She's one of America's brightest and brashest literary talents—and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is another bold assault on the status quoby Josie Mitchell / August 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Ottessa Moshfegh is drawn to characters unwilling or unable to keep to the rules. They refuse to wash themselves or brush their teeth; they binge on sex or substances; and they conceal their dirty habits from those around them.
In her first book, the novella McGlue, a brain-damaged, alcoholic sailor rolls around in the depths of an unknown ship, circling the possibility that he has killed his friend and lover. Her 2017 story collection, Homesick for Another World, teems with “wild teens, limping men, young mothers, kids scattered on the hot concrete like the town’s lazy rats and pigeons.” These are people, in Moshfegh’s words, “carrying the burden of their own wrecked consciousness”—who, placed in brutal scenarios, tend to behave in brutal ways, with selfishness, narcissism or obsequiousness.
At the age of 37, Moshfegh is one of America’s brightest and brashest new literary talents. Her characters, especially the women, are enemies to blind obedience or complacency, and have no interest in decorum. The title character of Eileen—Moshfegh’s brilliant 2015 novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—is “furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.” She has reason to be livid. It’s the mid-1960s and at 24 years old, she’s stuck in her cold little hometown, living with a drunk father in the same run-down, filthy house where her mother died of cancer. She goes to work each day, but hardly cleans herself, urinates in jars and gorges on laxatives. Her ribs stick out but she feels fat and fleshy; she chews chocolates and spits them back into wrappers—bad habits of someone navigating life through self-denial.
Moshfegh shows the mind trying to escape the body, or using the body to escape itself: bulging weight, acne scars, pimples, colostomy bags. Her characters are either starving themselves or binging: on television or on food they later throw up. Although not gender-specific, she shows how this is an especially intense struggle for women. For Eileen, living under a patriarchal system doesn’t just affect her self-esteem—it infiltrates her sexual imagination. She imagines her female colleagues with their “disgusting husbands,” or with their hands down one another’s bras, and wants to vomit. “I can still remember my mental pictures of them…