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.
Every time I think we’ve reached peak wellness, I hear about another boutique gym specializing in journaling circles or subarctic studio temperatures. Even at my local bar, I hear women tossing off the words toxic and self-care with the frequency of my own amazings. A friend of mine recently sent her saliva to a laboratory in Canada so it could be analyzed for markers indicating how efficiently her body metabolizes caffeine — just for the hell of it. Another acquaintance, a twenty-something man who had no evident health problems, found an allergist who would run a battery of tests to help him winkle out “hidden allergies.” Our bodies aren’t just the source of pleasure and shame anymore — they’re systems to be hacked and optimized, Rosetta stones imprinted with endless clues to be deciphered.
I am not immune to the madness. I’d rather pass time at a child’s birthday party talking to another parent about my wonderful new vial of White Fox Medicinals “Manifestation” CBD tincture than about our kids’ summer-camp plans. I follow enough fitfluencers (and one self-identifying “skinfluencer”) on Instagram to be the regular target of an ad for a Manhattan coworking space that offers its members Ayurvedic snacks and midday Reiki sessions in addition to printing privileges. The coworking space that I belong to, a bro-ey bastion of startups and podcasting dudes, hosts its own essential-oil workshops and kombucha-vodka tastings. Perhaps there is no escaping.
While I still go to the occasional Saturday morning-yoga class, my regular “self-care” sessions now occur at the gym down the block from my home. Membership costs $15 a month. There are no classes, no towels, no exits through any elixir shop. The walls are painted blindingly bright colors, and it’s a bit like working out at Kinko’s. The other day I left my earrings on a treadmill, and when I came to pick them up from the front desk, where I had been assured they were safe, they had disappeared. I did not kick up a fuss. It seemed a reasonable price to pay for a dose of sanity. In my gym, I’ve found a time machine, a capsule that transports me to an era when a workout was not a reward for elbowing one’s way off a waitlist. My treadmill sessions are on my own terms. I cue up my Canadian indie rock and grunt through my three miles so that I can get on with the rest of my life.
I have found all the wellness inspiration I need in Moshfegh’s narrator. She is no fool. Her yearlong experiment in modulating her levels of consciousness ultimately delivers her to a state of clarity and grace, exactly as she’d intended. Moshfegh has created a Jenga tower of ill-being, a cloistered world whose inhabitants hold a mirror up to our madness. Their routines of binge drinking and self-medicating mock our own obsessions with self-soothing, our circle jerks of nourishing and detoxing, stretching and sculpting, running and recovering. We’re just like they are, grasping for a higher plane of being, hoping against hope it doesn’t kill us.
Lauren Mechling’s debut novel, about female friendship, is coming out from Viking next summer.