It was literary mood-setting at its most basic, the way one might bring The Orient Express on a European train ride or The Sheltering Sky to Morocco. I was heading to a spa in Arizona where I would spend four days in a state of blissful solitude, so I packed an aptly titled book: My Year of Rest and Relaxation. At the end of my first day of being smudged, hugged, and rubbed with hot stones the size of clementines, I settled into a corner table at the restaurant, a sanctuary of Scandinavian design and high desert views, and pulled the novel out of my bag. My fellow diners’ quiet chatter faded out the second I gathered just how toxin-studded and radically inappropriate my reading material was. Giddy with shame, I retreated to my room to devour more.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel is zany, disturbing, and screechingly funny. It is also a daring manifesto against the age of wellness. Our unnamed narrator, a 24-year-old Chelsea gallery girl who studied art history at Columbia and looks “like an off-duty model,” can no longer endure the burden of her sadness. Her parents died within a year of each other during her junior year of college — her father of cancer, her mother of drink and drugs — and the pain is catching up. Thanks to her inheritance, our anti-heroine could afford to plumb the depths of her sorrows in daily therapy or send herself on a global tour of eating, praying, and loving. Instead, she devises a unique coping strategy and orchestrates a deep, yearlong hibernation in the confines of her Upper East Side apartment, facilitated by a steady drip of pharmaceuticals including Seroquel, Risperdal, Seconal, Valium, Nembutal, and NyQuil (that’s not including the ones that start with the letters A through M). The bulk of her calories come from the cream-spiked coffees and prepackaged pastries that she buys at the local bodega. Her mind is a pest to be quieted; her body a needy, sample-size creature to be tamed.
While our narrator’s best friend, the bulimic and alcoholic Reva, worries about her friend’s health, our narrator holds firm. “It was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought that it was going to save my life.” Her medicine cabinet is stocked with toxins that are doled out like Halloween candy by a neck-brace-wearing psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle, who is perhaps the least attentive and most hilariously rendered medical professional in the history of literature. No matter how many times she is reminded that her visitor’s parents are deceased, Dr. Tuttle inquires after them. No matter what her patient tells her, the only solution is to sprinkle more pills onto the ever-growing pile.
Set in 2000, the time just before iPhones and reality television came to dominate our attention spans, My Year of Rest and Relaxation bubbles over with references to Sally Jesse Raphael and Titanic and Soapdish (Whoopi Goldberg might be the only entity that brings our narrator unvarnished pleasure). Brilliant a period piece as it is, the novel has a resonance that owes everything to our present moment. Even if you don’t read the book at a New Age spa surrounded by healers and feelers sporting fuzzy robes and doped-out facial expressions as I did, it is impossible not to interpret it as a riposte to our toxin-vacuumed times.
We’ve entered what I’m calling wellness hellness. I started to notice it about five years ago, during that blurry period when I was either pregnant or nursing or pregnant again. Waiting on the subway platform on a weekend morning, I’d invariably see a woman, oftentimes several, kitted out in head-to-toe athleisure, en route to another borough to attend a fitness class. Nobody belonged to the local gym anymore, it seemed. Fitness had become the new going to the movies (and the new going out to eat, considering how far in advance class reservations needed to be made). Today, the global wellness industry is valued at $3.7 trillion. That is more than the global film, book, and music industries combined. Health is no longer the absence of illness. It is detox tonics and moon dusts and chaga-mushroom powders. It is festivals in the California desert with sought-after astrologers and acroyoga demonstrations. It is meditation workshops for new mothers who can wear squalling infants strapped to their chests as they attempt rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. As our world continues to skitter off course, it makes every bit of sense that so many people feel compelled to focus on the single thing they can control — their bodies.