A Book That Holds My Truths: On Reading Ottessa Moshfegh
By Rheea Mukherjee
To start, a thought experiment. Say you’ve fully accepted you are a speck in this endless mysterious expanding void. You are in agreement then, that our seemingly insignificant existence has no satisfactory purpose or reason. Then do you realise the potency of being alive in the present moment?
I haven’t figured out the depths of my existential crises yet because I’ve identified with the phrase spiritually optimistic and ruggedly approached life with it. I suspect this little trick I’ve played with myself keeps me from drowning at any given time.
These days, when people ask me what books and authors are most important to me, I say well it’s not so much the specific author or book, but a series of moments in my life where I’ve read something and thought: Oh, so that’s ok to write about? Oh, wait, this person has had the same thought about something I thought too bizarre or shameful to ever blurt out in public? Oh, this book shatters my heart in this one way I could never tell anybody else about.
Books have become my self-growth tollbooths.
Books have become my self-growth tollbooths. A check point where I see that it’s okay to expand a certain way. The world we live in outside books is rigid, formulated, and relentless with the most unimaginative expectations of how we ought to live our lives.
Most of this rigidity comes from the fear of the specks we are, the irrelevant nature of anything we do, in the grand scheme of things. This is why rules and unnecessary social fears keep inflating social oppression and unspeakable evils, and all this keeps us from truly testing the waters with our funky sense of originality.
I can’t pinpoint a specific difficult period of my life. It’s a merging of grief, sadness, boredom, and pining that flows from one moment into a semi-joyous one. It’s a series of unremarkable moments that sometimes peak at joy and rapidly tank into temporary despair.
I can pinpoint, for purposes of this essay, one book I read recently that I keep going back to. It’s Ottessa Moshfeigh’s ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’. The novel is both a genius exploration of the existence this era has offered us and a hot mess of self-indulgence which has no appreciation for the magnificence life can be.
In the beginning of 2020, what would be the start of a relentlessly difficult and mesmerizing miraculous year for me, I met a new friend and reconnected with an old one. We started to form a tight knot of a family at a time where everything else in my life was falling to pieces. All the mundanity that had come from years of falling prey to the dull boredom of debates and arguments that stemmed from our socio-political-capitalistic lives had started to grate on me. That’s why 2020 gave us enough to do, an expanding space to walk some of the talk we had been participating in. In a roaringly dramatic way that is, what with the protests, the writing, the groups that were formed to make things ‘better’ in our world. The first part of the year allowed us to practise all the fine articulation we had on the things we thought were important to us on the ground.
And so, these two friends came closer to me in a way I had not known. Then, COVID gave us a chance to retract into our shells and see what that whole ‘charity begins at home’ thing really meant. What resistance meant in the everyday (hint- it had a lot to do with showing up for each other in the gentlest ways). It meant off-kilter jokes and dark political incorrectness in between giggles. It meant speaking up, but also questioning what that even meant.
The point is this: how much of a choice do we have in operating the lens of our life?
The book was the contrast of my 2020 thus far.
In the novel, a young privileged New Yorker, a recent Columbia Graduate, has numbed herself out with a complex menu of antipsychotic drugs and sedatives. As she finds less and less purpose in her life—her shallow boyfriend, meaningless sex, and her disingenuous friendships—she shrinks into the confines of her apartment, all day, every day, to sleep off her life as much as possible. Getting up only to make sure she can get her psychiatrist to refill her prescriptions and get her on stronger medications.
While enough about the book and its possible satirical themes and metaphors about our life have been written about in reviews, there is a very simple point the narrative makes which is most important to me. The point is this: how much of a choice do we have in operating the lens of our life? This is a choice many of us (the ones privileged enough to buy our lattes at will, and bitch about fascism while battling chunks of bad mental health) can make.
At any point we could justify the unnamed protagonist in the book. Her privilege and inherited money would never up and leave and she’d always be able to numb her existence by the many loopholes in the pharmaceutical industry, one which is designed to keep us focused on the idea that our sanity and health depend on binary pathological diagnosis and a pill that would cure it. Or keep us dead enough mentally to not think too much about it. And we could say, we’re all going to be dead anyway, whether that’s in the next few seconds or the next 40 years. What you focus on, then becomes your reality and purpose. What your thoughts go to. If your thought goes to the futility of life, then certainly it doesn’t matter what you do.
See, my positive spiritual diagnosis is what makes me think purpose is anything but that. It is finding the joy in the sentence of a book, or the moment of warmth in a lover’s hand. It is subverting the expectations others had of you and being extraordinarily kind when it’s least expected. It is going the extra mile when it’s mostly unnecessary. It’s creating infrastructure for emotional exchanges.
And then, there is the void. And the days where I feel like the book got it right, that quenching thirst to be numbed was a stark reality in my experience. It’s the dark basement of futility filled with its damp cold mould seemed sometimes like a more reasonable place to hide.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation therefore holds both my truths. My disdain for self-indulgence and my own participation in it.
Towards the last quarter of this momentous year, I meet a man on Bumble, of all the godforsaken places. A place I thought I’d never experience because I had been in far too many longer monogamous relationships before and for Christ’s sake, I was 36. What mid-thirties Indian woman willingly is optimistic about interacting in a space like that?
He turned out to be the antithesis to whatever I usually expect in men. He subverts everything in an annoyingly normal-chill kind of way. But unlike me, he cradles this existential drama like a baby, cooing to its ever whimper. He’s in the basement, trying to put Existential Baby and himself to sleep, much like the woman in the book.
But he also holds kindness and resistance in a firmly stoic way. Even in the basement, while I bumble around trying to garner whimsical speed on a Bangalore-quality road, pretending it’s as smooth as a runway. I grow to love him with a tender sturdiness, a quality I’ve never known in love before, because of this paradox he holds between us. We hold the same truth in starkly different ways, an illustration of the illusion duality is.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation therefore holds both my truths. My disdain for self-indulgence and my own participation in it. My want to change the world in a massive way and the holy-moly insignificant narcissism that even creates that ambition.
And so, in this era, of mighty miracles and cosmic odds, I grow closer to this family of friends who can justify both the need to numb out the world while simultaneously being as perky for pancakes on a Sunday morning. Some of them might as well give up their life for a cause or even a poem. Some of them will make sure I’ve been fed and hugged on days I want to crawl into the basement of an existential void. They’ll tell me, it still means something to get up and be me, no matter how significantly insignificant the process appears.
About the author:
Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.