Rebel, Rebel: Ottessa Moshfegh
In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.
The Book MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)
I'm not sure how to feel about this book. I admired it deeply, but it also made me want to curl up in a ball and cry. What's certain is that I read the novel, Moshfegh's second, in only a few sittings. Considering our protagonist's single goal is to sleep her life away (literally), the story is shockingly propulsive. I'm not totally sure how Moshfegh manages it, but I have some ideas.
Why you might want to follow the rules
Set in New York City over about eighteen months from 2000 to mid-2001, MY YEAR OF R&R follows an unnamed twenty-something narrator as she enlists a comically terrible psychiatrist to help her hibernate--that is, avoid the world (and herself) by sleeping for days at a time using vast quantities of prescription drugs. A recenty-ish college grad with a huge inheritance, she has the time and resources to do it. Beyond the quirky side-effects of the drugs themselves, very little stands in her way.
Sound like a pretty boring book? By all rights, it should be. I've written previously about passive character motivations and how tricky they can be. It's difficult to make a character compelling when all they want is to hide. The story tends to flatten by default.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
Although the narrator's goal is passive, she goes about it in a way that's reckless and utterly destructive--both to her own body and to her friendship with Reva, a fellow Columbia alum and the one person in NYC, if not the whole world, who actually gives a sh*t about her. This is obvious to the reader but not the narrator, who treats Reva with frequent and casual contempt. The result is a sort of slow-motion car crash. It's impossible to look away.
Critically, Moshfegh gives us enough backstory to understand why our narrator is such an asshole. We learn about the recent deaths of her parents and the dysfunctional relationships she had with them. We come to understand the narrator's tremendous vulnerability, which makes her cruelty both easier and harder to watch--easier, because we can empathize; harder, because we want to shake her awake.
The looming threat
From the opening pages, when it's revealed that the narrator's on-again-off-again boyfriend works at the World Trade Center, we're anticipating how the attacks on 9/11 will affect her. (Moshfegh manages a tragic twist here, but I won't spoil it.) As September 2001 looms closer, every mention of the Twin Towers or a newly-elected George Bush sends shivers down the reader's spine, though the attacks don't actually take place until the last page. The result is a story that's entirely about 9/11 but also not about 9/11 at all.
That last page is pure art--devastating, perfect. Like the book itself, I suppose.