This review was first published on The Spinoff on 17 December 2018.
New York. Late 2000. Our narrator is 27. She is thin, pretty, tall, blond. White. She works at a Chelsea art gallery, her first job after graduating from Columbia (art history major), though working is optional – she could live entirely off the inheritance from her dead parents, if she chose. That inheritance pays for her Upper East Side apartment and whatever she wants, which is sometimes designer clothes, but mostly second-hand video tapes of Whoopi Goldberg movies. She tries hard not to call her douchebag ex-boyfriend, Trevor, but often fails.
Trevor works in the World Trade Center. So, soon, will her best friend Reva, a bulimic insurance broker. Our narrator (never named) has “everything,” but wants nothing more than to be asleep. All the time. She finds a mad psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, in the phone book who will prescribe her a dizzying array of pharmaceuticals, and sets out to put herself into chemical hibernation. “Soon I was hitting the pills hard and sleeping all day and all night with two- or three-hour breaks in between. This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered.”
It’s mad of course, but is putting oneself to sleep to escape the unbearable pain of existence any more insane than anything the rest of us do to get through the day? As Jia Tolentino says in her review in the New Yorker, Ottessa Moshfegh is the “most interesting contemporary American author on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” It’s not living itself – eating, drinking, shitting, fucking, working – that our narrator can’t bear, although she can hardly see the point of those things. Nor is she concerned with the news: “Bush versus Gore for president. Somebody important died, a child was kidnapped, a senator stole money, a famous athlete cheated on his pregnant wife. Things were happening in New York City – they always are – but none of it affected me.”
It’s her own thoughts and feelings she can’t tolerate. “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for a character with all the trappings of privilege, and she doesn’t do herself any favours by being an utter bitch: “‘You’ll be fine,’ I told Reva when she said her mother was starting a third round of chemo. ‘Don’t be a spaz,’ I said, when her mother’s cancer spread to her brain.”
But the more we read between the lines of her self-deprecating (even self-loathing) minimisation of all her “lame memories,” the more heart-breaking she becomes. There is a gaping hole of grief and loss at her core. Not only did she lose both of her parents in the space of a few weeks during her sophomore year at college (her father to cancer and her mother to suicide) but we grow to realise she has never been loved, never nurtured, never coached by a parent to manage complex and painful feelings. The most important lines in the novel, I think, are the narrator’s description of her mother’s suicide note: “The letter was totally unoriginal. She felt she wasn’t equipped to handle life, she wrote, that she felt like an alien, a freak, that consciousness was intolerable and that she was scared of going crazy.”
That finding this note, being mothered by this person (who crushed Valium into her bottle when she was a baby to stop her crying “for no good reason”), might have anything to do with her own crippling depression, existential angst, and desire for chemical annihilation goes entirely unnoticed by the narrator, but not by the reader.
Why set this book in New York in late 2000/early 2001 with the spectre of 9/11 hanging over it? What does this personal, interior story have to do with that globally significant event, and what is it saying to us now, in 2018?
The narrator’s purposeful ignorance of the news, her misplaced belief that somehow nothing “out there” applies to her is undermined of course by the looming catastrophe. Moshfegh skewers the excess and hedonism of New York at the time (a painter called Ping Xi makes millions of dollars by sticking pellets of coloured pigment into the tip of his penis and masturbating onto huge canvases, giving the “paintings” names like Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City) simply by depicting it in light of what comes next. In doing so, she asks us to question what we all might be wilfully ignoring right now.
In 2018, we’re encouraged to manage our collective distress with the state of the world with “self-care”. We are peddled “wellness” on Instagram and download meditation apps onto our smart phones. All this is supposed to help us manage our emotions, to stop them from overwhelming us. An image has stuck with me since the first time I tried the Headspace meditation app: I should think of my thoughts and feelings as cars passing by me as I sit at the side of a busy road. I can watch them pass, but I don’t need to hop on and get carried away.
Moshfegh’s narrator achieves something similar through narcotic overload: “that was exactly what I wanted—my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.” What’s the difference, exactly?
In the end, short of ending it all as her mother does, we can’t escape being human. When mad Dr Tuttle suggests she try “Infermiterol” (a made-up drug, like about half of them), our narrator finds the blacked-out sleep she craves, with the inconvenient side-effect that while knocked out she goes out and actually acts like a human being. Imagine her horror when she wakes up after a three-day blackout to discover she has left the apartment, bought a tasteful black suit and a bunch of flowers, and caught the train to attend the funeral of her best friend’s mother. Ugh, the worst.
To avoid something similar happening again, she conceives the ultimate plan: she will enlist Ping Xi to lock her up, let him use her Infermiterol-induced activity for a performance art project, and keep herself asleep for four months, waking only for an hour every three days to eat, do a few squats, and perform some ablutions. At the end, on June 1, 2001, she hopes to emerge transformed, a new person, like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
This is a disquieting and darkly funny novel from a talented contemporary author – sparse, tragic, merciless. It asks important questions about what it means to be alive, which our narrator still is, incredibly, by the end. More importantly still, she is awake.