It seemed as if, this summer in New York City, I could go nowhere without running into Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” Its distinctive hot pink cover, featuring Jacques-Louis David’s 1798 painting “Portrait of a Young Woman in White,” trailed me wherever I went: next to me on the subway platform, peeking out from the Artists & Fleas tote of a Brooklyn hipster; in the hands of a woman clothed in business casual, sitting across from me on the L train during our shared morning commute; near the entrance of every bookstore I walked into, greeting me from its perch on the Hot New Arrivals shelf.
One reason for its prevalence may be that the book is set in New York City. But not modern day New York; the story takes place in the year 2001, in the months leading up to 9/11, lending it an eerie prescience as the narrative hurtles toward an inevitable conclusion. But other than the Upper East Side moms in Juicy Couture and the comparatively lax security measures at JFK, not much of the novel dates it. At least, many of the real-life locations remain unchanged, and I won’t deny the thrill of touring the Chelsea galleries and riding the Staten Island Ferry, spaces that had previously existed only on paper suddenly materializing before me.
Another reason may be that the narrator’s sense of listlessness is enduring and universal, especially in these trying times. In “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the unnamed protagonist is a rich, hot blonde woman who worships at the altar of Big Pharma. Desperate to escape her existential ennui, she downs a dizzying concoction of pills, hoping to pass the time in a medically-induced slumber. With two dead parents, one fake friend and a steady stream of unemployment checks, there’s not much for her to live for, much less die for. Her casual privilege, blanket indifference and refusal to participate in grind culture seems to have a struck a chord, especially among stressed, depressed, but well-dressed millennials.
Moshfegh herself is not a Hot New Arrival; her short story collection, “Homesick For Another World,” garnered critical acclaim, and her first novel, “Eileen,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and snagged the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. In the flurry of profiles that always follow a young, lauded up-and-comer, Moshfegh appears secure and self-assured, confident to the point of cockiness. Her author portrait shows her staring straight into the camera, sporting a smirk, radiating poise and self-possession. In an interview, she declares: “I’m not going to be making cappuccinos. I’m fucking brilliant!” This is a sentiment that may raise some eyebrows, yet one I can’t help but admire and aspire to emulate, though I possess no such faith in my own competence.
My last week in New York coincided with the last leg of Moshfegh’s book tour promoting “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” She would be in conversation with actress Lena Dunham at the Strand Bookstore. That Monday night saw me standing in line, umbrella-less in a rainstorm, for about an hour.
I’m not sure what I expected: for Moshfegh to outswagger the famously brash Dunham? She was such a hotshot on the page, yet in person, she was awkward and far from charismatic. She spoke slowly, haltingly, and took her time to think before answering questions, resulting in long pauses filled with AC hum. Her sentences trailed off. She sat hunched in her oversized armchair. The discrepancy was especially heightened when contrasted against Dunham, a practiced performer clearly at ease in front of an audience, and her quick, slick, witty banter.
After the talk, I became even more enamored with Moshfegh. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” may have become a sensation because audiences related to its narrator, but for me, it was Moshfegh I related to: someone whose eloquence only translates in writing, who talks a big game from the safety of a laptop screen but is reserved and tentative in the flesh. Someone who gets tongue-tied when called upon in the spur of moment, someone who needs time to mull and meditate before being capable of producing anything with merit. I can only hope to possess half her brilliance — or at least enough of it to end up at the New Yorker, rather than Starbucks.
Kitty Guo is a junior majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.