NOVEMBER 25, 2018
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH’S My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a deadpan novel about a wealthy, beautiful 24-year-old woman on the cusp of a breakdown in pre-9/11 Manhattan. Its unnamed narrator regularly shuffles down to the corner bodega “with eye boogers and scum at the corners” of her mouth, spends her days watching terrible comedies on VHS, and falls asleep in the supply closet at the Chelsea art gallery where she works. Under the influence of an Ambien-like drug called Infermiterol, she decides to go to sleep for months rather than continue to wake up into a life that feels increasingly inane. She partners with an art world enfant terrible and frames her months-long nap as a performance art piece. She hopes, by the time it’s over, to have transformed into someone who finds it easier to exist.
Some critics and readers perceived the narrator’s decision to turn away from the world as a critique of the cheap self-care platitudes that have long dominated our media and, in the last decade, social media. But the mystery at the heart of this novel is more basic than that — is, in fact, Camus’s eternal question, why not suicide? as filtered through the lens of an artist reflecting on her practice. “The project,” the narrator explains about her decision to sleep, “was beyond issues of ‘identity’ and ‘society’ and ‘institutions.’” What she wants, she tells us later during a visit to see still life paintings at the Met, is “to see what other people had done with their lives, people who had made art alone, who had stared long and hard at bowls of fruit […] Did they know that glory was mundane? Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers?” My Year is not so much a transgressive modern parable as it is a mordant cry of creative despair.
Above all, reading Moshfegh’s novel made me wonder what a literature that focused on our place in the world, rather than on our desire to flee from it, might look like. What would it mean for a writer of literary fiction in 2018 to venture beyond the self and existentialism, to find out what lies on the other side?
Trip, the first nonfiction book by the poet and novelist Tao Lin, uses the human relationship to psychotropic drugs as a means to consider this other side. Humans, Lin writes, are a fractal element of nature, which is itself fractal, with the human genus “hidden inside ten million years, Homo sapiens inside a million years, individual humans inside millennia and centuries, thoughts inside seconds and minutes,” and so on. Citing work by Terence McKenna and Kathleen Harrison, Lin returns repeatedly to the importance of what Harrison calls putting one’s story “in appropriate perspective as an instant in a very long saga.”
Trying to isolate ourselves from our context can lead to depression, addiction to pharmaceutical drugs, and the kind of malaise Moshfegh’s narrator is attempting to ward off — and, indeed, Trip serves in part as a chronicle of Lin’s attempts to wean himself off Adderall. Through his experiments with psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis, and LSD, Lin becomes entranced with the possibility that the imagination is “[r]ealer and larger than the universe,” that it is simply the larger invisible realm inside of which everything we know fits. Although he doesn’t mention it, Lin’s fractal metaphysics functions according to a scientific framework posited by Adrian Bejan, a professor of thermodynamic engineering at Duke University, who, in his gorgeously wrought study of natural science, Design in Nature, suggests that everything that exists on earth — from human bodies to rivers to cities to ocean currents — does so as part of an ever-expanding, vascularized flow system, with individual elements evolving together over time to increase efficiency of movement and growth.
The Overstory, Richard Powers’s 12th novel, which was published in 2018, is an example of what a narrative written according to this principle — which Bejan calls the Constructal Law — might resemble. The idea for the book came to Powers while he was teaching at Stanford. Walking through a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he encountered a particularly gigantic tree. He realized that the smaller (but still enormous) trees surrounding it represented what was basically new growth. The real old giants had all been cut down ages ago by loggers. “I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Review of Books. “It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way.”
Organized into four sections — Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds — The Overstory follows nine individuals whose lives intersect through nature then branch off again in wildly unexpected directions. Powers centers his story on a plant biologist, Patricia Westerford, author of an unlikely best seller titled The Secret Forest, which begins: “You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.” In the tale that spins outward from this premise, Powers doesn’t eschew the human world for the environment, but instead makes a meticulous effort to demonstrate how the former fits into the latter.
The Overstory, though not universally loved by critics, was almost universally admired. It’s hard not to feel awestruck in the face of the persistence it takes to write hundreds of pages filtered through the perspective of humans and their relationship to the trees they plant, love, live among, cut down, or ignore. In reconnecting literary fiction with environmental politics, Powers sketches out a blueprint for a fiction of the future — one that takes for granted the importance of the impact humans have on their surroundings. In the process, he poses certain challenges to his contemporaries: Why have writers decided fiction about the fate of humanity belongs solely to the realm of the speculative? Why aren’t books about our impact on the planet considered as politically significant as books about race, class, and gender? In asking these questions — and in making a good faith attempt to answer them — Powers paves the way for a mainstream realist mode that ventures past the individual psyche to take on species-wide phenomena.
