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Escapism in Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

Hand holding “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

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“Who hasn’t—sometime—wanted to escape? But from what? To where? And once we have arrived at the good place, is this the end of the desire to move? Or does it stir again, tempted by another image […]”

p xi. Tuan,Yi-Fu Escapism.

Yi-Fu Tuan describes the universal nature of our desire to escape in his geographical text, Escapism. Escapism is arguably in everything we do. Reading novels, playing games, watching T.V., playing sports, and dancing are all forms of escapism. These forms remove us from our bodies, our selves, our emotions, and our obligations. They relieve us from something. However, that ‘something’ is never quite definable. Reading a novel, which is one layer of escapism, about a protagonist using sleep as a form of escapism, to run away from her feelings and emotions creates a palimpsest of escapist desires. Fiction feeds into our reality and everyone, even the fictional characters, are trying to escape.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is centred on three characters: the main protagonist, her not-quite-friend Reva, and her terrible therapist/psychologist/quack Dr Tuttle. The main character is extremely self-absorbed. She cannot see beyond her own bubble and she is extremely entitled, selfish, and all-round unlikable. Yet, despite her constantly reminding the reader of how attractive and rich she is, the reader gets drawn in. One could assume that this is from a place of pity – both the main protagonist’s parents die when she is 24 (her father from cancer, and her mother by suicide). She struggles to unpack the grief and sorrow of having a dysfunctional family that eventually becomes a non-existent family. At the age of 24, we are in theory, adults. Yet to assume that a 24 year old can handle the cataclysmic event of losing a parent, or in this case both, is naive at best.

The main protagonist has decided that all she needs to do is sleep for a year and then she will be able to get on with her life again. Sleep, as a form of escapism is one of the most natural ways that humans escape themselves. Whether it is through dreaming or the sheer and utter blackness of sleep, closing our eyes each night is natural form of escapism built into our DNA. In Lionel Shriver’s novel, The Mandibles, the government sets up a program that will pay people to sleep. This is marketed as a way to escape poverty and also inadvertently, the heaviness of existence. The main protagonist in Moshfegh’s text embarks on a self-medicated journey to escape the loss of her family and more importantly to escape all of her emotions.

Through her increasing cocktail of sleep aids and heavy prescription drug use, the main character watches Whoopi Goldberg films to distract her when she is awake. She pushes everyone away from her, including her friend Reva, who’s mother is dying of cancer. The protagonist is completely self-serving in her desire to escape and will do nothing short of almost killing herself for the sake of sleeping and not feeling. It can be hard to believe that someone could be so selfish and so ignorant of the world around them, yet I would argue that in some ways we are all a bit like Moshfeigh’s protagonist: we are all trying to deal with things beyond our capacities. The pressures of modern urban living also provide us with little respite. We idealise careers and families that do not reflect our own human desires or abilities and when we find ourselves short of these societal benchmarks, rather than dismantling them we turn to the only thing that will provide us with some relief: escapism.

Moshfegh’s novel is heartbreaking and frustrating. The main character is horrible. Just horrible. Yet, I look at her and see fractions of myself.

“We don’t forget things OK? We just choose to ignore them.”

p 233, Moshfeigh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

How do you find ways to escape? And what do you think of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel? As always, share the reading love.

4 thoughts on “Escapism in Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

  1. I felt exactly the same. I hated, hated the protagonist, but I felt sorry for her too. And empathised too. It’s a very unsettling book, which is somehow enjoyable to read.

  2. I don’t know why, but I like the way Moshfegh writes, and I like her dark humour. I think she uses it well to explore places most people don’t want to go. As you say, the protagonist is not easy to like, but there are elements of her story that we can relate to on some level. And I was so curious to know how it would end!

  3. Pingback: A Review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”: An Ode to Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”? | bound2books