“Sleeping Beauty” In a Dead Woman’s Shoes
Review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.”
The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel is an educated, pretty, young, wealthy woman living in New York City, who despite all the privileges, feels deeply miserable and decides to “heal” by self-isolating for a year and spend most of her time sleeping. From the beginning on, she refuses to admit that what she calls “healing”, looks like a utopian dream and a slow suicide: “sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Even though Moschfeg chooses New York, a popular megapolis as a setting of the novel and the main route of heroine mostly consists of psychiatrist visits, pharmacy and nearby bodega (which is to say — nothing out of the ordinary or mysterious) still, something phantasmagoric, dreamlike and surreal seems to be happening while reading. The only person that truly seems to care for the protagonist, is her friend from college — Reva. The heroine seems to be annoyed and irritated by her attention, unexpected visits, and her “shallow” problems, obsession with crushes, and her own appearance. “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide.”
The protagonist’s parents, who seemed almost indifferent to her while alive, willed her a house. The whole novel is packed with descriptions of the heroine’s ambivalent complex feelings towards her parents. When visiting the house where she spent childhood and where her parents used to live, she thinks: “it is better to be alone than to be stuck with people who were supposed to love you, yet couldn’t.” Still, she holds on to the empty house, perceiving it as proof that she “had not always been completely alone in the world” and refuses to sell it. In a psychoanalytic sense, the root of her struggles seems obvious: repressed memories and trauma. As Sigmund Freud writes: “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”. The heroine takes sleeping pills prescribed by her psychiatrist and is determined to minimize her contact with the outside world as much as she can: “the world was out there still, but I hadn’t looked at it in months. It was too much to consider in all, stretching out, a circular planet covered in creatures and things growing, all of it spinning slowly on an axis created by what — some freak accident? It seemed implausible.”
When Reva’s mother dies of cancer, the protagonist seems to feel no compassion — just annoyance and boredom from having to attend the funeral. At some point, during the funeral, heroin damages her shoes, so she has to borrow a new pair, but Reva can only find her dead mother’s shoes in the house. The symbolism of having to wear a dead woman’s shoes is brilliant. The whole reason why she is so revoltingly cold, indifferent, rude, and unemphatic towards other people, even towards the death of her friend’s mother — is not that she is simply heartless, but that she feels dead herself- and in some sense, she is, indeed, dead. So how could one expect empathy from someone like her?! Empathy requires aliveness. Being able to empathize means being able to be present, to have a space for other people. Yet the protagonist’s feelings and psyche are flooded with death. Nothing seemed “really real” for her. “Sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds.”She was growing “less and less attached to life”. She thought If she’d just kept going, she would disappear completely, but then reappear in some new form. This was her hope. Her dream. But of course, in the end, she did not come out reborn, she did not reappear in some new form. The process of liberation can not be a journey about sleep, which is to say about denial. Liberation is only possible by “staying attached to life”, by looking at your pain in the eye and withstanding it, by letting it transform you. Trauma and pain are making her completely catatonic, they restrict her every movement, eat her alive from inside and make it impossible for her to feel, and eventually, to stay alive.
At the end of the novel, when the protagonist finally realizes that her “plan” to sleep all of the pain away was just a utopian dream, we are left with a hope that still, eventually, she will get better. When Reva refuses to care about her any longer and cuts all contact, the protagonist seems to be looking at the world with a new vision: for the very first time, she recognizes and sees the beauty of Reva’s aliveness. She perceives Reva’s struggles not as something shallow, stupid, pathetic, or mediocre — like before, but as something truly beautiful: “There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake”. Maybe, this new vision will be her chance for liberation, for a new, better life?! After all, having the capacity to see beauty is only possible when you are alive, or in the case of our heroine, when you are awakening to life.