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(Un)happiness and (Un)likeability in My Year of Rest and Relaxation (3)
(Un)happiness and (Un)likeability in My Year of Rest and Relaxation (3): Text
(Un)happiness and (Un)likeability in My Year of Rest and Relaxation (3): Image
While the feel-good/self-care industry is flourishing and the field of positive psychology is becoming increasingly popular in order to keep up with postfeminist images of women as empowered and aspirational subjects (as discussed in Chapter 1), the recent proliferation of “unlikeable” woman-centered novels, such as Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, shift away from these norms to a more subversive approach to women’s issues.
In this chapter, I will employ Sara Ahmed’s theories on happiness, as discussed in her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), to analyse the way in which Moshfegh’s protagonist refuses to contain her dark feelings in order to gratify patriarchal expectations of women as feminine, docile, and contented beings. I focus on (un)happiness as an umbrella term for what in feminist cultural studies of emotion and affect is known as “bad feelings” (Ngai 2005; Stephens 2015). These feelings include fatigue, ennui, boredom, cynicism, indifference, depression, etc., all of which are being explored in Moshfegh’s novel. Yet instead of pathologizing the protagonist’s unhappiness, I aim to shed light on the problematic relationship between happiness and likeability. Simply put, I will analyse how being unhappy (and, subsequently, socially disobedient) as a female character translates into being unlikeable in a society that prioritizes positivity above everything else and demands that women assume normative feminine identities.
The twenty-first century has seen a considerable rise in fictional female villains (see, for example, the protagonists of Gone Girl or Killing Eve); these characters have not always been as common or popular as they are today. As I argued in Chapter 1 of this thesis, with the emergence of the postfeminist culture in the 1990s came the introduction of chick lit and chick flicks, two genres that Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young describe as featuring “single women in their twenties and thirties navigating their generation’s challenges of balancing demanding careers with personal relationships” (qtd. in Gwin 47). Despite their undeniable popularity, chick lit and chick flicks have been regarded by various feminist scholars as failing to critically engage with women’s struggles under patriarchy, and, as I mentioned previously, they almost always conclude with a happy ending. As such, by the end of the movie or book, most heroines find a solution to their career problems and fall in love with the man of their dreams. As Genz and Brabon argue, these genres “[do] not know what to do with the problems and paradoxes [they] unearth about contemporary women’s lives and experiences (qtd. in Gwin 48).
The underlying positivity of these genres could be read in line with Rosi Braidotti’s feminist philosophy, which is grounded in an “ethics of joy and affirmation” and argues that feminism is best served by “a more joyful and empowering concept of desire and for a political economy that foregrounds positivity, not gloom” (qtd. in Stephens 275). The problem with this stance, however, is that this ethics of joy and positivity is also coupled for Braidotti with the moral obligation to “avoid sadness and the relations that express sadness” (276), which places further constraints on individuals who fail to meet these standards. Elizabeth Stephens describes this issue in “Bad Feelings: An Affective Genealogy of Feminism” (2015):
When joy and positivity are privileged as ethical states, despondency and negative might be construed as personal ethical failings in a way that overlooks how mediated these affects are by wider cultural and subjective forces. Such a move places responsibility for cultural affective conditions—such as misery in the face of structural oppression—onto the shoulders of individual subjects, not all of whom share Braidotti’s considerable resilience or privilege. (276)
Nonetheless, other feminist theorists have not been as dismissive of the role of emotional negativity as Braidotti. Sianne Ngai, in her book Ugly Feelings (2005), raises important questions about negative feelings and their ambiguous relationship with political action. According to Ngai, negative emotions that underline situations of suspended agency are charged with political meaning, as they encourage us to ponder the following questions:
What, if anything, is this inexpressive character feeling? Is [this character’s] unyielding passivity, even in the polemical act of withholding his labor (“I prefer not to”), radical or reactionary? Should we read his inertness as part of a volitional strategy that anticipates styles of nonviolent political activism to come, or merely as a sign of what we now call depression? (1)
By considering such questions, Ngai looks at the political potential of unprestigious feelings over grander passions that pervade contemporary media culture – such as sympathetic associations towards strong, inspirational and cheerful female characters – which further allows for fresh examinations of cultural products (either movies or literature) that are deemed subversive for their portrayal of dysphoric feelings.
