I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in early February this year. At the time, I’d freshly moved out of the chaos that is living in a college dorm and was beginning my new life in a sunny, white apartment high in the treetops. I’d decided that 2020 was time for a new persona. Gone was the college girl with her vodka-induced Snapchat stories, smudged mascara, and loud voice. In her place would be what I described as the mysterious, sexy Asian girl: the badass energy of an ABG and the good-girl allure of a sheltered Snow White with strict parents. I’d wear innocent summer dresses that showed just enough skin in the daytime, and lounge around my apartment in Calvin Klein underwear and Adidas track pants at night. I’d wear black bodycon dresses with heels to the club, suggestively batting my lashes at boys but giving them nothing.
I followed the blonde waif of a narrator through her year of rest and relaxation: she popped a constant stream of sleeping pills in her Upper East Side apartment, wore a fur coat while buying cappuccinos from the bodega, looked at the gracelessness of her best friend with disgust, and rejected the meaninglessness of her perfect, rich, skinny, pretty life. All the while, I wanted to be her. I wanted the glamour of white wellness culture, of being a self-involved girl high above the world, so deep in her own mind that she just needs that cupboard full of prescription medications, and so pretty that nobody cares. I would spend 2020 aspiring to be the sexy, mysterious, Asian version of her. She was my definition of femininity, with an enticing touch of pettiness and silliness. So I took a photo of My Year of Rest and Relaxation amongst my white sheets, pink teddy bear, and view of the sky, and proclaimed to the world of social media: “how it be.”
And then a month passed, and the coronavirus hit. Quarantine measures came into place, someone commented “this post aged well” on my post, and my year of rest and relaxation became a reality. Instead of thinking about the sick, the dying, or the newly unemployed, I embraced my respite with open arms. Finally, I could watch season one of Keeping Up with the Kardashians in peace. Finally, I could drink French Earl Grey tea in the morning. Finally, I had time to read the culture section of The New Yorker, idly scrolling past any news of politics or the virus.
In my efforts to become a silly, thin, rich girl alone in my apartment, I made a Pinterest board entitled “MANIFEST.” The board was filled with Chanel ribbons tied around blonde ponytails, vintage white lingerie, silk slip dresses, and black cats. I bought an array of new skincare products, the epitome of self-care: Korean face masks, L’Occitane skin serums, and a soft pink liquid blush for my cheeks each morning. I proclaimed myself a sensitive writer girl on a thinking hiatus, hibernating from the lesser, stupider world outside.
And to be honest, my manifestation worked. I’m more self-obsessed, self-assured, and beautiful than I’ve ever been. In the absence of other people, I’m smarter, more cultured, and my own muse. It’s so easy to think that I’m better than everybody else when I don’t actually see anybody else.
But suddenly we were three months into quarantine, and I thought I was going insane. If I took one more enchanting video of the swans on my hundredth solitary walk through the park, I just might have exploded. If I had to sit through another late morning of stirring honey into my tea, I just might have screamed. Being pretty was all well and good, but what was the point if there were no eyes on me, no boy to put his hand on the small of my back, and no friends to listen to my opinions? As I got high in the middle of the day, then again in the middle of the night; as I watched another episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians wondering if today would be the day I overdose on paracetamol just for the glamour of it, I realized that this was a stupid way to live.
In the midst of June, as I opened social media and saw posts about the protests and Black Lives Matter, as I paused during my scroll past the current events section of The New Yorker, I got my first accidental taste of the outside world. I wondered how it could be possible for a girl to truly remove herself from the world for an entire year. I thought of Ottessa Moshfegh’s pretty, skinny protagonist as she narrates the events of 9/11 with a complete lack of empathy, as she watches a woman, perhaps her best friend, jump from a window and thinks nothing but that the woman is beautiful because she is falling.
A girl in my online class gave a presentation on the nihilism that comes with privilege. It is only when we are given everything we could possibly need, void of social or financial barriers, that we are able to search for something higher and nonexistent. I’ve spent my quarantine searching for a self-involved persona and making self-involved art, all of which ultimately lack any meaning. And down this self-involved rabbit hole I may go, until the concepts of human empathy and human connection become unimportant, and I truly become Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist—so nihilistic that she ignores the world for an entire year, because really, what’s the point?
So I’ve decided to take small measures to rejoin the outside world. With coronavirus cases dropping across Australia, I disappeared to an idyllic lakeside treehouse with a fireplace and an orchard, not alone, but with a group of friends. Frolicking amongst trees of hanging mandarins and creamy white sheets on washing lines during golden hour, I found that pretty places and pretty things are much more fun when shared. Since coming back, I looked to integrate new people and productive routines into my life, leaving a trail of resumes at old cinemas, creperies and donut shops, only to find myself employed by a chaotic, elderly Greek lady; I now spend my days talking to customers amidst macarons, custard tarts, and kourabiedes, which is about as pretty as it gets. I’ve come to understand that the outside world is more beautiful, more interesting, and more meaningful than my own little island of privilege and self-obsession can ever be, and it’s a pleasure to be awake and listening.
So Ottessa Moshfegh, I must ask—how the fuck does one rest and relax for an entire year?
By Meghan Chiew