlikeability–her laziness, her terrible treatment of her friend, her general bummerness–I want to say, well,

  1. Obviously women characters are stuck in a likeability trap comparable to that of living women, and this trap has long pissed off Moshfegh (and Lena Dunham, har) and I now officially reject any criticism of a woman’s writing about women based on this criterion
  2. The character’s rejecting everything crap about contemporary culture and isn’t that heroic? But
  3. Her ability to withdraw is a privilege. Not only the privilege of her generational wealth that allows her to sleep a year and get all the bills paid, even the credit card bills from sleep-Amazoning luxury femme accessories. But also the privilege to withdraw, to never need to fight for her life–only wealthy, straight white women enjoy that possibility.  And straight white women now: we’re on notice. We cannot withdraw. We must fight as hard as we can to protect the rights of all those less privileged than us. And maybe that’s the true undercurrent of this book: the character’s total rejection of the world ends at 9/11, ends the moment before our country locks into a wrenching partisan struggle for the meaning of freedom, of justice, of America. Before Black Lives Matter, before #MeToo, before the Women’s March. The book ends at the last moment it seemed possible that withdrawal would be as ethical an option as bitter, righteous struggle. 

Other book news

OK, but I still don’t want to read it.

I’ve never seen long con gaslighting this freakin’ spectacular, perhaps Jobs’s real contribution to society.

A triumph of infographics: A football stadium crowd in pockets of only three states elected this husk of personlike substance, and NYT put together a timeline of known Russian contacts that likely pushed the election in his direction. Extra bonus journalism for if you don’t already blame Putin for the black hole of dread waking you up every 3am.

Rebecca Traister rightfully includes black women, non-gender-conforming women, lesbian women in her book on the recent history and politics of women’s rage.

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