Following Ngai’s thinking, James Burford notes in “What Might ‘Bad Feelings’ Be Good For?” (2017) that feelings that are usually interpreted as positive and strong, such as hope and optimism, are the ones that are usually connected with political potential, whereas weak or “bad” feelings, such as depression, numbness or fatigue are often described as political liabilities (70). In this chapter, rather than pathologizing “bad” feelings as politically useless, I argue that they might, in fact, have a political impact precisely because they do not comply with the pervasive positivity and happiness imposed by the postfeminist society. Therefore, negativity, as well as unhappiness, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation provides a way to critique the compulsory positivity of contemporary Western societies.
Throughout My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the nameless protagonist experiences many of the previously mentioned 'bad' feelings, from chronic fatigue and ennui, to brutal honesty and rudeness towards her only remaining friend, Reva: “You’re needy (…) Sounds frustrating,” she tells her (Moshfegh 13). After quitting her job at an art gallery – where the art was supposed to be subversive and shocking but, in reality, it was all just “canned counterculture crap” (36) – the protagonist sets on a journey to “hibernate” for an entire year, a project she describes as “self-preservational” (7). The psychopharmaceuticals prescribed by Dr. Tuttle, a questionably-accredited psychiatrist who helps with her year-long induced coma, are what allow the nameless protagonist to detach herself from the conscious world. As such, a new routine installs itself:
I took a shower once a week at most. I stopped tweezing, stopped bleaching, stopped waxing, stopped brushing my hair. No moisturizing or exfoliating. No shaving. I left the apartment infrequently. I had all my bills on automatic payment plans. I’d already paid a year of property taxes on my apartment and on my dead parents’ old house upstate. Rent money from the tenants in that house showed up in my checking account by direct deposit every month. Unemployment was rolling in as long as I made the weekly call into automated service and pressed “1” for yes when the robot asked if I’d made a sincere effort to find a job. (2-3)
In just this paragraph, the novel manages to dismiss many of the implicit imperatives that postfeminism places on women, as described in Chapter 1. Firstly, the emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline is completely dissolved by Moshfegh, whose protagonist does little (if anything) to keep up with traditional feminine practice of self-maintenance. Secondly, the obsession with femininity as a bodily property as well as the emphasis upon consumerism are two notions that the protagonist overlooks with total indifference while engaging in her experiment in oblivion. Finally, although female empowerment, even when following a postfeminist logic, aims to present women as fully autonomous agents that are no longer constraint by the "male gaze," it is important to note the difference between what is described as female empowerment in Moshfegh’s novel, as opposed to what empowerment means in a distinctly postfeminist novel or movie, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. Thus, if Bridget’s most ardent desire is to lose weight and look as attractive as possible for her male boss (conforming, once again, to patriarchal as well as postfeminist standards), Moshfegh’s protagonist portrays empowerment as exactly the opposite, by assuming an entirely asocial behaviour and dismissing conventional ideals of feminine beauty and grooming.
Unlike Braidotti, Ahmed, in her study of happiness, sets out to reclaim the importance of emotional negativity and unhappiness for feminism, by focusing on those who “are banished from [joy], or who enter this history only as troublemakers, dissenters, killers of joy” (17). Based on the numerous critiques that position this character as “unlikeable” (Lincoln; Wilson), I argue that Moshfegh’s protagonist inhabits Ahmed’s description of a “killjoy” or “troublemaker.” As Ahmed argues, to be a good modern subject is to be perceived as a happiness-cause, as making others happy. To be bad is, thus, to be a killjoy (20). This chapter proceeds by claiming that it is precisely the lack of happiness that readers found in this book that made them dislike its protagonist. Therefore, the next section of this chapter is devoted to understanding the unhappy effects of happiness and discovering how happiness is used as a disciplinary technique that constructs subjects by orientating them around cultural norms.
The Unhappy Effects of Happiness
Phrases such as “I just want you to be happy” or “I am happy if you are happy” are commonly exchanged within intimate relationships, yet what is rarely asked is: where does the imperative to be happy come from? Although happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, that does not necessarily mean we know what we wish for in wishing for happiness (Ahmed 1).
This part of the chapter does not aim to provide a history of happiness. Instead, based on Ahmed’s research, I am interested to find out how happiness is associated with some life choices and not others, and what happens with subjects who do not conform to happiness as a “wishful politics” (as Simone de Beauvoir puts it), which demands others to live according to a (societal) wish (qtd. in Ahmed 2).