Any writer who chooses to wrestle with these concepts does so in the shadow of Octavia Butler, particularly of her novels Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, the Parable books follow a preacher’s daughter named Lauren Olamina who, in the midst of a climate-change-induced apocalypse, turns away from God. She invents a new religion, Earthseed, the tenets of which involve worshipping a god who “exists to be shaped, and will be shaped, with or without our forethought, with or without our intent” (Parable of the Sower).
“Right now it seems that people are being encouraged to see the environment as their enemy. Go out and kill it. If they’re really unlucky, they will succeed,” Butler said in an interview with Poets & Writers in 1997. Earthseed was designed to help her readers understand that they belonged to something larger than themselves, a network they could impact and influence, but not control. In 2017, the Parable novels served as the inspiration for adrienne maree brown’s popular social justice handbook, Emergent Strategy, which advocates for “notic[ing] the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies.” Rather than applying a top-down approach to activism, Brown uses Butler’s writing to suggest that change starts with our immediate relationships and works its way outward.
Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel, The Mars Room, as darkly funny and full of swagger as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, follows a single mother named Romy Hall, who has been sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Stanville, a fictional women’s prison in California’s Central Valley. Along with its forensic examination of prison life, the novel offers a deep look at the Central Valley region, drawing a direct connection between a land devastated by industrial agriculture and the harrowing daily experiences of the prisoners who inhabit it. “The valley was a brutal, flat, machined landscape, with a strange lemonade light,” Kushner writes, “thick with drifting topsoil and other pollutants from farm equipment and oil refineries. It was a man-made hell on earth.” My Year of Rest and Relaxation and The Mars Room both feature women bound by deeply messed-up circumstances, but rather than allowing her heroine to hide from the world, Kushner forces Romy (and the reader) to confront reality at its worst. Romy and her fellow inmates are subject to unspeakable abuse, both in prison and out, often at the hands of the very people charged with protecting them.
Kushner prepared to write The Mars Room by going undercover inside a women’s prison, and her work there appears to have had a real-world impact. She enlisted a friend from her college days, now an attorney, to provide pro bono services to a female prisoner, allowing for the possibility that her parole hearing might be moved up. As Kushner put it in an interview with Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker, “It’s not about me being a do-gooder. Nor is it about usurping the lives of people for my own gain. It’s about caring about people whose life trajectories are totally different from my own and stepping out there so that our lives intersect.” Does good literary fiction have to engage with politics? As Kushner herself admits, it clearly does not. But look at what can happen when it does.
Writers aren’t role models, and novels don’t have to teach us how to live. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for American authors to ignore the big questions, especially at a moment when those questions loom larger than ever. “I’m not working for a cause. I’m just working to change your consciousness for the moment that you’re reading my story,” Moshfegh explained in an interview with Slate in July, when asked about the relationship between My Year of Rest and Relaxation and gender politics. It’s a noble goal, and one she accomplishes as well as her most obvious literary influences — Kafka, Beckett, Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, and Bernhard. But is it enough right now? Even she, it appears, is beginning to wonder. In a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, she is quoted about Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman. Describing the footage of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally at the film’s end, she confesses, “It made me reflect on my own work. How political do I want to be? How directly do I want to speak to those politics? I don’t really have an answer yet.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes place from 2000 to 2001. The Mars Room begins in 2003 and ends in 2008. The Overstory spans several generations, starting in the mid-19th century and ending sometime around the present day. Of the three, My Year feels most like a period piece, embodying the split-personality of the era that brought us both Bret Easton Ellis and the cheesy Whoopi Goldberg comedies the narrator watches obsessively. By writing about a woman of means in New York City who chooses to sleep her way into the 21st century, Moshfegh may in some way be writing about those of us who came of age in the ’90s and early 2000s — middle-class, college-bound, and well-fed — only to find ourselves, as adults, in a world that feels constantly on the verge of collapse.
If My Year of Rest and Relaxation serves to capture a moment in history, novels like The Mars Room and The Overstory might be examples of a kind of future fiction, one that teaches readers to think of themselves as elements of larger systems. They might help set the foundation for a literary fiction that regains its place in a political conversation from which it has long been dismissed. If Powers’s and Kushner’s novels do nothing else, they show us that fiction, more powerfully than any other technology, provides a map for navigating the world even at its most confusing and unbearable.
Javier Marías once wrote that “for every novelist there is the possibility — infinitesimal, but still a possibility — that what he is writing is both shaping and might even become the future he will never see.” And the world needs reshaping. As Powers explained in a recent interview, “One way or another, we humans are on our way to becoming something else. […] We will learn, as Thoreau says, to resign ourselves to the influence of the earth, or we will disappear.”