According to Richard Layard, happiness, in its simplest definition, is “feeling good,” while misery is “feeling bad,” which further implies that one can measure happiness in terms of how good people feel (qtd. in Ahmed 5). As Ahmed notes, happiness research is primarily based on self-reporting: if people say they are happy, then they are perceived to be happy. The problem with self-reporting, however, is that it presumes a transparency of self-feeling, which means that we rely on people to be entirely aware of their feelings and to justify them accordingly (6). Let us consider, once again, the figure of “the happy housewife.” When authors such as Darla Shine (as quoted in Chapter 1) associates the image of the “happy housewife” with an image of leisure, comfort and ease (based on her own findings and self-reporting), that does not mean that her experience is representative of how it generally feels like to be a housewife or that all women share her views. Rather, to claim that all women are happy doing housework is, according to Ahmed, to justify gendered forms of labor (50). As she puts it, “how better to secure consent to unpaid and poorly paid labor than to describe such consent as the origin of good feeling?” (50).
Another model of measuring happiness is put forth by Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark. According to Wiking, a simple technique to collect data on happiness levels around the world is simply noticing people: “After observing the person for five seconds (…) I note down whether they smile or not, their gender, estimate their age, jot down whether they are with someone or not and what they are doing” (Wiking).
As mentioned on its website, when measuring happiness, The Happiness Research Institute examines three different dimensions: the cognitive (overall life satisfaction), the affective (what kind of emotions – both positive and negative – people experience daily), and the eudaimonic dimension. The latter dimension builds on Aristotle’s perception of “the good life.” As Ahmed notes, the happiest life, according to Aristotle, is the life devoted to “contemplative speculation,” as a form of life that would only be available to some and not others (qtd. in Ahmed 13). Moreover, it is worth noting that Aristotle’s argument that the happiest life is the one devoted to contemplative speculation is also a life of high moral standards, a life that “conforms with virtue” and “involves serious purpose, and does not consist in amusement” (Aristotle 273). Furthermore, as Ahmed observes, to consider happiness as a form of “world making” is to consider how happiness makes the world cohere around the “right people.” Thus, where we find happiness teaches us more about what we value rather than what is of value (13). In that case, Ahmed argues, “happiness not only becomes what is valued,” but rather “allows other values to acquire their value.” As such, when we think of happiness as a self-evident good, then it becomes precisely the evidence of the good (13).
If we follow the Aristotelian definition of a good life as a contemplative one, that further conforms with virtue and involves a serious purpose, then, by definition, Moshfegh’s protagonist positions herself at the other extreme, since her biggest desire is to “escape the prison of [her] mind and body” (Moshfegh 18) by sleeping all day, for an entire year. For her, sleep is the source of infinite pleasure and freedom, which provides “the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of [her] waking consciousness” (46). If philosophers find values in “the thinking of thought,” as Ahmed puts it, then Moshfegh’s protagonist finds value in the act of sleeping. Nonetheless, she assures the reader from the beginning of the novel, her intentions are not suicidal; rather, they are “self-preservational,” since “[she] thought [sleeping] was going to save [her] life” (7). She notes:
This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart – this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then – that when I’d sleep enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reburned. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation. (Moshfegh 51)
Based on Layard’s definition of happiness as “feeling good,” or the definition provided by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a state of well-being and contentment” as well as “a pleasurable or satisfying experience,” it can be argued that Moshfegh’s protagonist does not share these feelings, which positions her as an unhappy character. According to Ahmed, the history of the word “unhappy” can teach a lot about the unhappiness of the history of happiness. In one of its earliest use, “unhappy” meant “causing misfortune or trouble” (qtd. in Ahmed 17). Yet, “to cause” is a causative verb, which indicates that a subject will cause some type of change, i.e., it will cause something or someone to do or be something. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the same verb as “an agent that brings something about” and the provided example is “She is the cause of your troubles.” This example is significant in the way it sheds light on the effects that an unhappy subject has on another subject, which can be interpreted as unhappiness that brings about unhappiness. In that sense, both good and bad feelings can be generative, which means that if people feel bad, they can certainly bring other people down. According to Ahmed, when people complain, worry or express pessimism about the future, they can also cause the recipients of these expressions to act in the same way as a form of return, which will affect what impressions they have of that place or person (43).
Moreover, a more recent definition of the word “unhappy” is, as Ahmed notes, “miserable in lot or circumstances” or “wretched in mind.” The word “wretched” has a suggestive genealogy, coming from “wretch,” which refers to “a stranger, exile, or banished person.” As Ahmed observes, “the wretch is not only the one driven out of his or her native country but is also defined as one who is 'sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty (…) a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person'” (17).
Therefore, if one puts these two definitions together, it can be argued that, in being unhappy (and, thus, different from the postfeminist characters examined in Chapter 1, who are depicted as following their own desires for the sole purpose of feeling good and being happy), Moshfegh’s protagonist is not only perceived as a stranger to the twenty-first century promise of happiness for all women, but is also the cause of unhappiness for others who are looking for happiness in places that is nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, in a book where the main premise displays unperturbed inertness for an entire year, it could even be argued that the protagonist’s objective is to not cause anything. Hence, the protagonist’s refusal to actively generate anything, I maintain, is precisely what is so appalling to the twenty-first century readers living in a labour-demanding society. As such, the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation manages to disrupt the postfeminist fantasy of ubiquitous happiness not by teaching what it means to assume the role of a stranger or a banished person, but by estranging us from the very happiness of the familiar. In doing that, she is positioned as an anti-heroine and, as the title of this thesis puts it, becomes “unlikeable” in a society that prioritizes good feelings:
Sometimes what you encounter cannot extend the good feeling; then you lose the good feeling and you are “brought down.” Such moments of loss are quickly converted into anger: you become angry as the object not only hurts but has taken your good feelings away. Happiness is precarious and even perverted because it does not reside within objects or subjects (…) but is a matter of how things make an impression. (Ahmed 44)
The Figure of a Female Troublemaker
Time magazine once described the works of Charles Bukowski, one of Moshfegh’s literary influences, as the “laureate of American lowlife,” which led critics such as Ariel Levy to claim in a 2018 article titled “Ottessa Moshfegh’s Otherwordly Fiction” that “[t]he underbelly of human behaviour and emotion could be literature, if it was approached with sufficient precision and passion.” In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed protagonist locks herself in her apartment and spends most of her time sleeping, aided by Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore and Silencior supplemented with Seconol, Nembutal, Valium, Librium, Placydil, Noctec, Miltown “when [she] suspected [she] was lonely” (26). Nonetheless, despite the novel’s seemingly lifeless plot, countless articles have been written about its protagonist, many of them focusing on her morally questionable traits (Levy; Tolentino; Lincoln; Stoner; Miller).
“If you’re the type of reader who is looking for friends, Ottessa Moshfegh is probably not the writer for you. [Her] oeuvre reads almost like an attempt to see just how ‘unlikeable’ characters can get,” claims Michel Lincoln in an article written for Chicago Review of Books published in 2018. Having thus established Moshfegh’s protagonist as an anti-heroine that portrays “being alive when alive feels horrible” (Tolentino), this chapter continues by considering the nameless protagonist as someone who is alienated from the postfeminist promise of happiness and gender equality, by speaking from recognition of how it feels to inhabit the place of an unlikeable, unhappy female character. In doing this, I borrow Ahmed’s figure of the “troublemaker,” which she defines as someone who does not place her hopes for happiness in the “right” things, but who speaks out about her unhappiness with the very obligation to be made happy by such things (60). Lastly, by discussing the agentic potential of a female troublemaker, this part of the chapter aims to allow the text to become “readable in new ways” (Ngai 8) and therefore generate fresh examinations of cultural issues related to women’s portrayal in literature.
“We are all going numb,” Dahlia Lithwick writes in a 2018 article for Slate Magazine, hinting at political engagement in the Trump era. Going numb, in the face of a disconcerting daily reality is always a more seductive choice than standing up to it. “It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me,” Moshfegh’s narrator similarly says. “Subways workers went on strike. A hurricane came and went. It didn’t matter. Extraterrestrials could have invaded, locusts could have swarmed, and I would have noted it, but I wouldn’t have worried” (Moshfegh 4). The protagonist’s underlying passivity and indifference to the waking world gets her fired from her job at Ducat. In a small act of rebellion, she defecates on the floor of the gallery: “That was my proper goodbye” (51).
Recently orphaned, the protagonist has exactly two personal relationships: a sporadic relationship with Trevor, an older man working in finance, and a friendship-kept-at-bay with a character called Reva, who occasionally visits her at her apartment. In both relationships, she resists every stereotype of the female nurturer, while she also looks down on “dudes” reading Nietzsche, Proust and David Foster Wallace on the subway, “jotting down their brilliant thoughts into a black Moleskine pocket notebook” (32), which further reflects her rejection of the contemplative life that involves “serious purpose,” as discussed earlier in this chapter. Through the figure of Reva, the narrator dissects her disappointments with the postfeminist lifestyle. Because of that, just as McRobbie claims that postfeminism takes feminist elements into account only to dismiss and repudiate them, so I argue that My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes postfeminist elements into account in order to ridicule them.
Following a similar pattern as in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Reva has an affair with her boss, and her biggest obsession is conformity, fitting in. Further, in accordance with a distinctly postfeminist logic, Reva, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Columbia University, works a pink-collar job as an executive assistant and is obsessed with her looks:
Nothing hurt Reva more than effortless beauty, like mine. When we’d watch Before Sunrise on video one day, she’d said, “Did you know Julie Delpy’s a feminist? I wonder if that’s why she’s not skinnier. No way they’d cast her in this role if she were American. See how soft her arms are? (Moshfegh 10)
The character of Reva inhabits, thus, all the postfeminist characteristics discussed in Chapter 1. She is an obsessive dieter and places her trust in life philosophies from “self-help books that usually combined some new dieting technique with professional development and romantic relationship skills, under the guise of teaching young women 'how to live up to their full potential'” (15). Moreover, she fits Tasker and Negra’s definition of postfeminist women as empowered consumers by always staying up to date on the latest brand names – “She made regular trips to Chinatown for the latest knockoff designer handbags,” the narrator claims (Moshfegh 9).
Yet, despite her deepest efforts, Reva is portrayed as an unfortunate character, always envious of the narrator’s effortless demeanour. As the protagonist mentions, “[s]he saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted – no husband, no children, no fabulous career” (14, emphasis added). Just like Bridget Jones, Reva’s most ardent desire is to find the right man and start a family before it is too late, which are ideas that are presented to the reader as freely chosen, and as the primary source of this character’s happiness.
According to Ahmed, happiness databases show us which individuals are happier than others, and by making correlations between happiness levels and social indicators, they create the so-called “happiness indicators.” Marriage, Ahmed notes, is generally considered one of the primary indicators of happiness. The argument is simple: if one is married, then it is predicted that one is more likely to be happier than if one is not married. The danger here, however, is that such finding can also be perceived as a recommendation: “get married and you will be happier!” (6). In this sense, the science of happiness could be described as performative: by finding happiness in certain places, Ahmed argues, those places are presented as being good, as being what should be promoted as goods (6). Nonetheless, even when the opposite is proven (that not all women are happy being married, having children, or following a certain lifestyle), societal norms are still not put into question, and happiness continues to be searched in places where it is expected to be found, even when happiness is reported as missing (7).
The fact that many would see Reva’s behaviour as “normal” is a reminder of the dominance of postfeminism over the contemporary society, where it has become commonplace to blindly follow societal norms, thinking that they act in your best interest. However, in an article for Pacific Standard, Rebecca Stoner critiques such normative ideas of postfeminist womanhood, and delineates a sharp distinction between the protagonist and Reva, claiming that “our narrator’s determination to sleep for a year, to truly drop out, seems like a respectable rebellion.” The protagonist, therefore, manages not only to distance herself from cultural norms and ideals that her friend, Reva, lives by, but also ridicules the obscene standards that are imposed on women. “I really hated when she talked like that,” the narrator mentions after listening to Reva’s advice on how to pre-plan outfits for the workweek on Sunday evening, as a way to avoid second-guessing in the morning (15).
As such, Moshfegh’s protagonist refuses to conform to postfeminist imperatives of bettering oneself in order to “flourish” in an increasingly meritocratic society. On the contrary, she consumes drugs, watches bad television and eats bodega food. However, in doing that, she manages to act in a way that real-life women can relate to, as opposed to merely regurgitating aspirational female stereotypes: “Almost offensive with its close-to-bone truths, [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] is shockingly relatable,” writes Isabel Dexter for Elle magazine. Moreover, the protagonist inhabits Ahmed’s figure of a troublemaker by passively refusing to conform to societal norms and by destroying what is thought by others not only as being good, but as the cause of happiness (Ahmed 65). In this case, that could be the figure of a female character as likeable, strong, aspirational or simply happy. Therefore, Moshfegh’s protagonist spoils the happiness of others by refusing to go along with public displays of happiness, and in doing that, she manages to widen the horizons of women’s portrayal in literature.
Happiness as End-oriented
Happiness is often described as what we aim for, or as an objective, which usually translates in the following formula: “If I do this, then I will be happy.” Classically, Ahmed argues, happiness has been considered as an end, rather than a means. Aristotle viewed happiness as “that which all things aimed at.” Thus, for him, happiness “is not just an end, but the perfect end” (qtd. Ahmed 26). The last part of this chapter argues that the amoral and non-cathartic ending of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the final constituent that resulted in the readers’ lack of satisfaction with its protagonist. Moreover, I argue that the picture that postfeminism paints of women as morally beatific beings consequently builds high expectations in readers who will, in turn, be negatively affected by the protagonist’s failure to live up to their standards.
According to Ahmed, the judgement about certain objects as being “happy” is already made before they are even encountered. Moreover, these objects are attributed as the cause of happiness, which means that they already circulate as social goods before we “happen” upon them – which explains why we might happen upon them in the first place (28). One such example could be marriage or the wedding day as the happiest day of a person’s life (29). Therefore, “objects” would refer not only to physical or material things, but also to anything one imagines as leading to happiness, including values, aspirations, expectations, as well as forms of art (29).
Let us consider, once again, the popularity of a movie (or novel) such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. When the movie was first released, women celebrated Bridget as an iconic figure that they could empathize with, because she resembled their own experiences with dating life. Moreover, Bridget’s quirky personality and self-mocking attitude made her relatable for women who also failed to find love (Gwin 49). According to Imelda Whelehan, “women readers ‘feel so much better about their own attempts at self-improvement’ after witnessing Bridget’s pathetic attempts to make herself more appealing to men” (qtd. in Gwin 50). Most importantly, as Stephanie Gwin argues, despite Bridget’s constant errors and self-loathing, audiences root for her because she represents what a woman should be – funny, vulnerable, feminine. Moreover, Bridget knows that she should never express anger, and, above everything, her biggest desire is to start her own nuclear family. As such, it is precisely because Bridget does not stray away from postfeminist perceptions of female aspirations that she is rewarded at the end of the movie with the man of her dreams (51).
The protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation refuses to be associated with these stereotypes, yet she nonetheless buys into a cynical idea of happiness as nothing more than a respite from pain (Stoner). In order to cope with her grief over her parents’ death, her loneliness, and her feelings that life might not be worth living, she plunges into oblivion with drugs from Dr. Tuttle, a character who, at her best, is able to offer superficial advice such as “Dial 9-1-1 if anything bad happens” and “Use reason when you feel you can. There’s no way to know how these medications will affect you” (25). When Reva questions the wisdom of her plan, the protagonist asks, “If you knew what would make you happy, wouldn’t you do it?” (58). As Stoner notes, occasionally the protagonist does dare to hope that there is meaning to be found outside her haze. Yet she also has repeatedly told Reva that “being happy is dumb,” Reva reminds her (Moshfegh 59).
As such, cleverly playing with the notion of happiness as end-oriented, much of My Year of Rest and Relaxation appears to be oriented toward an event that will happen: “I trusted that everything was going to work out fine as long as I could sleep all day,” the protagonist claims (27). The very expectation of happiness gives us a specific image of the future. According to Ahmed, this accounts for why happiness provides the emotional setting for disappointment: “we just have to expect happiness from “this” or “that” for “this and that” to be experienceable as objects of disappointment” (29). In the case of Moshfegh’s novel, however, the event that eventually happens turns out to be a widescale tragedy (9/11), which further eliminates any remaining hopes for a happy ending.
As it happened in the case of Bridget Jones’s Diary, readers root for Moshfegh’s protagonist and her unconventional wellness plan; yet, disappointment surfaces when the ending of the novel does not include a tidy wrap-up and fails to offer any therapeutic or purifying release. Although the reader is confirmed that the plan had been successful – “My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things” (288) – the novel concludes ambiguously, with no resolutions for the future. The protagonist’s actions are not translated back into patriarchal norms. Rather, it is the death of Reva falling from one of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, that seems to wake her from her vapid existence. Unlike Bridget Jones, Reva, the perfect embodiment of postfeminist ideals, who had not once neglected to live her life as dictated by societal norms, fails to get the perfect ending. The narrator, on the other hand, continues living by resisting any clear resolutions.
As such, I suggest that the protagonist’s failure to perform idealized femininity and to assume the role of an aspirational female character by the end of the novel might imply that she is not to blame for her inability to meet the ideal; instead, her amoral passivity and what seems like obstructed agency are dilemmas I take as charged with political meaning, since they function as catalysts for interrogation. Moshfegh’s protagonist, therefore, stands apart from postfeminist protagonists by using her passivity and noncompliance with postfeminist norms to question the high standards compulsively placed on women in our contemporary culture. Therefore, readers’ expectations are also challenged by Moshfegh in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the final message of which seems to be: “Wake up!” – after all, this is literally what the protagonist eventually does.
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(Un)happiness and (Un)likeability in My Year of Rest and Relaxation (3): Text
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